The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Leading Ladies
W.S. Gilbert always had an eye for the pretty young ‘uns. Indeed he and wife Kitty legally adopted one of them who was the soprano lead in his “Utopia, Ltd.” after practically ruining his own scenario by adding extra songs for her. He repeated this error to an even greater degree when he did the same for a Hungarian beauty whom he cast in “The Grand Duke.” So like his fellow satirists, Wilde and Twain, he could be so perceptive in his writings and so reckless in real life. A victim, one might say, of his own topsy-turvydom.
We have the usual Victorian spotless maidens in some of the Savoy plays. Aline Sangazure in “The Sorcerer” is willing to stand up to her fiancé for only so long concerning his demand that she partake of the elixir even though she already loves him, but yields in the second act because the plot demands it. Josephine Corcoran in “HMS Pinafore” is simply in love with a simple sailor lowly born, but she shows a little more intelligence than most of her Savoy sisters in realizing what life would be like living with him “in some back street.” Gilbert will never again lead us to such murky waters, except for a song in “Iolanthe” that was dropped very quickly.
Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” is as good as gold and accepts the ex-(he thinks)-pirate apprentice despite his background; but her sisters ask “had he not been / A thing of beauty, / Would she be swayed by quite as keen / A sense of duty?” On the other hand, she is willing to wait until 1940 when his 21st birthday finally comes around–and those are points in her favor.
Patience is also a Good Girl, but something of a dipsydoodle when it comes to ideas about love having to be entirely unselfish and she offers herself to a man she cannot abide as a “logical” consequence. And we must give Phyllis credit in “Iolanthe” for rejecting riches and remaining true to her swain–that is, until he insists that the pretty woman he was with, though younger than him, is actually his mother. But who can blame her for that?
Princess Ida, alas, is something of a well-educated moron, to whom it does not occur that posterity without men would be impossible. But at least she is true to her convictions, mistaken or not as they might be. In the next play, “The Mikado,” Yum-Yum can be played as an opportunist who has a chance to marry the heir to the crown; but again we must excuse her for retreating when she finds out that burial alive awaits her after a month. At any rate, she realizes “that I am more attractive than anybody else in the whole world,” and she will always find another.
Tessa and Gianetta share “lead” status in “The Gondoliers”; and like their Japanese predecessor they are not at all averse to becoming Queen of Barataria. They are understandably indignant when they learn that one of them is not really married to her gondolier—[you really have to go over the full plot yourself]—and are quite human about their plans for dealing with the third woman when the time comes. In “Utopia, Ltd.,” Zara already is a princess, but that does not stop her from making a very fatal error in her Anglicizing of her native land. Just what that is will have to wait for another installment in this series.
Now, lest you think that all of Gilbert’s leading ladies are Very Nice Little Women, consider Angelina (what a wonderful name) in “Trial by Jury.” The Breach of Promise suit was the only bit of power (other than the sexual one) that Victorian women were allowed; and if you recall the sequence in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” concerning such a lawsuit, you will realize how absurd it is to place a monetary value on “what love and caressing I’ve lost” by the altered affections of the Defendant. At the end, she certainly gets more riches than she bargained for…but at what a price!
Just a tad less greedy is sweet Rose Maybud in “Ruddigore,” whose life is ruled by a book of etiquette that is her constant companion and frame of reference. On the other hand, she will easily switch her engagement from young Robin to the British tar Richard because of the latter’s good looks (he is a tenor, you know) and back to Robin because of his “considerable dairy farm” and other assets.
Many have criticized Elsie Maynard in “The Yeomen of the Guard” for her callous treatment of Jack Point. Now this is the play with the “human interest” that Sullivan insisted on for their next collaboration after “Ruddigore” proved a disappointment. The leading tenor role, Fairfax, is almost on a moral plane with Pinkerton in the Puccini opera, while Elsie’s conduct concerning her engagement to Jack Point the jester might be defensible in light of how the latter has made light of whatever love he might have felt for her for all those years. Unlike the other high-born Savoy sopranos, she really needs the money that is offered her to make a mock marriage…. But read the script for yourself and consider. Sullivan wanted human beings and Gilbert gave them to him: warts and all.
And so much for the briefest of looks at the leading ladies.