Essay Series Essays

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 1

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert


IMG_20150606_0005_NEWThe Topsy Turvy World of W.S.Gilbert: an Overview 

Now that we have all seen the film “Topsy Turvy”–and read no more of this until you do!–we can consider the reason for that title and how it defines a unique type of satire that started with Aristophanes, was perfected in its English form by Gilbert, and is still popular today in Monty Python and its imitators.

[Side note. Edith Hamilton, in her study of “The Greek Way,” devotes an entire chapter comparing the Greek and the British dramatists.]

You recall from the film Gilbert’s consternation at reading a newspaper review praising his genius at the “topsy turvy.” Well, it was his own fault. From the very beginning William Schwenck Gilbert delighted in paradoxes and championed a format in which the perfectly absurd was considered the norm and all else followed logically. Nowhere is this more explicit than in his early “Bab Ballad” piece called “The Dream.” Here “I dreamt that somehow I had come / To dwell in Topsy-Turvydom” in which place babies teach their elders, only the virtuous are arrested, all sailors suffer from seasickness, and similar inversions of our norm are normal. His conclusion is that he would be very happy there “Where greatest fools bear off the bell / I ought to do extremely well.”

Gilbert, with his military background and bearing, was quite a bully with an acid sense of humor–and like all such men he was basically a big baby. Consider as only one example that he picked his childhood nickname, Bab, as the adjective for his collection of Ballads! And as another, how when he became a Justice of the Peace in his latter years he delighted in being called Your Honor. More important was his conduct during the arguments and lawsuits he filed against Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte after the so-called Carpet Quarrel pitted Gilbert against the other two at the time of the run of “The Gondoliers.”

My favorite Ballad is called “Etiquette.” Here two Englishmen are stranded on a desert island; but not having been introduced on board ship, they cannot converse now. One of them, Peter Grey, winds up on the end of the island that has oysters a plenty, “But oysters were a delicacy Peter couldn’t bear.” The other, Somers, found himself surrounded by turtles, which “always made him sick.” Naturally each of them dotes on the delicacy indigenous to the other’s turf but are content to let things rest rather than break “the arbitrary rule of etiquette.”

250px-Bab_BalladsAfter quite some time, one hears the other invoke the name of Robinson, a common acquaintance! So now they may speak, both knowing the same person, and delight both in each other’s company and in each other’s food supply. Their bliss is finally interrupted by the sight of a ship, which sends out a launch to rescue them. But, alas, it is a prison ship bound for Australia–and quite unacceptable to these gentlemen. However, far worse, the convinct in the launch is none other than Robinson, “Condemned to seven years for misappropriating stock!!!”

Alone again, the two men are shocked to have consorted with the friend of a criminal, and the two slowly gravitate toward the original state of things: without verbal conversation, they return to their own original ends of the island, and a steady diet of the food they most detest. You see: a perfectly normal consequence of an absurd premise.

imagesNow let it be understood that Gilbert was not a G. B. Shaw. He was no revolutionary who wanted to reform the system. His target was those who carried certain features of the system to absurd lengths and his method is well expressed by Jack Point in “The Yeomen of the Guard”:

When they’re offered to the world in merry guise,

Unpleasant truths are swallowed with a will–

For he who’d make his fellow-creatures wise

Should always gild the philosophic pill.


Which, I think, is a pre-echo of Mary Poppins’ “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”!

The problem for Americans watching the Savoy Operas is that so many of Gilbert’s barbs fall on blank areas of our understanding. What exactly is he making fun of, we wonder? Oh, much of his satire is universal enough and we don’t have to know about each person mentioned in the Major-General’s patter song to appreciate that his head is filled with facts that have nothing to do with the military–which he admits anyway in the last stanza; or about Oscar Wilde and the pre-Raphaelite Movement to appreciate how young women can go mad over oddly dressed celebrities with long hair who spout nonsensical lyrics. And with our way of electing officials, we don’t have to look eastward across the Atlantic to know what it is like to have authorities totally unfit for their High Offices and yet be praised for those very qualities that make them unfit!

(Did not one Republican contestant for the Presidency of this country say in 2015 that he could find out what is going on the world each morning by Googling it? Pure Gilbert.)

I can see two approaches to studying this fascinating Sir William and his methods: play by play or area by area. Since many books are available using the first format–and I have limited space anyhow–I think the second would be best. So in our next article, we will consider the Very Important Person.

Essay Series Essays

The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 2

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
Martyn Green as Sir Joseph Porter

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Very Important People

The world of Gilbert & Sullivan is populated by characters (in both senses of the word) as sharply drawn and memorable as those in the world of Dickens. And among them, none are so memorable as the Very Important Persons whose complete inadequacy for the lofty positions they hold–not to mention the way in which they cheerfully admit it–makes us think of so many of our own life-imitates-art High and Mighties who run our lives to one extent or another.

The Learned Judge stands at the head of this breed. In “Trial by Jury,” he is about to preside over a breach of promise case, but first feels obliged to “tell you how I came to be a Judge.” Note, however, he owes it all to a breach of promise of his own, the victim being a woman who “may very well pass for forty-three / In the dusk, with a light behind her.” Far out of his depth in so simple a case, especially when the Defendant wants to be made drunk to prove he would beat the Plaintiff were they wed, the Learned Judge lowers a deus ex machina by claiming, “I will marry her myself.” Well, even as I write these words, there is a storm brewing among some judges in Concord, NH concerning shady doings on the bench; and perhaps a few performances of “Trial By Jury” would be quite appropriate in Real Life just about now.

In “HMS Pinafore,” we have the immortal Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (see picture), with all of his sisters and his cousins and his aunts. Qualifying for the rank of First Lord of the Admiralty on the basis of polishing up the handle of the big front door and having a partnership as “the only ship that I had ever seen,” this social ladder climber is democratic enough to stoop to marry a mere Captain’s daughter but settles for one of his own cousins when it turns out that the Captain had been switched at birth and really is not one of the gentry. At least, as far as this play is concerned, he causes no naval damage before learning about the natal damage; and all ends happily according to the code of operetta.

Major-General Stanley in “The Pirates of Penzance” was at least born into the class that allowed him to achieve his rank but is as little fit for it as Sir Joseph was for his own. In the second great G&S patter song [the first being the one in “The Sorcerer”], he spends two stanzas of dizzying polysyllabic rhymes to tell us all the things he does know in mathematics, history, art, and literature, then spends the third admitting he has yet to learn anything of a military nature that is later than “the beginning of the century.” But again, like Sir Joseph, his troubles are domestic rather than national and no harm is done to the country at large.

The Major and his fellow officers in “Patience” seem very qualified for their ranks, as they explain very nicely in “The soldiers of our Queen” and the Heavy Dragoon patter song. In this play, pretentious poets are the targets of Gilbert’s satire; and more about them in another article.

James Conroy-Ward as the Lord Chancellor

It is interesting that in “Iolanthe,” Gilbert can do what he will with the House of Peers but is very cautious with the Lord Chancellor. In fact, the Lord’s first song reveals that his only problem with his High Office is that he is particularly susceptible to all the wards of his Court, none of whom “Are over the age of twenty-one,” to make things worse. Like Macbeth, he loses a lot of sleep, as he describes in the spectacular patter of the Nightmare Song, but it is over “love unrequited” and not running the country.

The House of Peers, on the other hand, is held up as an example of “They govern best who govern least.” England will do just fine, Gilbert has Lord Montararat sing, as long as “noble statesmen do not itch/To interfere with which/They do not understand.” [And as an ex-teacher, I can vouch for that sentiment having seen what political mandates on the running of schools has led to.]

And what do we do with Ko-Ko, the little tailor of Titipu, who has been elevated to the office of Lord High Executioner on the single stipulation that he “Cannot cut off an other’s head/Until he’s cut his own off”? When push comes to shove and the Mikado demands an execution, Ko-Ko admits he thought the duties were purely nominal when he accepted the post [did he really have a choice?] and that he is too tender-hearted to hurt even a fly.

Rutland Barrington, the first Pooh-Bah

No, it is Pooh-Bah who stands for all that is wrong with governments in general. Not only does he hold multiple offices–and the salaries attached to them, as Pish-Tush comments–but will pick up some extra cash by attending middle class functions and now and then “retail State secrets at a very low figure.” Although he terms any bribe “an insult,” he still complains when the insult is “a light one.”

The Duke of Plaza Toro in “The Gondoliers” has actually seen combat, as he candidly admits: “When he was in the army he led his regiment. He occasionally led them into action. He invariably led them out of it.” And he then sings a few stanzas, with strong echoes of Sir John Falstaff, to explain his cowardice in the most favorable terms.

In the second act, he lets us know he has turned himself into a company, registered as such under the Limited Liability Act. (In our terms, he is now a corporation.) And then he is given a long duet with his Duchess to explain how he makes extra cash by sponsoring tailors whose products would shock Robinson Crusoe, while she endorses soap products, and they both charge to attend and to speak at charity dinners for 10% of the takings.

But Gilbert is Gilbert and Gilbert was very human. As early as “Thespis,” his first collaboration with Sullivan, he launched his attack at the fact that “While noodles are baroned and earled, /There’s nothing for clever obscurity”; and he let up on his attacks on the titled only when Sullivan was knighted during the run of “Iolanthe.”

So these delightful little VIPs in Gilbertland, known to us through Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s lyrics, have become symbols for everything that is wrong with most governments whose non-fictional high officials are no less blatantly unfit for their high posts but who are far more dangerous than laughable. And some say that Gilbert & Sullivan is nonsense for children!

Essay Series Essays

The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 3

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
The original three little maids from school

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.

Ruth Vincent as Josephine

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.

Marion Hood as Mabel

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.

Angelina, in her working clothes, does her thing

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!

Geraldine Ulman as sweet Rose Maybud

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.

Essay Series Essays

The Topsy-Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert, 4

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Topsy-Turvy World of W. S. Gilbert
“The Gondoliers”

The Topsy Turvy World of W.S. Gilbert: the Productions

If many people think the works of Gilbert & Sullivan to be silly stuff, they are probably basing this conclusion on too many poor productions that they have seen, not only by well-meaning amateur groups but by some of the television versions shown over the PBS networks and introduced by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

When an actor suggested to Gilbert a piece of “comic” business that would get a laugh, the author’s reply was “So would sitting on a pork pie.” No one knew better than Gilbert that a comedian who tries to be funny simply isn’t. (How many of you get annoyed when comics begin to laugh at their own material?) The funniest of the silent comedians, Buster Keaton, took life on screen very seriously indeed, never losing his Great Stone Face for a moment. Red Skelton, on the other hand, and even the venerable Harry Lauder, lessened their routines by laughing far too often.

Mabel gives marching orders to the police in a 1909 production

Probably the best example of thwarting Gilbert’s intentions is the entrance of the Police in “The Pirates of Penzance.” If they come out looking and deporting themselves like ordinary English Bobbies, then their cowardice is all the more funny because it contradicts the visual impression. But when a noted New York company sent them out onto the stage dressed as circus clown-police, complete with big flowers pinned to lapels, the humor of what they were singing was expected and simply silly. Even the filmed Papp version has them looking and acting like Keystone Kops; and the Sergeant’s rubberleg dancing is wonderful to behold but as far from the spirit of the play as could possibly be.

Sir Joseph keeps his dignity even with his amorous cousin Hebe

The point is that an idiot like Sir Joseph Porter is not supposed to know he is an idiot, and fortunately he is seldom played incorrectly. When a certain local production had him enter and sit in a beach chair supplied by his loving cousin Hebe and put on a shaded monocle, followed by a second one for the other eye, it was clownish but still in keeping with the character’s sense of self-importance. When George Rose played the Major-General in a Nigel Bruce voice, it still “worked” as a valid interpretation. But when he was directed (as I suppose he was) to tell his terrible story about being an orphan with a stage-Irish accent, the humor of the pirates believing the lie simply fell flat.

When the video version of “HMS Pinafore” opens with the crew twirling in a dance routine–bringing unfortunate memories of a similar routine in “Blazing Saddles”–all feeling of the Nautical is washed away (shall we say?) and the crew never can be looked upon as human characters for the rest of the show. Constables do not wear big daisies on their uniforms and sailors do not spin around en point aboard a ship.

The character, I think, who suffers the most in poor productions is Ko-Ko. As it turns out, he IS something of an idiot but does not pretend to be a great intellect. (Follow any political campaign for a counter-example.) Ko-Ko knows he is out of his depth and one should really feel sorry for him when he has to woo Katisha. Martyn Green tells us that for years he sang “Tit-Willow” as a comic song until a little old lady berated him for ruining such a lovely melody. Since then, he found he got a much better effect by treating it seriously. (My point exactly.)

Here is another abuse of G&S intentions. There are many “asides” in Victorian plays, moments in which a character acknowledges the presence of the audience. This is a time-honored tradition and accepted by the audience. But more and more I see byplay between a character on stage and the orchestra, usually the conductor, in which a cheap laugh is achieved at the loss of all credibility.

Eric Idle (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) as Ko-Ko

Another way to get cheap laughs is to insert modern references, such as those to all things Canadian in the Stratford, Ontario “Mikado,” in which all these “jokes” fell very flatly on non-Canadian ears. Now it is fine, I suppose, to make the entire production an anachronism, such as the “Mikado” that takes place in the lobby of an English seaside hotel in the 1920s. But even here Eric Idle’s Little List song was filled with references to audience-contemporary rather than period-contemporary customs and foibles. Now, while they were mostly quite clever and truly funny, it was Gilbert who suffered. Yes, I know Gilbert himself allowed updating of some of the lyrics to that song; but the Idle version was a complete rewrite and something too much of an “improvement.”

So let me end this mini-series with the caveat: Never judge a work from its production. And you local groups out there who love G&S, please do not ruin it for those unfamiliar with the original works.