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.
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.
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.
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.