The 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.”
After 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.
Now 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.