Aristotle, who got so much wrong in his physics, was not exactly on the mark in his analysis of Greek tragedies, “The Poetics,” either. But he did emphasize that an especially effective device in a play is the “anagnorisis,” a sudden “recognition” of a character hitherto thought to be someone or something else; and in the case of a person, he or she often turns out to be a blood relation. The most tragic of them all is Oedipus’ realization of who Jocasta is and the happiest is Iphigenia’s realization of who Orestes is as she is preparing his execution in Tauris.
When it comes to opera, anagnorisis is used quite a bit–which should not be surprising since most operettas are based on plays. Here, I will omit plots based on classical Greek plays, since that would be begging the question.
In “grand” opera, the device is used more awkwardly. The evil Abigaille in “Nabucco” learns offstage by means of a conveniently found letter that she is not really of royal birth; while the Gypsy Woman’s revelation that the Count di Luna has just executed his own brother is far too tersely stated and far too quickly accepted as the final chords come crashing from the orchestra.
It is in light operas that the device is used to far better effect. The cleverest use is probably at the very end of “Cox and Box” when the two discover they are long lost brothers by virtue of one’s NOT having a strawberry mark on his arm. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore,” the honest sailor Richard Dauntless sells out his relation Robin Oakapple by revealing to one and all that Robin is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the evil Baronet of Ruddigore. At the end of “The Yeomen of the Guard,” Elsie realizes that the man she thought was Leonard Meryll is actually Colonel Fairfax. The denouement of “HMS Pinafore” turns on the past event of Little Buttercup’s having switched the Captain and the lowly tar in infancy (although here it is rank and not relations that is revealed); and we all know that “The Gondoliers” ends with the realization that Luiz the Drummer Boy is really the King of Barataria.
In the first two instances, part of the fun is the audience’s being in on the joke all the while; while in the last two the audience is just as surprised as are the characters on the stage.
Note: It is remarkable that the entire cast accepts these last two revelations as true without question. But then again, Gilbert wanted to wrap things up, and if the plot up until then was accepted, why not the denouement?
The prize for the most elaborate use of the disguise and subsequent recognition has to be awarded to “Die Fledermaus.” Dr. Falke was once the victim of a practical joke played on him by one Eisenstein and he prepares an elaborate revenge. Knowing that a certain young and ennui-ridden Russian nobleman, Prince Orlofsky is giving a ball, Falke has invitations sent to Frau Eisenstein (Rosalinde), her maid Adele, and the warden of the local jail, who is to escort Eisenstein to jail that very evening. Then he secretly persuades Eisenstein to go to the ball before going to jail, and of course runs into maid, wife, and jailer.
As soon as they leave, a sex-driven Italian tenor, Alfredo, arrives to woo the wife and is caught by the Warden in Eisenstein’s dressing gown. To save Rosalinde’s reputation, Alfredo allows himself to be arrested in the husband’s place, making him the only major character NOT to go to the ball. At the ball, Eisenstein spends most of the evening trying to seduce his own (masked) wife, even offering her his woman-winning watch, but getting nowhere.
There is an extremely funny sequence in which Husband and Warden, both posing as French nobility, try to carry on a conversation in their “native” language and finally agree that German is good enough for a Viennese party.
Once Eisenstein tries to check into the jail, he finds “he” is already in a cell. Determined to get to the bottom of things, he assumes a second disguise as a Lawyer and listens to his wife and lover pleading their case. Since nothing short of a deus ex machina could disentangle this plot, the librettists provide one by simply having the entire cast show up in the jail and blame it all on the champagne. In short, Dionysus is triumphant and all ends well.
A similar series of disguises and mistaken identities drive the plot of “La Vie Parisienne,” in which both a Swedish nobleman and his wife separately plan to live it up while in Paris. A young man falls for the wife, poses as a hotel manager and guide, brings them to his own home, which he declares is a hotel, brings the husband to a party at a friend’s home at which all the servants have to play high-class guests…and so on and so on. All ends amicably with a salute to wine. (Well, there are only so many ways to end an operetta like this!)
Whatever would Aristotle have thought about all this?
Some time ago I was giving a seminar on the history of the American operetta and I thought it would be a Good Thing if I typed out the lyrics and ran off copies for my senior citizens. In doing so, one thing impressed me greatly: the utter banality of the words that composers like Victor Herbert had to set to music.
There was an episode on “The Avengers” (one with Emma Peel, not Captain America) in which a publisher of romances had a machine into which you simply punched buttons that plugged stock situations into a computer and the end result was a novel. Many of the lyrics I encountered seemed to be drawn from a boxful of clichés that were merely shuffled and reshuffled. All of which, I suppose, was okay, since the lovers in one operetta could not be distinguished from those in most others.
Example from “The Desert Song”:
Why waste your time in vague romancing
When life itself is at your call?
I come to you, my heart advancing.
Oh, come to me and be my all.
One from “The Red Mill”:
Only because you are you, dear.
Not that you are fair, dear,
Not that you are true.
Not your golden hair, dear,
Not your eyes of blue, etc.
Of course these horrible examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. But to be fair, so could many fairly clever lyrics that are found in the satirical (usually anti-feminist) songs of the period. But the great majority of songs from early musicals have lyrics that would have given a D to any student in a poetry writing class; and the reason for this situation is the same as that for today’s television fare: (1) the public did not demand any better and (2) it is simpler to write poor stuff than good stuff.
Now in 1878 something called “HMS Pinafore” happened in London that got people very excited. Here was a work in which the music was superb and the lyrics were actually intelligent, clever, and amusing all at once! Now the team of Gilbert and Sullivan had already created three works before this, but “Pinafore” was the first to reach these colonial shores and the theatergoers went wild. In New York City alone there were about 10 productions in competition with one another, all using pirated scores that had been hastily jotted down in London by agents from America in those days before international copyright agreements had been achieved.
Did you ever notice in most composer-writer teams, the composer always comes first? Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, for example. In fact who can really name off the cuff the lyricist for any given Romberg musical? I know that P.G. Wodehouse did the lyrics for several Kern shows in 1917 and thereabouts. But I could not tell you for certain who wrote the lyrics for (say) “Sally” or “Sitting Pretty.”
Now a lyric can be “clever” in what it says and how it says it. “Tea for two and two for tea” is not a very profound remark but its beautiful symmetry makes it clever in one sense. “When I’m not with the girl I love I love the girl I’m near” is even better though less palindromic. On the other hand, the rhymes with the lines I have not quoted are nothing special.
Except in the lyrics of the few writers being considered in this series of articles, you can go far and wide before finding any truly clever rhyme in American lyrics. On the London stage, however, Sullivan had words like this in the non-Gilbert “Cox and Box”:
My master is punctual always in business
Unpunctuality even slight is in his
Eyes such a crime that my showing my phiz in his
Shop I thought there’d be the devil to pay.
Not only do we get a triplet, but also the single word “business” is rhymed with three monosyllabic words in the next two lines. On top of that, Larry Hart is anticipated by several decades in that the rhyme words are broken off from the words to which they grammatically belong, thereby increasing the humor even more.
The miracle is what wonderful music was set to even the low-grade lyrics in so many of the operettas that have remained favorites because of the memorable melodies, certainly not because of the words. In fact Romberg boasted that he never cared what words were set to his music. (“Who knows for lyrics?” was his remark.) And that alone brings out a very interesting fact. Many if not most composers wrote the music before the words. The lyricists then were duty-bound to match their meters and moods to already existing notes. Note too that the great teams, especially the two with Rodgers as composer, were not so rigid in their collaboration: sometimes a musical idea would present itself, sometimes a verbal one. And of course, composers like Berlin and Porter, who wrote both music and lyrics, had no such problems!
[Notice that just about every other composer-lyricist team are referred to in that order: George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so on. But with Sullivan and Gilbert, they are forever Gilbert and Sullivan. Strange.]
On the other hand, only on one occasion did Gilbert ask Sullivan to write the music first, but that was for a quick revision of the finale of their penultimate work. In all other cases, the words came before Sullivan’s music.
So it would be a valuable thing to examine the lyrics of the man who began it all, and now we shall examine the tricky lyrics of William S. Gilbert.
During a televised colloquy of funnymen, Milton Berle brought up the difference between a “comic” and a “comedian.” The first, he explained, says funny things while the latter says things funny. Gilbert, of course, did both. No one before him had turned out such intricate rhymes to better comic effect; and almost always the humor of Sullivan’s music kept in step with the librettist.
Their earliest collaboration was “Thespis,” in which Gilbert was already dealing out such “weak” rhymes as “function-junction/exceeding-breeding/Directors-inspectors/fivers-drivers/compunction-unction-function-junction” in a single stanza of a patter song. [In case your English 1 is far behind you, a “strong” rhyme comes on the last syllable as in “today-replay” while a “weak” one comes on an earlier syllable as in any of the above examples.]
“The Sorcerer” was a spoof of “The Elixir of Love” and had to contain a patter song to match that of the quack in the Donizetti work. Now since Italian has more vowels per linear foot than does English, very weak rhymes were called for. As witness this:
Such is his knowledge he
Isn’t the man to require an apology!
Many times, Gilbert will set himself a challenge and rhyme where no man had rhymed before. For example, in “The Mikado” he forces himself to find rhymes for “executioner” in Pooh-Bah’s Act I song. So Nanki-Poo is called a “very imperfect ablutioner” (which rhymes but makes little sense), Pooh-Bah calls himself “Of your pleasure a diminutioner,” and ends by advising “so you shun her!”
And witness how he rhymes proper nouns in the Major-General’s Song and the “Private Dragoon” numbers, which are too long to quote here.
When he does use strong rhymes (and how can one avoid them?), he will often make a triplet in a single line as when Pooh-Bah sings “Now though you’d have said that head was dead.” Or he will alternate two strong with two weak as in the Nightmare song:
When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose
is taboo’d by anxiety,
I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in
In “The Grand Duke,” a most inferior libretto compared to what has gone before, he rhymes “lowest” with “ghoest” and compounds the groaner with the explanation
When exigence of rhyme compels
Orthography forgoes her spells
And “ghost” is written “ghoest.”
Getting back to “The Mikado,” Gilbert gives us one of the greatest tongue-twisting alliterations of all times:
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!
Possibly one of his happiest thoughts is a seldom quoted song from “Patience” in which the titular heroine claims she never loved except in babyhood and “He was a little boy.” Her confidante insists that “He WAS a little boy”; to which Patience replies that “He was a LITTLE boy”; to which the friend retorts that nevertheless “He was a little BOY”–proving how the same sentence can mean so many different things depending on the accent.
One typical Gilbertian trick is to prove one thing in one stanza and to prove quite the opposite in the next. In “Princess Ida,” the tenor wonders how he was twice the age of his intended when they were betrothed at ages 2 and 1 respectively, and now that he is 22 “she has gained upon me since.” In “Patience,” Lady Jane manages to convince us how the ravages of time will result in “little will be left of me in the coming by and by” while at the same time her spreading shape will result in “too much of me in the coming by and by.” The funny thing is that both cases seem quite valid.
For once, in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” this antithesis is used seriously as a prisoner condemned to die ponders that if life is a “boon” we should be glad to live even one extra day, while if life is a thorn we should be content to leave it as soon as possible.
But when he seems at his most serious, you can never quite be sure if his tongue isn’t firmly in his cheek. When he has the chorus exclaim, “He is an Englishman” and praise him for not choosing to be “a French, a Turk, or Proosian,” it might take us a moment to realize how silly some real patriotic songs are if analyzed semantically. In fact, in his salute to the English Girl in “Utopia” it is still being debated whether he is praising her or … heaven knows what Gilbert might have had in mind.
At any rate, I would need a book to really do a thorough job on the subject. But when you see what the other Masters of the Tricky Lyric have done in the decades after Gilbert, you will clearly see the influence of this Victorian innovator.
“Comic” Characters on the Musical Stage Are Nothing to Laugh At
Well, it happened again. Many of you might have caught on PBS television a production of “The Merry Widow” from San Francisco some years ago. In it is the ancient subplot of three husbands (it is usually only one) being cuckolded by their pretty wives, all the while bragging how faithful their spouses are compared with those of other men. Not that adultery is supposed to be funny per se–and after all, in the Lehar operetta the women only flirt (as far we can tell). But the husbands are such pompous asses that we are supposed to say “Good for you” and laugh at their expense.
The problem is that the actor/singers are invariably directed to give a cartoon performance that destroys any social point the librettist had in mind. The plots of most “Merry Widow”-type operettas are flimsy enough without taking the humanity out of the cast of characters and leaving us with nothing really to laugh at. And being less than human, there is no social point they can make.
For example, Laurel and Hardy were bumbling fools. But their hearts were pure, their intentions always good. It was their human failings that always got in their way. In a classic short, “Towed in a Hole,” they are trying to improve their “fresh fish” business by fixing up an old boat to cut out the middleman. The fact that Stan can do nothing right and that Ollie thinks he himself can do everything right–failings that come from their basic characters–is what leads to a string of disasters ending in the total demolition of the boat.
But the husbands in “The Merry Widow” have nothing but failings. There is nothing funny about that because they are not believable. Consider the following. In the nature film “Microcosmos,” there is a sequence in which a dung beetle gets his huge ball of dung stuck on a twig. Not having the intelligence to see why he is making no progress, he simply keeps pushing and pushing until the ball rolls over the twig. The audience cheered! And this for a dung beetle! It won the audience’s sympathy because its persistence, although part of its genetic code, was understandable and laudable. The three husbands, then, come out in most productions several sympathetic notches below the little hero of the nature sequence.
In too many versions of “The Mikado,” Ko-Ko is played as an idiot, unable even to carry his large ax when he enters (although Gilbert wanted a sword). I do not know how George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko, played the role, but Martyn Green certainly established once and for all the feebleminded Lord High Executioner. However, when one production updated and replaced the action to an English seaside resort hotel lobby during the 1920s and cast Eric Idle of the Monty Python group to play the role, he pranced on with a tennis racket, addressed the people through a loudspeaker, feedback and all, and dismissed Nanki-Poo with what is usually a throwaway line, “Take him away,” in a very no-nonsense, dangerous way. Finally, a Ko-Ko to be reckoned with!
Worse still is having Sir Joseph Porter in “HMS Pinafore” played like a clown. (I must admit, I saw it done only once and that was in a rehearsal, after which most of the business was dropped.) Sir Joseph is all dignity, a dignity that does not come natural to him since his greatest accomplishment was to polish up the handle of the big front door and the only ship he had ever seen was a partnership before he was elevated to the rank he now holds and does not in the least deserve. The point Gilbert (who also directed his own works) is making is that Porter LOOKS and ACTS like “the ruler of the Queen’s nahvee” despite the hollowness below the glitter, and is therefore treated with respect his rank (if not the man) deserves in the British social scale.
The same must be said for the character of Dr. Bartolo in “The Barber of Seville.” If he is played as a total fool, then all the machinations devised by Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva are wasted effort. Now and then, a good actor/singer plays him as an intelligent person and the opera seems to make sense. He fails because of his ego, not because he is stupid. But then again, so many productions of “Barber” are played strictly for laughs that believable characterization is at a premium.
Even the richly comic Papageno in “The Magic Flute” might be played as childish, but always very very human. After all, opera is drama and drama is about human beings. Even farces are based on human failings, but in this area the rules are somewhat relaxed since farce is based on types (“humors” as Ben Jonson put it) and complexity of character is actually detrimental in this case.
This essay is, if anything, a caveat for local groups, both amateur and semi-professional, that might consider some of my comments while planning their next productions. Cheap laughs are easy to achieve, as Gilbert once commented, if all you do is to sit on a pork pie. Real life, however, needs real people up on that stage–even if they do live in a world where an orchestra is always playing.
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.
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.
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!