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!