"Here’s a pretty state of things!"

(Or ought I to have called this post: “So please you, Sir, we much regret/If we have failed in etiquette“?).

In any event, to briefly sum the case, the facts are these: on January 28th, James Taranto, writing in the WSJ, quoted a letter from a person named Rory Page, complaining about a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which read in part:

“I must call you on something that was inserted into the play which I am almost positive was not in the original book… The comments made in such a cavalier and oh-so-humorous way were uncalled for. Now, I realize you play to a mostly liberal audience in Missoula and so, I am sure, felt comfortable in your calling for the beheading of Sarah Palin. I am painfully aware that most in the audience tittered with laughter and clapped because ‘no one would miss her’ but there were some in your audience who took great offense to this “uncivil tone” about another human being.”

The news of this performance has drawn the ire of the website Conservatives4Palin. They cite this issue as an example of “left-wing” violent rhetoric against Mrs. Palin, which would indicate hypocrisy among left-wingers who have complained about Mrs. Palin’s use of violent rhetoric.

These are the known facts at present. From here, I shall speculate a bit.

I did not attend the performance in question. Indeed, I’d never heard of the people who performed it  until reading of this incident. Also, I have not been able to find a transcription of the lyric in question. However, based on Page’s quoting the line “no one would miss her”, I suspect it was in Ko-Ko’s famous “little list” song.

If that is in fact the case, the grounds for outrage are decidedly shaky. For it’s a tradition that dates back to Gilbert himself to alter the lyrics in that song. According to Ian Bradley’s The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, Gilbert substituted “the critic dramatist”, “the scorching motorist” and others. Likewise, it is also a tradition to reference various politicians in the last verse–since none are alluded to by name, the performer may mimic their mannerisms to convey who “would not be missed”.

Cheer up, though, Conservatives! On page 574, Ian Bradley’s book also quotes these lyrics that Gilbert added in 1908, in which he beats Ayn Rand to the punch by about a half-century:

“All those who hold that publicans it’s virtuous to fleece, 
And impose a heavy war tax in these piping times of peace 
And preach the code that moralists like Robin Hood held true,
That to benefit the pauper you must rob the well-to-do,
That peculiar variety of sham philanthropist,
   I don’t think he’d be missed–I’m sure he’d not be missed!”

UPDATE: While researching this further, I came across a website called “Ethics Alarms”, which contains much more information and commentary about this matter, including the offending lyric. It’s an excellent site, and makes many of the same points I made above, only better written.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?