‘To ev’rybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two/ I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute-and I do!/ But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can/ Yet ev’rybody says I am a disagreeable man/ And I can’t think why!’–W.S. Gilbert. King Gama’s Song in Princess Ida, Act I.
As long as we’re playing the “name the literary genius with shocking prejudices” game, let’s talk about one of my favorites, Sir William S. Gilbert.
Andrew Crowther recently wrote a great piece in The Guardian, examining the oft-leveled charge that Gilbert was quite sexist. Crowther’s opinion is more or less mine, which is: yes, Gilbert was sexist, but his female characters weren’t just caricatures–there is more nuance to them than critics realize.
One thing to note is that I don’t get the sense Gilbert was any more sexist than the society he lived in was. (Contrast with the subject of my previous post–H.P.Lovecraft was an extreme racist even by the standards of his time.)
That doesn’t excuse Gilbert, of course, but it makes it more understandable why he thought the way he did. Moreover, I have never gotten the sense that Gilbert hated women. He didn’t see them as equal to men, but that’s different than flat-out misogyny.
The best way of addressing the issue of the unpleasant old spinster characters that feature in many of the Savoy operas is to play the men as shallow cads. This isn’t that hard to do. Frankly, I don’t think Gilbert liked romantic tenors any more than he liked spinster ladies. Want to make Ruth in Pirates sympathetic? It’s not too much of a stretch to play Frederic as a shallow imbecile–the entire plot hinges on him being one anyway.
Also, I’ve never thought Princess Ida was just a satire on women’s education–Gilbert pokes fun at it, sure (he was a satirist, after all) but he also mocks men as being dumb, brutish oafs.
None of this is to say Gilbert is innocent of sexism, but just that the plays must be understood in the context of their time, and sexism unfortunately comes with the territory.
Should the plays be re-written to be less offensive? There is precedent for that, as the “N word” was removed from both The Mikado and Princess Ida. But it was an easy re-write, as it occurred only in passing in a couple of songs. The sexism is a harder task, since it involves whole characters. I agree with Crowther: reinterpretation is the best solution here.
Like all great writers, Gilbert wrote about human nature, and I believe that his wit was so sharp, and his insight so keen, that he sometimes unconsciously saw through the prejudices of his day to essential truths. Take this song from Princess Ida:
Is it mocking prototypes of the so-called “man-hating feminist”, or is it mocking anti-feminist men–“pick-up artists”, who try to cloak their misogyny but nonetheless think of women only as sexual objects? It’s a little of both, I think. It works perfectly well as either.