Book Review: “A Most Ingenious Paradox”, by Gayden Wren

51ojcxq47jlThis book is probably the single most significant and influential book for my intellectual development.  It changed the way I thought about fiction.  When I talk about motifs and  imagery and thematic coherence in my reviews of novels, movies, TV shows, and yes, even video games–that is Wren’s influence.

Without this book, I might not have ever learned the critical skills needed to appreciate dramatic art the way that I do. I’m not saying everyone’s reaction to it will be the same–it’s probably just a function of it being the first piece of critical writing I ever read–but nevertheless, I can’t overstate how much it shaped my thinking. It influenced me tremendously as a writer of fiction as well–after all, you can’t criticize fiction if you aren’t willing to put your ideas into practice, and hold yourself to the same standard you hold others.

But enough about how it completely altered my life.  You’re here because you want to know if it’s any good.

Answer: yes, it is very good, although I disagree with Wren on a few points.

A Most Ingenious Paradox is a critical analysis of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wren’s thesis is that each one contains a central theme, usually about Love, that is supported by all the lyrics, dialogue and music.  Wren argues that this underlying thematic element is the reason for the incredible staying power of the operas.

For example, the conflict of Love vs. Duty is a theme that occurs in at least 9 of the operas, and Wren argues that it is not fully realized until Yeomen of the Guard. (The only G&S opera with an unhappy ending.)

Wren’s thesis is that the endurance of the operas is due to their powerful central themes rooted in human nature.  Wren points out that scholars have long given the same reason for the longevity of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a good case, offering extensive examples of how all the elements in each opera tie together to reinforce a thematic point–or don’t, in the case of less successful operas.

Still, there are some objections that can be raised to this idea.  For example, if Ruddigore is vastly more thematically coherent and developed than H.M.S. Pinafore–as Wren argues it isthen why has Pinafore been more popular, from its original run to the present day? Wren makes some effort to explain this, but never quite does.

(For the record: Ruddigore is my favorite of all the operas, and Pinafore among my least favorites, even though it was the first one I ever heard.  But while I agree with Wren’s analysis, there is just no way to argue Ruddigore is more popular. This suggests that perhaps the thematic element isn’t what determines a G&S opera’s fortunes.)

Then there is the problem of The Mikado, which is Gilbert and Sullivan’s all-time greatest hit, and Wren has to admit it is not as thematically sophisticated or emotionally deep as the operas either before or after it.  Wren writes: “The opera has something of the charm of a clever clockwork… [T]he ingenuity of the machinery is so remarkable, so flawlessly meshed, that it remains a source of joy on many repeated viewings.”

He’s right; and it would be hard to find any G&S fan who didn’t like The Mikado. But where does that leave Wren’s central argument? If the most enduring of the operas doesn’t contain the things he says make an opera endure, the whole thing looks shaky.

Re-reading it now, for the first time in about a decade, I realize I don’t–and never did–know if Wren’s main thesis is right or wrong.  And I don’t care.  What I do know is that it is an absolutely brilliant piece of critical analysis.  Wren’s masterful critique of what went wrong in Utopia, Limited should be required reading for all authors and dramatic critics. It is worth learning about the opera just to be able to understand that chapter.

Of course, if you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan at all, you have to familiarize yourself with their work before the book will even be intelligible.  Obviously, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love G&S, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you won’t understand this book.

For anyone familiar with the operas, however, I consider it a must-read.

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