How Gilbert and Sullivan made me a better critic

As I touched on in this post, I approach drama criticism differently than many people do.  I tend to criticize specific things like “I liked the performance, but not the writing”, rather than just say “I didn’t like that character”, for example.

I just realized the other day why I do this: it’s because I started in drama criticism by analyzing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, thanks to Gayden Wren.

For those who don’t know, there are only 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  And Gilbert and Sullivan have been dead for over a century, so it’s not like there are any new ones coming out.

So, whereas fans of, say, Star Wars can always be looking forward to the next installment, G & S fans pretty much have to content ourselves with re-evaluating the existing body of work. This means watching performances, listening to recordings, and then critiquing and analyzing them.

Very quickly, a young G&S fan gets to know the core libretto and music pretty well.  Then they have to start comparing different performances and actors.  For example, I greatly prefer Martyn Green’s Ko-Ko in The Mikado to John Reed’s. Green always seemed spontaneous, (which must be really hard with material one has performed a thousand times)…


…whereas Reed seemed robotic. (In his defense, Reed did seem like a better singer.)


That’s only one small example.  I could write an entire essay about why the 1973 University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s recording of The Grand Duke is vastly superior to the 1976 D’Oyly Carte recording. (And I am an Ohio State fan, so praising anything from That Light Opera Society Up North is difficult.)

My point is, when you get used to seeing or hearing different performances of the same lines, scenes, etc., you learn to separate acting from writing from directing from set design and so on.  Being a G&S fan isn’t the only way to do this–I imagine Shakespeare aficionados are the same way.

But most people don’t evaluate works of drama that way.  They just make a gut reaction judgment on whether they liked it or not.


  1. You have to go to Russ Sype for a kindred spirit on G&S. I agree on Shakespeare. The worst thing that ever happened to the Bard was movies. The 1969 Romeo and Juliet was good, but all the others were gawd awful. Burton and Taylor’s Taming of the Shrew was horrible, don’t even think about Mel Gibson’s Hamlet. Branaugh’s Henry V was passable, needed subtitles for the French stuff, there is a lot of jokes there that most people missed. His other attempts at the bard fell short. One thing of note with Branaugh, he proves that American actors up against British actors fall far short.

    1. I’ve always been a fan of Branagh. I’ve often heard it said that the reason there are so many terrific British actors is that most of them get their start performing Shakespeare, which takes some serious acting chops.

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