I posted an excerpt from this last year.  Lately, another bit of it has been running through my head.  It was my G&S-ified depiction of the scene where Palpatine declares himself Emperor, set to the tune of Ludwig’s song, “A Monarch Who Boasts Intellectual Graces” from The Grand Duke. (Note that throughout, “republican” and “democratic” are used in the general sense of political concepts, not the present-day parties in our own galaxy.)

Enjoy!

****

PALPATINE:

Oh, the Chancellor who uses emergency powers

Will gain, if he’s smart, a good deal of support.

      He can speak to opponents without getting glowers

 And won’t have any need to lie or distort–

You know, I am sure, in these perilous hours,

That though a sep’ratist danger still towers

And threatens this Senate of ours,

  I know of a plan that will make ‘em abort!

Oh! My motto is “safety;” I’m not a daredevil,

And while I rule here, we will all be secure.

With a powerful Emp’ror, who’s quite on the level,

Republican principle may long endure!

CHORUS:  

Oh! His motto etc.

PALPATINE:

When rule democratic simply fails to succeed;

And Congressional meetings are just a mess–

An Emperor clearly’s the thing that you need

To at once set ev’rything right in Congress!

With no more long meetings progress to impede,

Improvements extreme we can make with all speed,

It’s easy to do, and I will do the deed—

              It’s done! And here’s to our having continued success!

 Oh! Our Galaxy nearly had gone to the Devil,

But I thankfully happened to know of a cure–

With a powerful etc.

CHORUS:   

Oh! Our Galaxy etc.

All. Well – what’s the news? How is the election going?

Ernest. Oh, it’s a certainty – a practical certainty! Two of the candidates have been arrested for debt, and the third is a baby in arms – so, if you keep your promises, and vote solid, I’m cocksure of election!

Olga. Trust to us. But you remember the conditions?

Ernest. Yes – all of you shall be provided for, for life. Every man shall be ennobled – every lady shall have un­limited credit at the Court Milliner’s, and all salaries shall be paid weekly in advance!

Gretchen. Oh, it’s quite clear he knows how to rule a Grand Duchy!

Ernest. Rule a Grand Duchy? Why, my good girl, for ten years past I’ve ruled a theatrical company! A man who can do that can rule anything!

–W.S. Gilbert The Grand Duke. Act I. 1896

There’s a lot to hate about social media.  From idiot trolls to widespread fake news stories, there’s some reason to believe social media is responsible for many of the problems in the world today. In fact, I’d say social media is a net negative for humanity.

(This is pretty ironic, because I used to be in charge of social media for my employer.  And also I’m writing this blog, and I’m going to tweet the link after I’m done.)

But social media does sometimes have benefits.  The other day I was doing what most millennials do with Twitter: used it to look for some good Gilbert and Sullivan information.  Quite by chance, I came across Dr. Alison Vincent’s Twitter account.

Dr. Vincent is the CTO for Cisco UK and Ireland, and an all-around cool person. Her C.V. is very impressive, but the reason I recognized her was from some very enjoyable performances of Gilbert and Sullivan by the Southampton Operatic Society that I had seen many years ago.

I tweeted my thanks to her for the performances, and she very kindly replied.  Then, the Southampton Operatic Society replied as well, with the above clip of one of their performances. Then another one of the performers, Mr. Mike Pavitt, also kindly responded. It was a thoroughly nice exchange all around.

I’d seen those performances about eight years ago on Youtube, but it had never occurred to me in all that time to thank the people involved.  Without social media, I never would have been able to do so.

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.

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Crowther, the secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society, tweeted:

My initial reaction was that the reason for this was that Gilbert’s works are inaccessible to modern readers because he was sometimes a bit of chauvinist, and most publishers aren’t keen to push the works of another straight, white, male Victorian writer.  Modern readers are looking for more diversity.

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W.S. Gilbert. (Image via Wikipedia)

I was about to say this, but then I realized it wasn’t true–and my own literary interests showed why.  (You can see my whole exchange with Mr. Crowther here.)

Specifically, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 1900s horror writer, whose influence on modern horror seems to be ever-increasing.  His ideas creep into films like Alien and The Thing, his famous monster Cthulhu is the shorthand for Ultimate Evil in some parts of the internet, and there is an entire genre of horror named after him. Only yesterday I wrote a review of a horror novel clearly influenced by him.

And Lovecraft is way, way less accessible to the modern reader than Gilbert. Gilbert, as I said, was a bit of a chauvinist.  Lovecraft openly sympathized with the Nazis.  His letters, while in other respects brilliant and insightful, show a man prone to almost genocidal racial screeds, and his books often contain appalling racist diatribes and descriptions.

Everyone who reads and enjoys Lovecraft’s work ultimately has to grapple with this undercurrent of White Supremacist venom that runs through it. (For the record, here’s where I did it.)

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H.P. Lovecraft (Image via Wikipedia)

So, if a racist Nazi sympathizer can have such an influence over modern writers, why can’t a lovable old Victorian dramatist have the same?

The answer is that Gilbert’s main claim to fame are the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan, and comic opera is out of fashion.  In fact, not only is comic opera out of fashion, but the form of musical theater that evolved when it fell out of fashion is also out fashion.

Gilbert’s other famous work, the Bab Ballads, are witty, short poems in a style that is, once again, out of fashion.

Thinking about the Lovecraft v. Gilbert issue was what really brought home to me how out of fashion metered, rhyming poetry is.  Because Lovecraft also wrote poetry, and yet, for all his influence, his poems don’t seem to get reprinted nearly as much as his short stories and novellas.

I have a collection that purports to be “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft” in front of me.  It contains mediocre tales like “Pickman’s Model” and “In The Vault” , but not his great poem “Nemesis”. If Lovecraft had only written horror poetry, probably he would not have one-tenth the influence he does.

So, why did poetry fall out of fashion?  I have no clue.  It’s easy to memorize (that’s part of the point) and tends to be shorter than the sprawling novels that students in schools get assigned.  And yet, poetry–or at least, rhyming and metrical poetry that adheres to rhyme schemes and other rules, is distinctly out of fashion.

(As an end note/bit of self-promotion: for those readers who like both Gilbert and Lovecraft,  I once wrote a short horror story entitled “The Revival”, very much in the Lovecraftian vein set around an amateur production of Ruddigore.)

About ten years ago, I wrote a comic opera adaptation of the Star Wars movies, with songs set to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. It was just an exercise in songwriting that I did for fun, but it definitely helped me learn how to write a decent rhyme.

Re-reading it now, I see most of my lyrics were pretty bad–although to be fair to myself, few lyricists can ever hope to match the great W.S. Gilbert.

But there were a few songs I wrote that were pretty decent.  For instance, this adaptation of the meadow scene from Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin explains his dictatorial political philosophy to Padme. It’s set to the tune of “Were I a King” from The Grand Duke.

ANAKIN: Were I in charge, in very truth,
And yet had kept my health and youth,
In spite of my ascension;
To keep us peaceful, keep us strong–
And make these blessings last for long–
I would request the voting throng
All their concerns to mention.
To some big council they would go
And voice with elocution,
Their little problems all, and lo!
They would find a solution!

The men who would be to this council elected,
Would all by popular vote be selected–
And if they all did what they said on campaign,
They could run for office again!

CHORUS:    Oh, the men who would be etc.

ANAKIN: And if councilmen should disagree
The problem would then come to me–
And I’d make the decision!
One side may say to “Cut the tax!”
The other says “Prevent attacks!”–
Unlike our current plan that lacks
An executive with vision–
Both sides would have to go to me,
And I’d make ’em see reason!
And if they still would disagree–
I’d have them shot for treason!

Oh, the man who can mold a political sphere
Completely bereft of corruption or fear,
Can govern and rule, with of his brains a tenth
Intelligent life–and possibly Ennth!

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.

‘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.

I remember when I first read the libretto to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.  I was familiar with the “Big 3” Savoy operas–Pinafore, Pirates and The Mikado, but Ruddigore was the first of the others that caught my attention–probably because of the name and the fact it had ghosts in it. But as I read it, I was absolutely blown away by how good it was.  This is hilarious, I thought. Why isn’t it as famous as the others?

I’ve always loved Ruddigore the most of all the operas from that point on. The picture-gallery coming to life and Sir Roderick’s chilling song, the gorgeous madrigal at the end of Act I, the “Matter trio”, the brilliant plot resolution which is so, so much cleverer than those in Mikado or Iolanthe.

But while I loved Ruddigore, I never saw or heard a production that quite matched how it looked and sounded in my head. There are lots of good ones, to be sure, but never one that lived up to what I always wanted the show to be.

Until now.

To be precise, this performance by the Stanford Savoyards still isn’t exactly the Ruddigore of my dreams. It’s somehow better. These people are amazing.

Where to begin? The lady who plays Mad Margaret is incredible–she truly seems mad; without straying too far to the point where she becomes just pathetic. She somehow captures both the humor and the pathos of the role and balances them perfectly. Despard is absolutely splendid as a manipulative, but not wholly un-feeling bad Baronet. Richard Dauntless is excited and energetic without being over-the-top.  The fellow who portrays Robin does a great job as the meek-but-moral farmer, who is, I think, the greatest of all Gilbert’s heroes. Sir Roderick is properly confident and threatening as the leader of the ghosts, and in his second scene, seems extremely fond of his old love, Dame Hannah, who is also terrific.

They are all perfect; exactly as I pictured the characters in my mind.

And then you’ve got Rose Maybud. She is better than I imagined. The actress transforms Gilbert’s two-dimensional caricature into a still very funny, but also very human and sympathetic woman.  I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to so completely alter the character while still remaining completely faithful to the script, but somehow she did it.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the music.  That’s because I’m not musically savvy enough to really talk about it, but I know what I like, and I love the way they handle the score here.

There are so, so many moments I could point to as examples of why this is a triumph of theatrical magic 125 years in the making.  Watching the whole thing is really the only way to grasp it, but if I had to pick one scene, it would probably be in the Act 1 finale, at about the 1:21:10 mark, when Robin is trying to hand Rose the veil that she dropped at the revelation Robin is the bad Baronet of Ruddigore, and she refuses it.

It’s a funny set-up–the woman who defines her whole life by a book of etiquette is breaking up with the man who has just been revealed to be rightful legal holder of the accursed title of that requires him to commit a crime a day–except on bank holidays.  It’s absurd and ridiculous and funny.  But you know what else? There’s some real sadness in that scene–I automatically feel sorry for Rose and Robin, even though it’s all silly, and I know it’s all going to end happily anyway.

Sentiment and silliness. Horror and humor. Love and legalese. All these elements are mixed perfectly by the performers, into a unique blend.

That, my friends, is what the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are all about.

 

[I am not feeling well today–not quite a “broken-down critter”, but still, “not at all well”.  So, I’m not up to writing a new post.  But! I happened to find this absolutely marvelous video of a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke on YouTube. So, in the interest of doing my bit to spread the word of this woefully under-appreciated masterpiece, I’m going to embed the video and include a little essay I wrote some years ago about the opera.]

(Act II is here. Many thanks to YouTube user John Burrows for posting it.)

As I have mentioned before, I really like Gilbert and Sullivan’s last operetta The Grand Duke. Historically, this is the operetta most G&S enthusiasts like least. And, I suppose, they have a few points in their favor, as in the sometimes very bad rhyming on Gilbert’s part. (e.g. “chooses/shoeses”) Also, while he is a good character, the abrupt arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo in Act II can seem a bit out of nowhere.
But Gilbert’s talent for clever, clear and witty lyrics is not entirely absent, for surely Ernest’s memorable plea

If the light of love’s lingering ember
Has faded in gloom,
You cannot neglect, O remember,
A voice from the tomb!
That stern supernatural diction
Should act as a solemn restriction,
Although by a mere legal fiction
A voice from the tomb!

must rank with Gilbert’s wittiest. And even if it is a groaner, the ingenious lines: “In the period Socratic every dining-room was Attic/(Which suggests an architecture of a topsy-turvy kind)” is probably more amusing than any of the labored puns in H.M.S. Pinafore. Even second-rate Gilbert lyrics are, after all, still very pleasing.

However, I have always felt that Gilbert showed himself off at his cleverest as a writer in Grand Duke, if not as a poet. In fact, the whole premise of the “Statutory Duel” is as good an idea as Gilbert ever had for poking fun at the legal system. If Gilbert’s lyrical talents are a ghost–or rather, “ghoest”–of what they once were, he more than makes up for it with his inventiveness in plotting (Monte Carlan antics aside) and clever dialogue. (If you want to see Gilbert really being lazy, try Utopia, Limited)

As for criticisms that the text is overlong, well, that may be the case. It is possible that Grand Duke is very difficult to perform well, but certainly its story is quite enjoyable to read. Perhaps, that is Gilbert’s major sin here; crafting a story that was, in some ways, not suitable to his medium. As we shall see, however, in many ways Gilbert uses the medium’s conventions to marry form with thematic content in a very ingenious way.

I think it is one of Gilbert’s single best comedic stories; and (contrary to what you may think) a kind of culmination of his works. It is something of an irony that Gilbert and Sullivan, renowned for their “topsy-turvy” whimsicality, should have arguably their topsy-turviest piece ranked as a failure.

One of the major themes of Gilbert’s plays and poems is his annoyance at hypocrisy and artifice. His love of legalistic quibbles is only one manifestation of this, but really it is everywhere. Certainly, a major point in all his collaborations with Sullivan often draw on the idea that “Art is wrong and Nature right”, as Utopia Ltd. put it. But never is artifice and illusion more consistently targeted than in The Grand Duke.

Everything in The Grand Duke is about puncturing illusion, from Julia’s play-acting at “loving” Ernest as per contractual obligation, to the “legal death” mandated by the statutory duel, to Ludwig’s faux-Greek court, to the commoners pretending to be Noblemen in the pay of the Prince of Monte Carlo.

In this way, The Grand Duke attacks illusion and hypocrisy in a way no other G&S operetta ever did. From a thematic point of view, it is coherent; though admittedly a different kind of coherence than one might have been expecting from Gilbert. But it marries Gilbert’s dislike of society’s hypocritical conventions with the conventions of theater itself. Having satirized, everything else, Gilbert is now mocking the very medium he’s using, often by having characters break the fourth wall, as Gayden Wren thoroughly lists in A Most Ingenious Paradox.

As to the characters, is there really another female role in all of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon as funny as Julia Jellicoe? Ruthlessly ambitious, cynical, calculating and bold character who also serves to lampoon stage convention. I’d argue she’s one of the best female roles Gilbert ever wrote.

When I first heard her Act II song, “So Ends My Dream”, I thought it seemed melodramatic and over-the-top, out of place with circumstances, considering she didn’t even really want to be the Grand Duchess that much. Then I realized that’s the point. Julia is a prima donna in every sense of the word; and so she only knows how to react in a theatrical way. She could actually be a tragic character, someone who doesn’t know how to have real emotions because they are so skilled at faking them. (It’s played for humor, but Julia’s claim that her love for her and Ernest’s hypothetical children will be “a mere pretence” is pretty chilling.)

All the other characters are amusing enough–Ludwig, the amiable everyman, Ernest the theater manager and the miserly Grand Duke Rudolph all have some good songs. And even secondary characters have much to recommend them, as in the notary’s dry wit, or the costumier and his hired “peers” bantering.

The Grand Duke is probably my next favorite of their comic pieces after Ruddigore, and I don’t know why it does not enjoy the same popularity as The Mikado or The Pirates of Penzance.