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.


(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”) Some of the scenes, especially in Act II, do seem like they are badly in need of editing. Also, while he is a good character, the Prince of Monte Carlo in Act II seems to arrive 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 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, in spite of its flaws.

Football season is starting, and that means, among other things, a lot of commercials that I’ll have to mute in order to better ignore them.  Many of these commercials will be for beer and, since I am a teetotaler, will be wasted on me.  Of course, the commercials rarely show much of the drink they’re supposed to be selling.  Generally, the drink is only a background element to the key motifs of these ads, which are

  1. Women in swimsuits
  2. A bunch of “cool dudes” hanging out together.

See my post about whether advertising is a waste of money.

But the types of beer advertising are many and varied. Yesterday I discovered one that seemed calculated to attract even my attention–of course, it was almost 50 years old.  It was a book of lyrics, written to Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, in praise of Guinness beer. (The G&S Archive has it here.) To quote from the Archive’s description: “In the 1960s, Guinness produced a series of books adver5tising [sic] their products to be put in doctors’ surgeries (on the basis that ‘Guinness is good for you’)”

This makes it especially amusing to me that the first page of the book features an illustration of Jack Point, one of only two Gilbert and Sullivan characters to “die” onstage, holding a glass of Guinness.  Come to think of it, why didn’t they include the other one, John Wellington Wells?  Did they feel that the character of a dishonest seller of magical potions and diabolical brews wasn’t quite right for the ads?

I laugh at it, but the truth is that this is a far more creative and ingenious bit of advertising craft than the “get a model in a bikini and have her tell people to buy our product” method.    Still not sure about the “Guinness is good for you” business, especially the song about the Heavy Dragoon who builds muscle by drinking beer, but still, an “A” for effort.

I think the English/Irish beer advertising seems to be very creative.  There was a television ad for Whitbread Beer (which I’ve never even heard of otherwise) that featured a parody of the song “Abdul Abulbul Amir“. It’s the catchiest advertising jingle I’ve ever heard.

[Inspired by the Knights of the Old Republic series, to be sung to the tune of “On a tree by a river”, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. I wrote this about six years ago, which is why it’s even worse than my typical efforts. I guess it’s the closest I’ve ever come to writing “fan-fiction”, because I imagined Revan singing it to Bastila.]

On a beach by the ocean, Canderous was seen,

Saying “Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo!”

And I said to him, “Canderous, what do you mean

Saying: ‘Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo?'”

Is it some race of aliens, soldier?” I cried,

“Or Tarisian gang with which you were allied?”

Said he: “They’re my clan–and should be unified!

O, Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo!”

He thrust out his chest daring foes to defy

Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo.

And that warrior fire came into his eye

For Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo!

He stood up at once, and he shouldered his gun;

Then he blasted away for the moon of Dxun.

And he promised to finish what he had begun

With Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo.

Now, I feel just as sure as I’m sure that my clan

Isn’t “Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo”;

That if you so desire, we certainly can

(Like Ordo, Clan Ordo, Clan Ordo)

Rekindle those passions that burned once before

And love one another, perhaps even more.

And I’m sure it won’t end in a violent war–

In contrast to Ordo’s Clan Ordo.

You know, there was a time when I hated musicals.  That was before I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. Their plays technically aren’t musicals, but operettas.  But they are similar enough that after that, I came to like musicals.  Well, the good ones, anyway.

What bothered me for a long time about the genre was how strange it was that the characters sometimes speak like normal people for a time and then burst into song at key points.  This was actually kind of immersion-breaking for me.  I still wonder about how this genre was originally created: how did it ever even occur to a dramatist to try this?

Have you ever seen the Monty Python skit that is purportedly a trailer for an upcoming film entitled “The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights”?  It also includes “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Morse Code” and other things like this.   It’s very funny, but in a way, that’s how musicals can seem: like introducing a strange new form of communication into a story.

Musicals do have a major advantage over other genres in that they can be more memorable, because rhyme and music make it easier for people to commit lines to memory.  I still wonder at how it’s not an inherently audience-distancing device, though, because it’s very weird if you think about it.

*The title comes from a line in what is probably my very favorite Gilbert & Sullivan song, “About a Century Since”, from The Grand Duke.

I get uneasy when I read academic literary analysis that focuses heavily on what elements of a story are supposed to symbolize.  Symbolism is definitely a device that artists use, and to some extent all art is trying to say something about “life, the universe, and everything” by using its own elements as representative of some larger idea.

So, we know symbolism is used.  What we don’t always know is what the author was symbolizing or why, and unless they explicitly say so somewhere, the only way to figure it out is through educated guesswork.  And sometimes, we don’t even know if s/he was trying to symbolize anything.

This being so, it’s awfully easy to make up almost any symbolism you like and call it an analysis.  Let me give you an example of what I mean, with a faux-analysis I just made up of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke:

The Grand Duke is an allegory about the failure of democracy.  It shows the rightful ruler of the state of Pfennig-Halbpfennig deposed by the rabble (actors–commonly considered a “low” occupation then.) The actors, on taking over the government promptly seek to “revive the classic memories of Athens at its best”. The ancient Greek theme is chosen to represent Democracy because it was in ancient Greece that Democracy was created.

The ultimate theme of the story is how Democracy–a.k.a. mob rule–ruins the Aristocracy.  The fake aristocrats hired by the Prince of Monte Carlo are the most obvious example of this.  In the end, order can only be restored when the rightful ruler is placed back in charge.

This interpretation does rely on actual evidence from the play–the actors who take over really do dress as ancient Greeks, the commoners who attempt to impersonate aristocrats are portrayed as buffoons, and the opera ends on a happy note only when the original Duke resumes his reign. So, I think this is a theoretically possible interpretation.

Is it actually likely that this is what W.S. Gilbert had in mind when he wrote it, though?  Highly doubtful.  It seems much more likely that he had the characters remake the government in the image of ancient Athens because he had worked up a clever song about it, and he made the Prince of Monte Carlo’s entourage an uncouth band because he thought it was funny.  Anyone familiar with the piece will have  a hard time believing it was trying to make any major statement about forms of government.

People say authorial intent doesn’t matter, and to an extent they’re right–I can believe that people would insert certain ideas in stories without being conscious of it.  But when you have symbolism that, however “logical” it seems, takes you so far away from the obvious character of the work in question that it gives you pause.

I remember reading about the theory that L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an allegory about the Populist movement.  There is a lot of detail in this theory, and it is pretty thorough, but there’s no evidence that Baum intended it.  According to Wikipedia “it is not taken seriously by literary historians”.  I wonder why.  They take flimsier theories seriously.

As you know from this post, I enjoy alternate interpretations that run contrary to the creator’s ideas.  but still, no matter how plausible you make the case, at a certain point you have to acknowledge it when your interpretation takes you far from what the author originally meant.

Let me begin with a quote from a recent interview with my favorite writer, Chris Avellone, who said of his feelings on the digital distribution of video games:

“I love digital distribution… Of course, one of the greatest things about digital distribution is what it does to reduce the used game market. I hope digital distribution stabs the used game market in the heart.”

The used games market is upsetting to developers like Avellone because the developers make no money directly off of games sold in that market. Some say it is good for the industry as a whole, in which case perhaps the rising tide lifts all boats, but there is room for debate.

Now, here is a quote from a not-so-recent interview with my other favorite writer, W.S. Gilbert, talking about the problem of Americans pirating his and Arthur Sullivan’s comic operas:

“It is the American pirates for whom we have a deadly hatred. But we shall soon be even with them… We… are determined to do battle with every American manager who attempts to produce one of our plays without paying the fee. We have fought, we are fighting, and we intend to fight, cost what it may. The pirates are beginning to fear our pugnacity, and I think we shall win in the end.” 

Reading these two quotes set me thinking about the similarities between the medium of video games and that of theatrical performances. While selling used games is not quite analogous to pirating stage plays, it may be, I think, even more analogous than pirating video games is to pirating stage plays. And really, all are almost identical from the perspective of the creators.

Avellone inspired some anger with his comments. (Gilbert probably did too, but there was no internet in his day, so we don’t know what his fanboys and haters thought.) Since eliminating the used market would make it harder to get games cheaply, some fear it would hurt the medium, both artistically and economically.

And indeed, one could make the same argument about theater performances. After all, if Americans were putting on unlicensed performances of Gilbert and Sullivan, did that not signify healthy demand for good comic opera? I mean, contrast this with the present-day when, I suspect, most people wouldn’t go see it for free. And indeed, after so many American productions of H.M.S. Pinafore, G&S and Richard D’Oyly Carte moved to get in on the action with their next opera. (About, amusingly, pirates.)

Economically speaking, used game sellers, game pirates and theater pirates are all quite similar in their effects on the market. However, if we consider games and plays from an artistic, and not economic perspective, there are also similarities. The first thing that springs to my mind is that the practice of “modding” games is quite analogous to some of the updating and setting changes given to stage plays. I don’t know if I’d say West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet as Counter-Strike is to Half-Life, but the practices seem to me to be similar. (There is also the fact that in both stage productions and video games, it sometimes falls to the fan community to restore a piece to its originally intended form.)

There’s more freedom, I guess, in games and plays than there is with movies and books. I suppose you could also argue the same is true with music, as musicians may cover a song and in so doing change its meaning. But since many songs ultimately depend on the skills and intentions of one performer, as opposed to being collaborative like games and plays, the analogy is not quite as good.

If you are wondering what my point with this post is, there really isn’t one. I’m just kind of musing.

To what extent is it possible to satirize satire, to mock at mockery?

I remember reading a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas written by A.P. Herbert once and not liking it very much. It’s not that I like Gilbert and Sullivan so much that I can’t abide any mockery of them (I don’t think) but somehow it just seemed… hollow. Because it was mocking the conventions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which are themselves mocking conventions of other plays. It seemed to me to be one level of mockery too far. You can make fun of something “serious”,–i.e. the conventions of stage tragedy–but you can’t make fun of something making fun of something serious.*

And it’s not just this, but I’ve run across things now and then that try to make fun of something that is making fun of something else, and it rarely seems to work. Like when MAD magazine would do a parody of a comedy film or program, it just felt weak to me, even if it was not an especially funny comedy. Whereas, when they parody a serious, or at least non-comic, film, it was usually pretty good. (I haven’t read MAD in years, however, so I can’t point to recent examples.)

What do you think?

*This raises the question: can you make fun of something making fun of something making fun of something  serious? I don’t know, but I expect it takes calculus to find the answer.

[NOTE: This post will make no sense to you unless you are pretty familiar with the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.]

I always listen to Ruddigore in October, since it’s so well suited to Halloween and all, but more than that, it is my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan opera, period. I know, most people prefer Pirates, or Pinafore, or The Mikado, and those are all quite good. But Ruddigore, in my opinion, tops them all. Here’s why:

  1. Ruddigore has the most cohesive theme of any of G & S’s works. Read Gayden Wren’s book “A Most Ingenious Paradox” if you want really detailed analysis, but suffice it to say that both Gilbert and Sullivan gave the opera a recurring theme–and a serious one, at that–and backed it up with relevant words and music. 
  2. Ruddigore is the darkest of all their comic works. (Obviously, Yeomen doesn’t count. It’s not comic at all.) The darkness lends the humor an extra edge, and Gilbert works it to the max.
  3. It has the greatest Madrigal G & S ever did. “When the Buds are Blossoming” is flat-out magical. What Sullivan does to convey the changing of the seasons is a work of genius, and it perfectly complements Gilbert’s floral imagery (Read Wren) in the lyrics.
  4. It has Gilbert’s best dialogue ever. Mad Margaret and Rose. Again, you need to read Wren’s book to get this, but it is a marvelous scene. Writing a character who is babbles insanely, yet also provides key plot information is something very few writers can do, but Gilbert nailed it.
  5. It’s actually scary. I mean, it’s not super terrifying; but done properly the ghost scene is quite awesome, and can be really scary. In my opinion, it’s best if the song is played for maximum terror, which makes the following dialogue all the funnier. 
  6. It contains this line: “So pardon us–or die!” That right there is better than anything in Utopia, Limited.
  7. The names are some of Gilbert’s greatest. “Dick Dauntless”. “Rose Maybud”. And my favorite: having “Robin Oakapple” turn into “Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd” and “Adam Goodheart” into “Gideon Crawle”. 
  8. Sullivan’s versatility. Three love songs. Naval music. Supernatural fright music. Rapid-fire patter. A deliberately awkward dance number. Sullivan does it all.
  9. The ending is Gilbert’s best. To be clear, this only applies to Ruddigore when all the stuff they cut in the original run is put back in. The ending that is performed on most of the recordings is much, much weaker. But when performed as Gilbert wrote it for the opening night, it’s brilliant. The legal nit-picking at the end is the best in all of G&S, I think, and most epitomizes the topsy-turvy logic that Gilbert is so well known for. And, of course, the solos performed during finale are excellent.

As long as I’m talking about fiction, I thought I’d discuss a mistake that I occasionally see in fiction: the introduction of superfluous elements that needlessly confuse and prolong the story, weakening it overall.

There’s probably a real name for this, but I like to call it the “Prince of Monte Carlo syndrome”, after the character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke whose presence in the story is–in my opinion–unnecessary. Now, the reason Gilbert introduced the Prince was probably because he was funny; in fact, many people (not me) think his “roulette song” is the best thing in the show. But, though he’s a good character, he just doesn’t fit in well in the story, and actually messes up the flow of it by his presence.

Of course, this sort of thing is easier to get away with in comedies. In more serious works, it’s worse. I love Mass Effect 2, but, as Shamus Young and many others have pointed out, the Collectors feel like a totally unnecessary addition that serves only to muddle up everything and, worst of all, weakens the main enemy, the Reapers. Maybe they’ll make it work in Mass Effect 3, but as it is now, it’s kind of a messy plot.

This brings me to my most serious, and probably most controversial example: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Or, to be specific, just the Deathly Hallows. That book has many problems, in my opinion, but if I had to point to just one, I’d say it’s the fact that, when the Deathly Hallows are introduced, it just confuses everything. There was already a perfectly good “MacGuffin” in the horcruxes, it seemed to me that the Deathly Hallows were simply too much to deal with. This flaw isn’t fatal to the book by itself, but it combines with some other issues to make it my least favorite Harry Potter book. It put me off the franchise to such an extent I didn’t even think of it when writing this post.

The thing is, all these ideas are good by themselves; the Prince is funny, the Collectors are scary and the Deathly Hallows are an adequate plot-driving device–but they just don’t fit in well with the rest of the story. It’s not a fatal flaw–as I’ve said, Grand Duke is one of my favorite G&S works, and Mass Effect 2 is still a great game–but it can be quite jarring.