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.

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!

‘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.

 

[Sometimes I just get these ideas–I was thinking about the ME 3 ending, and it occurred to me how much its profoundly messed-up logic could have been improved by borrowing from a certain Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Then I realized they even had the perfect character to do so…]

INT-CITADEL–CATALYST’S ROOM

[Shepard has just met the Catalyst]

Shepard: Do you know how I can stop the Reapers?

Catalyst: I control the Reapers.  They are my solution.  Every 50,000 years, I have them wipe out organics who will create synthetics who would wipe out the organics.

Shepard: What? That’s insane!

Catalyst: The created always rebel against the creators.  The Reapers must wipe out all organics who are capable of creating synthetics.

[Enter Mordin Solus, who has survived the events on Tuchanka and secretly boarded the Citadel.]

Mordin: Allow me, as an old Gilbert and Sullivan fan, to make a suggestion. The subtleties of the Salarian mind are equal to the emergency. The thing is really quite simple – the insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every organic shall die who doesn’t create synthetics, and there you are, out of your difficulty at once!

Catalyst: Oh.  Very well.

[Catalyst vanishes, Reaper invasion stops. The entire cast enters.]

FINALE-ENSEMBLE

LIARA

Hip hip hurray,

All is okay–

Ev’rything is copacetic!

There’ll be no death

Even for Geth–

Peace to all who art synthetic!

ALL

Though ’twas a general rule in times before:

“Created must oppose the creator”

This time around, we sought to fix

Problems caused by the synthetics.

CMDR. SHEPARD

We might have been

Like a machine–

It was nearly cause for panics!

But now a peace,

Has brought a cease

To the harvest of organics!

ALL

                                                      The three choices given this organic (alluding to Shepard)

All seemed just a bit tyrannic!

He’s/I’m Commander Shepard, here to tell

You/Us his favorite choice on the Citadel!

[To be sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General]

In microeconomics, S and D curves must equilibrate;

It’s a fact which ev’ry laissez-faire economist must celebrate.

Under classical assumptions, as set down by Dr. Marshall,

Markets always clear, although the equilibrium is partial!

And with perfect competition, to the best of our ability,

Then the quantity and price are such that maximize utility.

And although the notion may seem so simple that it’s risible

Even so, the market‘s guided as if by a Hand Invisible.

And at the risk of being just a little bit repetitive

This is why we mustn’t intervene when markets are competitive—

It’s a fact which ev’ry laissez-faire economist must celebrate—

In standard economics, S and D curves must equilibrate!

————————————————————————————————————————–

So effective is the model at describing price behavior,

There are those who’ve come to see it as an economic savior.

As a market functions best when its preserving its autonomy

They use this very model for the whole macroeconomy.

And according to the principles which I already mention,

Conclude that never is there need for a market intervention.

Recessionary gaps” they will dismiss as sheer vapidity,

And they will see no sign of traps constraining the liquidity.

But there’s a little problem, in that when they do extrapolate,

The similarities with micro will, alas, evaporate.

But even so, ev’ry laissez-faire economist will celebrate:

In economic models, S and D curves must equilibrate!

————————————————————————————————————————–

There are analogues in science that I’ll tell you if you want ‘em:

Physics, for example, has mechanics classical and quantum

The former is for apples and for other common articles,

While the latter is designed for use with sub-atomic particles.

Although in single markets laissez-faire is unassailable,

That doesn’t really mean that it is infinitely scalable.

For when on a certain field is where all of your reliance is

You hope that it would have the rigor of the other sciences.

And so my final verdict, I’m afraid, is very critical:

As long as economics is so thoroughly political

The best that we can hope for is economists who celebrate:

In economic models, S and D curves must equilibrate!

Supply and Demand

[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.