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: using 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.
This 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 Paradoxis 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 is—then 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.
Yeah, speaking of things that need re-working, this Wagner thing could have used some editing. I won’t hash over all the details, but at the end of act II of Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”)there’s a part where Brünnhilde, Hagen and Gunther are planning to eliminate Siegfried. You’d think you could show them deciding on this in a minute or two, but they just go on and on repeating the how and why of it over and over again! The acting and singing is marvelous, but gotterdammerung, we heard you the first hundred times!
I think I understand why it’s like this, mind you. Wagner’s operas were written for live audiences sitting in fancy clothes in uncomfortable seats, not television viewers, as there was no such thing as television. The opera seems to be five hours long, and though there are periodic intermissions, I think they needed to give audience members a chance to get up now and again. You could go out for a stroll, come back, and you haven’t missed any new developments. This was probably necessary for the 19th-century opera-goer.
But I am a 21st-century television viewer. I can sit and watch TV for hours, as long as something new is happening fairly frequently. This was roughly five-hours long and I wasn’t even terribly interested in the outcome, and yet I still watched it. So it can be done.
My take on this whole production is that the stage was cool, the actors/singers were all excellent–but the thing was just too long and repetitive for television. They should have gone ahead and done the live performance, and then used the same cast and filmed a miniseries for PBS to show instead. Maybe that’s too much strain on the singers, though, I don’t know.
Unfortunately, I don’t the like the other music in it so far nearly as much as that famous piece. And because they sing in German, it’s subtitled, and I can’t help but feel that a lot is lost in translation. The plot of the first part, Rheingold, seems to be that Wotan–who is the King of the Gods, or something–can’t pay his bills. I know that somewhere down the line, there will be a magical ring that makes people all powerful. So far, I will say that I think I like it better than a certain other, later story that concerns much the same thing, but it’s still hard to follow.
The performance is amazing, however. I don’t understand how people manage to sing while suspended in the air or climbing up steep ramps. It’s quite impressive. I watched the documentary “Wagner’s Dream,” that they showed earlier in the week about the making of the production. To be honest, I think I found it more interesting than the actual opera.