51Uao-BtASL-1._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_W.S. Gilbert is a major reason—possibly the major reason—I’m a writer. As a teenager, my mom introduced me to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I was fascinated by Gilbert’s lyrics, and then later, by his dialogues and his entire style of storytelling. He wrote stories that were clever and strange and witty, and that usually included some veiled social commentary. And as often as not, he did it in rhymes that were both intricate and yet easy to understand, thanks to his massive vocabulary. 

And the really amazing thing is that so much of his commentary still seems relevant. Sometimes, I read about politics, and immediately what comes to my mind is some line of Gilbert’s, though he died more than a century ago. That’s a testament to the power of his words and his ideas.

At some point, probably around the age of 14 or 15 years old, I unconsciously began thinking, I want to be like that!

Strangely, I was always drawn more to Gilbert’s poems and his stage works than to his short stories. So when I saw that Andrew Crowther, the secretary of W.S. Gilbert Society, had released a collection of Gilbert’s short stories, I realized I needed to seize the opportunity to correct that.

Most of the stories contain Gilbert’s trademark sense of humor—the concept of introducing tropes of fairy tales and stage plays with practical, everyday life occurs frequently. I admit that the stories about pantomime and harlequinade baffle me to a degree. I read about pantomime, and I still don’t fully “get” it, and as a result, don’t totally get Gilbert’s stories riffing on them, either. It probably made sense to people who were familiar with pantomime. I’m not saying these stories are bad—far from it. “The Fairy’s Dilemma” in particular is quite good, it’s just hard for me to appreciate the Harlequin references.

Many of the stories in the collection were later adapted by Gilbert for the stage. Such is the case withAn Elixir of Love”, which he later turned into an operetta set by Sullivan, The Sorcerer.

I’ve always thought The Sorcerer was one of the weaker G&S operettas. But “An Elixir of Love” is absolutely hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times reading it—the humorous idea of ordinary, sober businessmen who happen to deal in supernatural curses and love potions etc. is played to great effect here. (It’s in The Sorcerer too, but in my opinion, it just kind of gets lost amid all the demon-summoning.)

“Wide Awake” is an exercise in one of Gilbert’s other favorite motifs: people disguising their pure, black-hearted selfishness with a sop to politeness and decorum. Most of the characters are out for themselves, but they try to cloak it with manners and solicitude. 

“A Tale of a Dry Plate” is short and very sweet.

“The Story of a Twelfth Cake” is extremely funny and clever. It is marred by one unfortunate thing that I’ll address shortly, but overall it might be the funniest story in the collection. It’s another that Gilbert later adapted for the stage. 

“Lady Mildred’s Little Escapade” is a delightful tale—probably packed more of a punch in Victorian times than today, just because of changing social mores, but it’s still very clever.

“A Christian Frame of Mind” is downright shocking, for its time. A Swiftian satire, I would say.

There are more stories in this collection, and all of them are must-reads for Gilbert fans, and should-probably-reads for everyone else. And now, about that one little thing I have to address.

To a degree, everyone is a product of their time and place. Gilbert lived in Victorian England, and was a middle-class and later wealthy man. As you might expect, he held many of the typical attitudes of his time on such matters as race and sex. He was, by nature, a kind-hearted man, and so generally he seems well-disposed towards people, but that doesn’t stop him from writing things that modern readers will find shocking. The “n” word occurs in these pages, so be warned. Similarly, while Gilbert is no misogynist, and many of his female characters are actually quite interesting, there’s no doubt he could be patronizing towards them at times.

The book also includes Gilbert’s own illustrations to accompany his stories. These are a nice addition, although here again there is a problem with how Gilbert depicts non-white characters. (Interestingly, they are often depicted sympathetically in the stories.) Nevertheless, I do agree with the decision to present the stories and drawings uncensored, as Gilbert originally intended. The point of these things is, at least partly, their value as reflections of a bygone era, and it’s important for history’s sake to get an undistorted view of it, for good or ill.

Now, I know this book is a departure from what most people read. Indeed, Mr. Crowther had to work very hard to find a publisher for it. In this world of thrillers and horror and literary fiction, the modern reader may ask, “Why should I read this book of satirical Victorian fairy tales?”

Well, I’m going to make that case.

First of all, I have to address the fact that most of the modern books I read aren’t discernibly Gilbertian, unless you want to count Noah Goats’s comic novels, but he’s closer to a literary descendant of Wodehouse than Gilbert. Moreover, the books I’ve written aren’t especially Gilbertian. The influence that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers and various pulp and YA science-fiction authors had upon me is much more obvious. And yet, when you ask who got me into this writing business, there’s absolutely no question that the answer is Gilbert.

Precisely because Gilbert’s stories are mostly fairy tales and/or deal with superficially simple things like the stereotypical characters of low comedy, they are accessible as fiction. But because Gilbert was putting his own spin on them—playing with the conventions of fiction and of theater, they get at the most basic principles of telling a story. There’s always a lot more going on under the surface of a Gilbert story than you realize at first, and that’s what makes them interesting: they teach you how to think about fiction.

Short stories are better suited to experimentation than novels are. If you write a whole novel with an odd twist or a “meta” ending, there’s a huge risk you’ll leave the reader feeling like they’ve been shortchanged—like they invested in something that didn’t pan out. Whereas short stories encourage twists and unexpected endings. The goal of a short story is to surprise, to take a common trope and turn it on its head. This is what Gilbert excelled at.

As I was reading The Triumph of Vice, I realized Gilbert has a lot in common with my other unlikely storytelling hero, the great game-designer Chris Avellone. Both of them tell stories that upend the common conventions of their chosen medium. Gilbert wrote of honest burglars and incompetent demons, just as Avellone writes Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy with chaste succubi and super-powerful rats.   

This willingness to play with tropes, to subvert convention, is the sign of somebody who really knows their stuff. When you’re a master of the craft, you know which rules you can break, and you’re always testing the limits. Gilbert was a great stage director because he was always pushing the edge of what stage directors could do.

And that’s what I want you to take away from this: Gilbert was great at what he did, and reading his work offers you a chance to see a brilliant creative mind working in a time very different from our own, without the constraints of current fads and fashion. Somebody who wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and his work is still read today. That’s what every writer wants, isn’t it?

Dramatis Personae

Donald Trump: President-Elect
Barack Obama: Outgoing President
John Roberts: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (And a good judge too!)
Bill Clinton: A former President
Hillary Clinton: A former Secretary of State
Al Gore: A former Vice-President
Chorus of Senators, Representatives, and Townspeople.

Act I. Scene: Washington D.C. A frigid winter day. The familiar landmarks seen in the background. TRUMP discovered standing at podium.

TRUMP: Well, well, at long last the fruits of my eighteen months’ labor are to be crowned with inestimable glory. At noon today, I shall finally achieve the august rank of President, defying all the many baleful prophecies set forth by the ignorant laymen and avowed antagonists of my singular quest. The prospect is Elysian–big league!

(Enter BARACK OBAMA, BILL and HILLARY CLINTON, AL GORE and Chorus. Chorus seen begging OBAMA in a furious state of agitation.)

OBAMA: There’s no getting out of it. The law is the law. At 12 o’ clock today, I relinquish control of the office to my elected successor.

(Chorus much dejected)

OBAMA (aside): Never mind my misgivings about his personality, or his total contempt for my liberal policy agenda; not to mention his hiring investigators to find evidence that I am not a legitimate president. I’m a constitutional lawyer–it’s built into my, er, constitution– and respect for the law, unpleasant as it may be, is paramount! (aloud, to TRUMP) Well look, Donald, I certainly wish you the best with your efforts to undo everything I have done. I have heard it said that you wish to, er, how does it go? “Make America Great Again” by “draining the swamp” is that right?

TRUMP: Yes, that sounds like something I would say.

OBAMA: I know we have had our differences over the years, but I do hope we can put those behind us, and work together in a spirit of mutual bipartisan cooperation for the betterment of the country.

TRUMP (aside): This fellow still thinks I listen to people. Sad! (aloud) Beautiful, very very beautiful! I’ll have my people look into it.

(Enter CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, looking harried and nervous)

TRUMP: What’s the matter with you?

OBAMA (checking his watch): The inauguration does not occur for another half-hour yet.

ROBERTS (frenzied): Stop–stop, both of you! There is a problem here.

TRUMP: Problem? What do you mean? Explain!

ROBERTS: Mr. Trump’s investigators have just completed their report on President Obama’s birth certificate and by extension, eligibility to hold office!

(OBAMA and TRUMP both much affected)

OBAMA: What!

TRUMP: I had forgotten all about that!

ROBERTS: Yes, well it seems that Mr. Obama’s birth certificate really was a forgery! They fabricated it using someone else’s birth certificate.

(OBAMA staggers in disbelief.)

TRUMP (Triumphantly): I knew it all along!

ROBERTS: But there’s more to it than that–it seems that the certificate they used was yours, Mr. Trump! They simply wrote “Hawaii” over “New York”.

TRUMP: So?

ROBERTS: So, technically you’ve already served two terms–

OBAMA (clapping TRUMP on the back) –and a fine two terms they were, if I may say so myself.

ROBERTS: –and you can’t serve a third.

TRUMP: This is ridiculous–then who is going to be President?

ROBERTS: I’ve checked into that–the results of the last three elections are all invalid, and so we can’t use those. And the winner of the two before that is obviously ineligible to serve as well. As such, I have taken the liberty of convening the court to overturn the results of Bush v. Gore.

(All gasp. ROBERTS motions GORE to step forward.)

ROBERTS: I give you: the Next President of the United States!

ALL except TRUMP: Hurrah!

GORE: Fallacy somewhere, I fancy.

All except TRUMP exeunt in jubilation. TRUMP lowers his head dejectedly.

CURTAIN

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.)

‘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.