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September 25, 2007

WSG and the English Satirical Tradition - Lincoln Allison argues that Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy Operas represent a peculiarly conservative and English tradition of satire - cheerfully conservative satire

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Savoy Operas Volume I
with an Introduction by David Cecil and Notes on the Operas by Derek Hudson
by W. S. Gilbert
pp. 396. Oxford University Press (World's Classics), 1962

and The Savoy Operas Volume II
with an Introduction by Bridget D'Oyly Carte, also with Notes on the Operas by Derek Hudson
by W. S. Gilbert
pp. 423, Oxford University Press (World's Classics), 1962

Operettas Etc
by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
the Pro Arte Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent
16 disc set. EMI (EMI Classics), 2001

The Savoy Operas were first produced 1875 - 1896

In my experience the "operettas" or "comic operas" of Gilbert and Sullivan are much subject to the Marmite-cricket syndrome. That is, people either adore them or they detest them (or they don't see the point of them). It is probably a necessary condition of adoration (though not a sufficient one) that you are either English or anglophile and I believe there are very good reasons for this.

For the record, I am an enthusiast, though not an extreme one. If G & S had written only The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, HMS Pinafore and Iolanthe they would have left us awed by their collective genius and longing for more, but there is little in the other ten to add to the achievement of those four. That they wrote fourteen is a tribute to the triumph of the profit motive over other sources of human motivation.

They - and Richard D'Oyly Carte, their producer - didn't like each other, were generally at cross purposes and, especially in Sullivan's case, really wanted to be doing something else. But they found success together to a degree they never did apart. Sometimes one of them is clearly on better form than the other. The Yeoman of the Guard has some excellent music, but isn't much fun while Utopia Limited is witty and interesting, but has no memorable music.

The level of their achievement follows an escarpment shape with the steep side at the beginning: nobody nowadays would bother to produce Thespis, their first effort, or The Grand Duke, their last. Sullivan's music - at its best, in a couple of dozen songs - can be very beautiful. Songs like Yum Yum's "The Sun Whose Rays . . . " in The Mikado constitute music on the level of the best of "grand" opera, though much of the time he is merely providing an unambitious backing to Gilbert's wit. And over the long haul it's very samey. And mysteriously English, in the way that Vaughan Williams and Butterworth are English, but Holst and Delius are not, particularly.

But my objective here is not to develop my inexpert opinions on Sir Arthur Sullivan's music; it is to review the satirical qualities of W. S. Gilbert's writing. There is no doubt that he is a satirist: he and everybody else says so. But this universal agreement may be devalued by a lack of clarity about what satire is. Whatever it is, it has targets and Gilbert's are unusually numerous and multi-levelled.

In the first place, the "comic" opera pastiches and parodies the "grand" form with its crazy coincidences and fortunate symmetries of affection in which an entire chorus of pirates can marry an entire chorus of major-general's daughters "all of whom are beauties". (In the 1906 revival of Pirates Gilbert (gloomily?) altered "all" to "some", but this was a retrograde step and is generally ignored now.) If there is a specific target here it is not the Italian opera of his own working period, which was tending in a more verismo direction, but that of the earlier, (Vincenzo) Bellini-Rossini era.

In any case, I don't think there is a specific target; it is more about the risibility of an entire alternative universe in which people sing their way through the dramas and crises of life. A typical expression of this is in Act II of Pirates when the chorus of policemen are singing "Forward to the foe . . " and "Tarantara . . . tarantara . . " while the Major-General shouts, "Yes, but you don't go." (Vol. I, p. 153) His words always come to mind when guests hang about for 45 minutes or so near the front door saying "Goodbye" and "You must visit us soon" and "We'll be off to Leicester now, then".

This easily becomes a kind of self-parody in which Gilbert refers to his own verbosity and his desperation to find a rhyme in circumstances of tight deadlines. In his patter song the Major-General rhymes "strategy" with "sat a gee" (as in "rode a horse") which is more embarrassing than funny. On the other hand, there is another kind of rhyming joke which does work:

GEN.: Frederic here! Oh, joy! Oh, rapture!
Summon your men and effect their capture!
MABEL: Frederic, save us!
FRED.: Beautiful Mabel,
I would if I could, but I am not able.
[Pirates Act II, Vol. I, p. 168]
What works here, provided it is well sung, is the contrast between the music and the flat banality of the rhyme.

Gilbert's other standby is mere verbosity. In The Mikado, Pooh-Bah is asked to justify the imaginative length of his fudging of the execution targets. To which he replies:
Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
[Mikado, Act II, Vol. II, p. 56]
Which is clever (and often quoted), but there are too many versions of the verbosity joke which are nowhere near as good as this.

Several of the works have a very specific contemporary target. In Patience it is the aesthetic movement:
A most intense young man,
A soulful-eyed young man,
An ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical,
Out-of-the-way young man.
[Patience, Act II, Vol. 1, p. 221]
Though this is a cleverly constructed song, it seems to most people that Gilbert is too bourgeois and conservative to get much below the surface of the "arty type" or, for that matter, of the feminists satirized in Princess Ida. On the other hand, I think the parody of Kantian ethical philosophy in Pirates (sub-title: A Slave of Duty) is subtle and handled with a light touch. This is a subject satirised by others, including Friedrich Schiller and Mark Twain, but I doubt most people attending a performance of Pirates even spot this dimension; the opera makes sense without it.

The fun is often at its most sophisticated on the subject of contemporary British politics. There are references everywhere, labelled with varying degrees of obviousness. The civilian First Lord of the Admiralty in Pinafore (whose only experience of a ship was a partnership) is so obviously based on W. H. Smith, despite strenuous denials and some efforts at disguise, that Disraeli took to referring to his minister as "Pinafore". But it is in Iolanthe, with its choruses of peers and fairies, that he most clearly addresses the working of political institutions. Of course, there is a swipe at the pompous posturings of the House of Lords:
When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As every child can tell.
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well.
[Iolanthe, Act II, vol. I, p. 267]
But he gives more contemporary sentiments to Private Willis, on sentry duty outside the Palace of Westminster, including a statement that political opinions are far more to do with family circumstances than with rational argument. It has been quoted in innumerable textbooks and exams on British politics:
I often think it's comical - Fal, lal, la!
How nature always does contrive - Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
Thatís born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.
[Iolanthe, Act II, Vol. I, p. 264]
where "Conservative" is, naturally, made to rhyme with the other ive endings. Private Willis gives his attention to the party system:
When in that house M.P.s divide,
If they've a brain and cerebellum, too,
They've got to leave that brain outside
And vote just like their leaders tell'em to.
[ibid.]
But it's not as if he is looking back to a golden age of genuine debate let alone forward to a radical, freethinking assembly:
But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull M.P.s in close proximity
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.
[ibid.]
When Gilbert considers the House of Lords, he sounds like a liberal, but when he considers democracy he sounds like a sceptical old Tory. In short, he's a middle-of-the-road liberal-conservative of the "It's all bollocks, mate" school of populism to be found in his own day, they said, on the Clapham omnibus and in our day on the Calais booze-cruise. I may be biased, but I find him at his wittiest when expressing conservative sentiments - many of which seem as apposite today as they did when he wrote them. Koko's "little list" of those who would never be missed in The Mikado includes,
. . . the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
[The Mikado, Act I, Vol. II, p. 14]
And everything you need to know about democracy and grade inflation is contained in the Grand Inquisitors song in The Gondoliers:
Prime Ministers and such as they
Grew like asparagus in May,
And Dukes were three a penny.
On every side Field-Marshals gleamed,
Small beer were Lords-Lieutenant deemed,
With Admirals the ocean teemed . . .
In short, whoever you may be,
To this conclusion you'll agree,
When everyone is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!
Gilbert is a satirist, but in a very conservative and English tradition. To understand what that means one has to consider the idea of satire itself: more or less the same concept - and with a similar name, taken from the Latin satura - exists in virtually every language. Satire is a complex idea, but it involves de-bunking a target using the weapons of parody, irony and absurdity. I think the key element here is absurdity and I would argue that it is the spirit in which absurdity is approached which determines what your ironies and your parodies mean. It is typically satirical, for example, to portray those in power as absurd, as being pompous, egotistical, hypocritical and as espousing principles which no one could rationally hold to. But having made these observations one can do at least three different things: i) proceed with urgent plans to reform the situation, ii) despair and iii) enjoy the absurdity while remaining aware of it. We might call these radical satire, bleak satire and cheerfully conservative satire.

The latter tradition is, if not peculiarly English, then at its strongest in England. To take an extreme example, you couldn't have cheerfully conservative satire in Communist Czechoslovakia: all theatre was radically satirical - not just Havel, but also classical theatre including Shakespeare was thought of as demonstrating the unacceptable absurdity of the existing regime. In terms of time I think the English tradition is Victorian and post-Victorian. In some respects, Swift seems a forerunner of Gilbert. If Swift had not invented the Lilliputian court or the idea of a war between those who cut their eggs at the big end and those who do it at the little end, then Gilbert might have done so. But there is both bitterness and prescription in Swift - and Gilbert would never have gone near the Modest Proposal that the Irish learn to eat their babies.

P. G. Wodehouse and Richmal Crompton are both in the Gilbertian tradition. Their worlds are full of people as pompous and incompetent as the Lord High Executioner, the Modern Major-General etc. But I think that the supreme inheritors of the tradition are the Mont Python team. Like Gilbert they dish it out to People's Revolutionary Fronts as to Upper Class Twits. WSG would not have written the "Lumberjack's Song" because he was fairly prudish and had a particular abhorrence of cross-dressing. Nor would he have had a crucified man singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" because of the religious susceptibilities of his period. But they are both in the Gilbertian spirit with some inhibitions removed; given Gilbert's gallows humour, especially in The Mikado, "Bright side" seems right up his street.

In none of these cases does satire mean real bitterness or protest, though you could construe the message in that way. The Soviet Union published the Jeeves stories as an indictment of the British rentier class. The Lumberjack's Song can be construed as an attack on the concepts of masculinity inherent in frontier culture. But neither of them are these things.

Which is why, I think, you find the odd radical, Scotsman and so on who loathes Gilbert and Sullivan. I submit that they are also likely to loathe Wodehouse and the Last Night of the Proms (but not likely to see the Monty Python connection). Their fury occurs because the cheerful acceptance of life's absurdities is a form of the conservative spirit which they have never learned to counter.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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