The Gondoliers

by W. S. Gilbert

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First produced: 1889

First published: 1889

Type of work: Comic opera

Type of plot: Humorous romance

Time of work: 1750

Locale: Venice and Barataria

Principal Characters:

The Duke of Plaza-Toro, a Grandee of Spain

The Duchess of Plaza-Toro, his wife

Casilda, their daughter

Luiz, the duke's attendant

Inez, an old nurse

Don Alhambra Del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor

Marco Palmieri, and

Giuseppe Palmieri, gondoliers

Gianetta, and

Tessa, flower girls


Another of the favorite comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan is THE GONDOLIERS, OR, THE KING OF BARATARIA. Unlike most of their works, which were set in England and which poked gentle fun at Victorian customs and institutions, THE GONDOLIERS has an Italian background. But the tone is the same, light and humorous throughout. It was the last truly successful operetta on which Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated before the famous break in their personal and business relationship.

The Story:

Twenty-four lovely maidens were in love with two gondoliers of Venice. In order to be fair, the two young gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri, had themselves blindfolded and then each caught a girl. The lucky ones were Gianetta and Tessa, and the two couples went off to be married.

A short time later the Duke of Plaza-Toro, a Grandee of Spain, arrived with his duchess and his daughter Casilda. They were accompanied by the duke's attendant, Luiz. The duke had come to Venice penniless, to pay his respects to the Grand Inquisitor and to learn the whereabouts of Casilda's husband. For much to that young lady's surprise, her father told her now that she had been married when a baby to the son of the King of Barataria. The king had become a bigoted Wesleyan Methodist and the Grand Inquisitor, to punish the turncoat king, had spirited his baby son away to Venice. Now the king was dead, killed in an uprising of his people, and the son, Casilda's husband, was entitled to the throne.

Casilda heard the news with mixed emotions. She would like to be queen but, unknown to the duke and duchess, she and the attendant Luiz were lovers. Luiz knew something of the story which had so surprised Casilda, for his mother, Inez, had been the baby prince's nurse. But Luiz could not persuade Casilda to renounce the marriage; the prospect of being a queen was stronger than love. But when the Grand Inquisitor received the duke and his wife and daughter, he had confusing news. He had given the baby to a worthy gondolier, to be reared with that man's own son. The gondolier had died from drink and gout, and the children, also gondoliers, could not be told one from another. However, the nurse to whom the young prince had been entrusted still lived. She would be sent for in the hope that she could identify the rightful king. Should she have difficulty making a decision, she would be tortured until she chose the right one.

The Grand Inquisitor thought the problem was almost solved. Coming upon Marco and Giuseppe and their new brides, he announced that one of them was the King of Barataria. Since he was not sure of the rightful king, a matter which could not be determined before the nurse arrived and settled the point, they must both go to Barataria and rule as one.

Marco and Giuseppe hated a monarchy and loved a republic, but when they found that they, as one, were kings, they suddenly loved a monarchy as well. Under their rule everyone would be equal, and...

(This entire section contains 1546 words.)

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their fellow gondoliers would be given important positions so that no one would serve another. The only drawback was that they must leave their new wives for three months, until the nurse could arrive and make her decision. The Grand Inquisitor did not disclose the fact that one of them already had another wife, the bride of his infancy. Gianetta and Tessa sadly bade their husbands goodbye, each one seeing herself a queen in three short months. The two kings sailed away for Barataria.

Three months went by. The government of the new rulers was indeed strange. The kings lived in the attic and did all the work while the gondoliers, now officers of state, reaped all the advantages reserved formerly for the monarch. Since the two men were one king, they were given only enough food for one man until their subjects relented and gave them a double portion. But the new rulers were pleased with their republican monarchy and thought it only right that they should serve their subjects for the privilege of being king.

Missing female company, the kings thought often of their wives. They were happily surprised, therefore, when Gianetta and Tessa and the other girls arrived in Barataria before they had been sent for. The two wives wanted to know instantly who was queen, but since the nurse had not yet appeared no decision could be made.

When the Grand Inquisitor found the two wives established in Barataria, he was forced to tell Marco and Giuseppe that one of them was a bigamist. He explained about the infant marriage and told them that the duke, the duchess, and Casilda, the real queen, were even then in Barataria. Inez, the nurse, had also arrived and was in the torture chamber, about to make her decision and name the rightful king.

When Casilda saw the two gondoliers, really one king, she told them that she would be a dutiful wife to whomever she married. She could never love either of them, however, for she loved another. The duke, disturbed by the lack of discipline and formality around the castle, tried to train the kings to be more courtly. They tried, but they were after all just simple gondoliers and could do nothing in a regal way.

At last the Grand Inquisitor brought forth Inez, the nurse who would identify the rightful king. When asked who he was, Marco or Giuseppe, she confessed that he was neither. When the lads were small, traitors had come to steal the prince away and she had substituted her own son. The real king was Luiz, the attendant loved by Casilda. So everyone was happy. Casilda was both a queen and the wife of the man she loved. The gondoliers were restored to their profession, one they much preferred to the responsibilities of royalty. Singing lustily, they departed, leaving the republican monarchy in the capable hands of King Luiz and Queen Casilda.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

William S. Gilbert wisely set the story of THE GONDOLIERS in Italy rather than in England, so that he would have ample scope to satirize a topic otherwise unapproachable even for his genial talents: the institution of monarchy. However uncomfortable certain liberal spirits like Gilbert might have been with Queen Victoria, he could scarcely criticize upon the stage either her person or her prosperous reign; his was an audience which delighted, rather, in reading mischievous accounts about the vulgarity of American democracy, for which English travelers such as Mrs. Trollope gratified the public taste. But at the same time, Gilbert had to avoid offending American feelings, for his works were also popular in the United States. Consequently, he established his monarchy in the never-never land of Barataria and selected Venetians for his republican protagonists

Marco and Giuseppe, Gilbert's two would-be kings, are simple gondoliers who have been reared to respect liberty; they cannot understand the pomp and pretentions of courtly life, and they cherish their freedom. At the Court of Barataria, garbed in their kingly robes, they clean their own crowns and scepters, while around them their servants and ministers-of-state fuss over games of chance and petty gossip. Unlike the drones at court, they work (as they explain in the brisk duet "Rising Early in the Morning") only for the good of their subjects. Obviously, such egalitarian kings are unsuited to the monarchy. And with relief they learn that they are not kings, after all, but lowly gondoliers as before. Thus, with unobtrustive satire, Gilbert makes his point: the truly free are those who owe allegiance neither to king nor to the claims of ceremony.

Yet Gilbert is not so liberal that he neglects to expose, as well, the follies of republican government. Complete democracy, he shows, not only levels the privileges of caste but also suppresses the talents of great people to the condition of mediocrity. In Don Alhambra's patter song "There Lived a King," the author argues that the elite class should not, simply for the sake of a sentimental gesture, share power or wealth with the masses. The generous king who "wished all men rich as he," advanced everyone "to the top of the tree." But the result of his generosity—when "Chancellors were cheap as sprats / And Bishops . . . were plentiful as tabby cats"—was a bland communism in which all classes were reduced to the same state of meanness. Gilbert's message, quite as pleasing to the aristocracy as his satire on the monarchy must have been to socialists, is that so long as the ruling class ceases to care "for cloth of gold," up will go "the price of shoddy." So Gilbert hedges his bets, offends neither class, but amuses his whole audience—which objective, after all, is his intention.