Alone among the comic versifiers of his age— Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, C. S. Calverley, Richard Barham, and others—W. S. Gilbert succeeded in converting comic verse to comic song, thereby transcending whimsy. For this, he certainly owes much to Sullivan. Yet in how many operas, comic or grand, does the work of the lyricist or librettist count for much? Gilbert has earned classic status not because he is timeless and universal, but because even after a century, he can impose a Victorian sensibility on his audience.
Gilbert has occasionally been called “the English Aristophanes”; however extravagant that designation, it may serve as a useful point of departure. Assuredly Aristophanic is Gilbert’s capacity to create in his plays worlds in which recognizable institutions—the legal system, the military, the rigid caste system of Victorian society—are transformed into absurdities. In Trial by Jury, the legal wrangling between the counsels of the jilted Angelina and the flirtatious defendant are resolved by the judgment of the judge—to marry Angelina himself. In The Pirates of Penzance, a pirate must first serve an apprenticeship, as though he were an artisan or skilled mechanic; furthermore, the pirate gang is pardoned of all their offenses because “they are all noblemen who have gone wrong.” Also Aristophanic, though functioning in a different way, to be sure, are Gilbert’s choruses—the sisters, cousins, and aunts of Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore, the giggling schoolgirls of The Mikado, or the professional bridesmaids in Ruddigore—which serve to accentuate the ludicrousness of the situations.
The essential distinction, however, between the absurdities of Aristophanes and those of Gilbert is that for the Greek dramatist, the source of the comedy lay in some social or political aberration that he meant to expose, if not to correct. For Gilbert, on the other hand, though his plays are not devoid of social or political implications, the source of the comedy lies in the pursuit of some intellectual crotchet or paradox to its ultimate conclusion. The topsy-turviness of Gilbert’s plays originates in legalisms and logic-chopping. As a slave of duty, Frederic, the hero of The Pirates of Penzance, feels that he cannot betray his pirate comrades, loathsome though their trade is to him, until he is discharged of his indentures on his twenty-first birthday. Having been born on the last day of February in a leap year, however, he discovers that he is, in terms of birthdays celebrated, only a little boy of five. Similarly, through an ancestral curse, each baronet of Ruddigore must commit a crime daily or perish in unutterable agony. Failure to commit a crime is thus tantamount to committing suicide, which is itself a crime. Not only are the dilemmas of the characters resolved by similar sophistry, but also it appears that the complications have been conceived with no other purpose in mind.
One Gilbert and Sullivan work that does not quite fit this description is Princess Ida. This opera, however, is essentially a reworking of an earlier Gilbert play, The Princess, a “respectful perversion” of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name (1847), that odd composition whose central subject is the education of women. Even here, however, Gilbert treats the topic not as a timely social issue but as an occasion to explore the comic implications of the attempted isolation of one sex from the other. To say that Gilbert’s plays take place in artificial environments hardly accounts for the intense intellectual pressure that has gone into their formation. The clash between the fairies and noblemen in Iolanthe, for example, originates in the play on the words “peri” and “peer.” The officers of the dragoon guards in Patience readily abandon their military garb and their military bearing to become aesthetic poets, because only in that guise can they successfully woo the chorus of rapturous maidens.
Each opera enunciates a topsy-turvy premise, which is then examined. In H.M.S. Pinafore, it is the notion that “love can level ranks”; in Patience, it is that true love is disinterested; and in Iolanthe, it is that a race of immortal and insubstantial beings can exhibit all the characteristics of human beings. All these, it should be noted, are romantic notions derived very largely from literature. Gilbert’s fancies are drawn as well from some of his own early works, particularly his parodies and The Bab Ballads. Very little seems to come from direct observation of life or reflection on personal experience, except for the minutiae, the little personal quirks and foibles that make a caricature. The result is a series of plays often quite rich in references or allusions to contemporary life but as remote from that life as animated cartoons are from the life of animals. The characters and plots have been reduced to formula.
Although some of the variations on them are quite subtle, the character types encountered in Gilbert’s plays are almost as rigid as those in classical New Comedy. In addition to the fresh and innocent heroine and her equally ingenuous hero, there is the fastidious and querulous authoritarian (who usually gets to sing the patter song)—Sir Joseph in H.M.S. Pinafore, Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, King Gama in Princess Ida, Ko-Ko in The Mikado, and the Duke of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers—as well as the elderly, decayed contralto, who is physically repulsive yet longing for affection—Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore, Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance, Lady Jane in Patience, Katisha in The Mikado, Dame Carruthers in The Yeomen of the Guard, and the Duchess in The Gondoliers. The easy classification of roles in these operas makes them particularly attractive to repertory companies.
For all the variety of locales in Gilbert’s works, the most frequent form of action involves what has been called the invasion plot. That is, the territory of a more or less settled group is overrun by another, the situation demanding some kind of compromise, if not retreat. Sir Joseph Porter and his female relations board H.M.S Pinafore; Major-General Stanley’s daughters innocently decide to picnic in the pirates’ lair; the procession of peers invades the Arcadian landscape in act 1 of Iolanthe, only to have the fairies troop in force to Westminster in act 2. There is actual combat between military units in Princess Ida, and in The Mikado, the imperial retinue sweeps into Titipu, demanding of its inhabitants the appearance of conformity to decrees from on high.
This reduction of character and plot to a formula, although it is more commercially palatable (thanks to Sullivan’s music) than the insipid paradoxes of Gilbert’s earlier straight plays, does not initially seem conducive to the generation of enduring art. Yet in at least two ways, it has secured Gilbert’s place in the theater, even if not as a dramaturge. First, it provided a vehicle for some of the most versatile metrical and verbal extravagances in the English language. As a lyricist, Gilbert is unsurpassed in his ability to provide both singable and memorable words not only to arias, ballads, duets, and choruses but also to part-songs of considerable complexity and to patter songs for single and multiple voices. (Patter songs, which sound like tongue twisters sung at top speed, include “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,” from The Pirates of Penzance.) The challenge produced the tuneful and rollicking songs familiar to almost everyone, such as “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady,” from Iolanthe, or “For He Is an Englishman,” from H.M.S. Pinafore. Yet it also produced tender and haunting songs, such as Ko-Ko’s “The Titwillow Song” in The Mikado (which must surely have originated as a parody of Desdemona’s “Willow Song” in William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604) and Jack Point’s “I Have a Song to Sing, O” in The Yeomen of the Guard.
Moreover, it is in these lyrics, rather than in the large themes or preposterous situations of the operas, that Gilbert executes his greatest satiric thrusts. On the whole, like the audience for whom he wrote, Gilbert felt enormously pleased with the general state of things in the world around him and was vexed only by ideas, such as socialism or evolution, that threatened to rend society or by fads, such as aestheticism, that tended to distract it. Yet for all his conservatism, he did not wholly succumb to philistine complacency. In his songs, he frequently targets time-honored objects of satire: the abuse of privilege, the vanity in pride of ancestry, or the posturings of the nouveau riche. At the beginning of the second act of The Mikado, for example, Yum-Yum is adorning herself in preparation for her wedding day. She sings a song ingenuously identifying her with the world of nature, a song whose operation, like that of Alexander Pope’s description of Belinda at the beginning of The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), simultaneously elicits wonder and censure at the fair creature. As in this song, Gilbert’s satire is often ironically self-deprecating, requiring a good deal of attention to be understood.
This demand for attentiveness constitutes Gilbert’s...
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