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Gilbert and Sullivan

Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody

Carolyn Williams
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    Gilbert and Sullivan
    Book Description:

    Long before the satirical comedy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were the hottest send-ups of the day's political and cultural obsessions. Gilbert and Sullivan's productions always rose to the level of social commentary, despite being impertinent, absurd, or inane. Some viewers may take them straight, but what looks like sexism or stereotype was actually a clever strategy of critique. Parody was a powerful weapon in the culture wars of late-nineteenth-century England, and with defiantly in-your-face sophistication, Gilbert and Sullivan proved that popular culture can be intellectually as well as politically challenging.

    Carolyn Williams underscores Gilbert and Sullivan's creative and acute understanding of cultural formations. Her unique perspective shows how anxiety drives the troubled mind in the Lord Chancellor's "Nightmare Song" in Iolanthe and is vividly realized in the sexual and economic phrasing of the song's patter lyrics. The modern body appears automated and performative in the "Junction Song" in Thespis, anticipating Charlie Chaplin's factory worker in Modern Times. Williams also illuminates the use of magic in The Sorcerer, the parody of nautical melodrama in H.M.S. Pinafore, the ridicule of Victorian aesthetic and idyllic poetry in Patience, the autoethnography of The Mikado, the role of gender in Trial by Jury, and the theme of illegitimacy in The Pirates of Penzance. With her provocative reinterpretation of these artists and their work, Williams recasts our understanding of creativity in the late nineteenth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51966-3
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Language & Literature, Sociology, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    Between 1871 and 1896, William Schwenck Gilbert (1836–1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) wrote and composed fourteen important works of musical theater. By the time they staged The Sorcerer (1877), they had developed a novel genre, English comic opera, with the invaluable leadership of Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844–1901), who succeeded in his dream of establishing a school of native English comic opera by bringing Gilbert and Sullivan together and keeping them together, in an almost unbroken contractual relation.¹ The Savoy operas—as they are called, after the theater that Carte built to house them—span the last quarter...

  7. Part I. Genres

    • 1 Outmoding Classical Extravaganza, Englishing Opéra Bouffe: Thespis
      (pp. 33-54)

      Thespis; or, The Gods Grown Old (1871), the first collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, makes it clear that the parodic intertwining of two genre traditions—English extravaganza and French opéra bouffe—was fundamental to the formation of English comic opera. In addition, each of these genre parodies highlights conventions of gender. But at the outset, an act of imagination is necessary to recover a sense of this piece, for the modern text is riddled with omissions. Worse still, Sullivan’s original music has been lost—or perhaps was intentionally destroyed. While these circumstances can explain why Thespis is so rarely discussed...

    • 2 Gender in the Breach: Trial by Jury
      (pp. 55-74)

      Trial by Jury (1875) is a satire on the law in general, but it is also a parody of one specific legal genre: the suit for breach of promise of marriage. The divided Savoy Chorus appears in this opera for the first time—the Chorus of Jurors backing up the Defendant, and the Chorus of Bridesmaids supporting the Plaintiff—as the scaffolding for an argument about gender. This short piece builds its critique of gender and the law on a set of brilliant genre parodies—of the cantata, the minstrel show, the seduction melodrama, the extravaganza transformation scene, and the...

    • 3 English Magic, English Intoxication: The Sorcerer
      (pp. 75-96)

      The “formula” for the novel genre created by Gilbert and Sullivan falls into place with The Sorcerer (1877).¹ Some of the important ingredients can already be tasted in both Thespis and Trial by Jury. But only in The Sorcerer is the recipe set out in the form that would become known as English comic opera, Savoy opera, or simply Gilbert and Sullivan. Before exploring how The Sorcerer identifies itself as quintessentially English, I want to highlight the defining elements of that formula. In light of The Sorcerer’s plot, which features a magical elixir sold by a successful company, we might...

    • 4 “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore”: The Parody of Nautical Melodrama in H.M.S. Pinafore
      (pp. 97-121)

      The early Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations parodically recollect the main theatrical genres of the early nineteenth century. In this sense, the parody of nautical melodrama in H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor (1878) follows logically on the parody of supernatural melodrama in The Sorcerer, for early English melodrama was dominated by these two main subgenres. A popular dramatic revue by James Robinson Planché makes it clear that this assumption was widely shared. When a personification of “Melodrama” is summoned to the stage, by means of a parodic incantation—very much like that in The Sorcerer—two figures...

    • 5 Recollecting Illegitimacy: The Pirates of Penzance
      (pp. 122-148)

      Theatrical piracy forms an important context for understanding The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty (1880). Major-General Stanley’s allusion to H.M.S. Pinafore in his famous patter song is the only overt textual suggestion of that fact, but it is a strong suggestion:

      I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,

      And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

      Breaking the frame with this self-conscious allusion to immediate production history, the Major-General reminds his audience of the enormous popularity accorded to the Savoy opera immediately preceding the one in which he appears....

  8. Part II. Genders

    • 6 New Light on Changing Gender Norms: Patience
      (pp. 151-186)

      Patience; or, Bunthorne’s Bride opened in 1881 and was running successfully at the Opera Comique when construction of the Savoy Theatre reached completion. The splendid new theater, located between the Thames Embankment and the Strand, was purpose-built by Richard D’Oyly Carte to house the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, afterward known as the Savoy operas. Moved to the glorious new theater, Patience thereby became, strictly speaking, the first “Savoy” opera.¹

      The interior of the Savoy was comfortably grand. More important, Carte introduced several innovations in theater management, all designed to appeal to an upscale audience. Programs were furnished, and...

    • 7 Transforming the Fairy Genres: Women on Top in Iolanthe
      (pp. 187-221)

      Like Patience, both Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri (1882) and Princess Ida play with changing gender norms and roles. While Patience raises the issue of the effeminate man, Iolanthe and Princess Ida turn their special attention to the masculine, or “strong-minded,” woman.

      The separation of the Chorus into Peers and Peris employs that formal device more wittily than ever before. On one level, this division stresses the opposition between the mortal and supernatural realms; on another level, the opposition is more specific, the argument more pointedly about gender. At this point in the collaboration, we would expect the...

    • 8 War Between the Sexes: Princess Ida
      (pp. 222-252)

      Like Iolanthe, Princess Ida; or, Castle Adamant (1884) raises the question of female equality, although it does so in quite a different tone and to quite a different purpose. The scene is set in a fairy-tale microcosm, distanced in time and place from the real world, a “medieval” realm of royal families, castles, and tournaments. In Iolanthe, Fairies and humans, women and men figuratively inhabit separate cultures and have their different powers, governments, and systems of law. Asking what “comes of women interfering in politics,” Iolanthe delivers a proto-feminist answer. Extending Iolanthe’s implication that women and men inhabit different worlds,...

    • PLATES
      (pp. None)
  9. Part III. Cultures

    • 9 Estrangement and Familiarity: The Mikado
      (pp. 255-273)

      The plots of Iolanthe and Princess Ida use gender to represent graphic cultural difference; masculine and feminine realms are radically distinct, each operating under its own system of law. This consideration of the separate spheres, as if they were actually separate cultures, was not entirely new, for it was prefigured in Trial by Jury and H.M.S. Pinafore, when the female Choruses of Bridesmaids and of Female Relatives sweep into the male precincts of courtroom and ship. But the examination of gender in Iolanthe and Princess Ida does point directly toward the late Savoy operas, most of which focus on culture...

    • 10 Mixing It Up: Gothic and Nautical Melodrama in Ruddigore
      (pp. 274-293)

      Brilliant in its conception, Ruddigore; or, The Witch’s Curse (1887) is nevertheless flawed, as many critics over the years have pointed out. In no other Savoy opera is the genre parody so overt, however, and thus for my argument, Ruddigore is very important. It offers a parody of melodrama in general, as Earl Bargainnier points out—stage directions frequently call for things to be done “Melodramatically”—but it also attends to several specific subgenres, parodying supernatural melodrama, village or seduction melodrama, and nautical melodrama, by turns.¹ This strategy is one foundation of the opera’s humor, which revels in the great...

    • 11 The Past Is a Foreign Country: The Yeomen of the Guard
      (pp. 294-311)

      The Yeomen of the Guard; or, The Merryman and His Maid (1888) is anomalous in several important respects. First, it is serious, but humor plays its part. Although farfetched, its plot adheres to standards of human probability, as Gilbert and, especially, Sullivan understood that concern. Because of his objections to the “lozenge plot,” Sullivan was relieved—on Christmas Day of 1887—to hear the story of the new piece. In his diary, the composer wrote that he was “immensely pleased with it. Pretty story, no topsy-turvydom, very human and funny also.”¹ As Isaac Goldberg points out, sympathizing with Sullivan’s point...

    • 12 Imaginary Republicanism: The Gondoliers
      (pp. 312-324)

      The action of The Gondoliers; or, The King of Barataria (1889) takes place in two picturesque, imaginary locations, both like and unlike England. For Victorians who would recall John Ruskin’s assertion that the Doge’s Palace is “the central building of the world,”¹ Venice, the setting of act 1, was a sublime city of the imagination, a near-mythical repository of great art and architecture, a symbol of the Venetian Gothic poised at its moment of perfection. (According to Ruskin, Venice provided a warning to England, too; in his opening comparison of Venice with Tyre, he adumbrates the “Fall” that might await...

    • 13 Capitalism and Colonialism: Utopia, Limited
      (pp. 325-343)

      Utopia, Limited; or, The Flowers of Progress (1893), an anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist comic opera, takes aim at the English attitudes involved in imperial domination and makes the explicit argument that an alliance of capitalism and bureaucracy is the driving force behind empire. The opera stages a parodic version of the colonial encounter, when a tiny South Sea island nation, humorously named Utopia, actively courts its own cultural colonization. The Utopians invite a delegation of English bureaucrats, the Flowers of Progress, to instruct them in English dress, behavior, and forms of social organization. Thus Utopia, Limited opens with the flagrantly absurd reversal...

    • 14 Continental Recollections: The Grand Duke
      (pp. 344-364)

      The Grand Duke; or, The Statutory Duel (1896) returns to the metatheatrical framework of Thespis, and thus the sequence of Savoy operas comes full circle, ending with another topsy-turvy takeover by a theatrical company. We can detect a certain humorous deflation over time, for in 1896, the acting troupe is no longer led by a mythic figure, the titular spirit of drama, but by Ernest Dummkopf (earnest stupid-head), while the sphere of action comes down from the heights of Mount Olympus to a small middle European duchy. As in Thespis, however, the members of the company struggle incessantly among themselves;...

  10. After Gilbert and Sullivan: The Momentum of Parody
    (pp. 365-370)

    The collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan ended after 1896, when the last Savoy Opera, The Grand Duke, had an unsuccessful run. By then, both a genre and a tradition had been firmly established. Following performance traditions set by Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company attempted to maintain strict control of the performance style, disallowing departures of any kind. As we have seen, American and provincial English touring companies were better off when they could offer a stable and recognizable product with very high production values.

    After the deaths of Arthur Sullivan and Richard D’Oyly Carte (in 1900...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 371-422)
  12. Index
    (pp. 423-454)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 455-458)