The two Gilbert and Sullivan stars illustrated here are F. Federici (1850-88) as the Mikado and Ellen Terry as Iolanthe. Source: the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library digital collections, nos. TH-36019 and TH-23291. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]
Anyone whose research interests include Gilbert and Sullivan will immediately recognize the author of this new book as the compiler and editor of the monumental Annotated Gilbert and Sullivanx (originally in two volumes, 1982–4, but now available in a revised single volume published by Oxford University Press, 1996). Ian Bradley here sets out to discover why Gilbert and Sullivan have survived longer than many expected and, in answering this question, he presents us with a book that is quite distinct from all others on the famous pair. The focus is not on the nineteenth century, but on the present and the recent past, and he begins by discussing the British and American reception of Gilbert and Sullivan in the second half of the twentieth century. His intention is to understand why these comic operas have remained with us, despite their many detractors. The assumption that their appeal has been in decline is challenged; in fact, Bradley, backed by convincing evidence, argues that their position today may be stronger than ever.
A claim is made for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas being 'the principal begetters' of the stage musical. I wonder if this is overstating the case. Musical comedy, such as Sidney Jones's The Geisha, was not without its influence. I would not want, either, to underplay the American and British reception of operetta from Paris and Vienna. Bradley mentions that a significant innovation in Gilbert and Sullivan was the prominent role given to the chorus, but that is rarely a feature of musicals. Nevertheless, I would not want to give the impression that he fails to marshal evidence for his claim, and some readers may be more persuaded than I am. A good case is made for the influence of Gilbert's lyrics, and this is attested to in comments from Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Tim Rice (among others).
Bradley moves on to show that quotations from Gilbert permeate our social life, and he selects examples from newspapers, books, TV dramas, and films. Yet, he notes that in the UK Gilbert and Sullivan are "not quite kosher" (17), citing the Arts Council's refusal to support either the old or the new D'Oyly Carte companies, and the absence of Gilbert and Sullivan from the repertory of the National Theatre — an institution that has not felt uncomfortable in staging Guys and Dolls. Bradley puts his finger on the problem by remarking that the operas fall between two stools, possessing neither high cultural status nor proletarian credentials. That, it should be stressed, is in the UK. The idea that liking Gilbert and Sullivan is a bit embarrassing is uncommon in the USA. I remember being asked by a puzzled American production company if it was true that people had a condescending attitude to Gilbert and Sullivan in the UK. This attitude was certainly evident when Mike Leigh was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about his film Topsy-Turvy. He was asked directly: "Most people think they're [Gilbert and Sullivan] pretty ghastly, don't they?" There are those who imagine you have to be soaked in nostalgia for Victorian bourgeois comforts and the days of Empire to love Gilbert and Sullivan, but that is not so. Indeed, the revolutionary socialist campaigner Paul Foot openly admitted his enthusiasm for their operas.
Bradley points out, in confronting criticisms made by David Cannadine (in Roy Porter (ed.), Myths of the English (1992), that the "patriotic strain" in Gilbert and Sullivan is not without its ambiguity. Cannadine, like some other critics, appears to take songs such as "He Is an Englishman" as serious patriotic displays. Yet, surely the words "In spite of all temptations to belong to other nations" show that Gilbert is making a subtle point about our inability to choose our place of birth. Moreover, does not Sullivan's choice of an extended melisma (a device he uses rarely) for the word "Englishman" suggest parody? The question is: how do we spot ironic humour? Why does Harvard's Gilbert and Sullivan society recommend "God Save the Queen" as an audition piece for potential members, and why does the Savoy Company of Philadelphia insist that the audience join in the British national anthem before performances? Most people will detect ironic humour at work there, but how many discover a similar humour in "When Britain Really Ruled the Waves" (Iolanthe) rather than, as others would have it, nostalgic chauvinism?
Bradley's book is written with such good humour that one hesitates to carp, but I have to say I remain unconvinced by some of the remarks made in the "male insects" chapter, and wonder if he is always alert to an ironic tone. Gilbert can almost always be taken at face value, but that is a general problem with irony. How do you really know when someone is saying one thing, yet meaning another? Bakhtin devoted much theoretical attention to places in literature where a representing discourse is at odds with the intentions of a represented discourse (Discourse in the Novel, 1935), but failed to describe an easy way of discerning this clash between what a character says and what an author intends. Bradley accuses Gilbert of being a misogynist, and declares, "some of the most moving and memorable passages in his dialogue are on the theme of male bonding" (96). He gives, as a "supreme example," a scene from Iolanthe between Lords Tolloller and Mountararat. But let us look at part of that scene. Tolloller has just informed his friend that, because of a family tradition, he will be compelled to fight him to the death if he robs him of the girl he loves:
TOLLOLLER: You are very dear to me, George. We were boys together — at least I was. If I were to survive you, my existence would be hopelessly embittered.
MOUNTARARAT: Then, my dear Thomas, you must not do it. I say it again and again — if it will have this effect upon you, you must not do it. No, no. If one of us is to destroy the other, let it be me! [Iolanthe, Act II]
I'm not sure that this is a moving example of male bonding—though it is certainly memorable. I'm not sure, either, that Gilbert's male characters are "much more appealing, interesting, and attractive figures than the women" (97). He quotes Susannah Herbert on the "tragic" qualities of Gilbert's spinsters. However, to me, they appear defiant, rebellious, witty, and subversive — and if that seems too much of a male opinion, read Jane W. Stedman on this subject (W. S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theatre (Oxford, 1996)). For me, the misfits, male and female, are the great Gilbert and Sullivan characters: Ko-Ko and Katisha in Mikado, Bunthorne and Jane in Patience. I also believe too much can be made about Gilbert's being a man's man: he once told a friend that his wife was "his centre of every bit of happiness he had, his only peace, his only safety, his guardian angel, the only person he trusted unchangingly" (see Stedman, op. cit. 51, and Michael Ainger, Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography (New York, 2002, 70).
Bradley summarizes the remarkable story of the D'Oyly Carte Company's control over performances until copyright expired in 1961. Has there been any other body of stage works, I wonder, in which the original director's instructions (that is, Gilbert's) have been copyrighted for so long? Bradley counters the common supposition that it was downhill for D'Oyly Carte from 1961 on, by praising their recordings and citing their acclaimed revival of Utopia Limited. Yet, their standards of production were in decline in the 1970s, though this was caused in large measure by financial problems. To its shame, the Arts Council denied the company help, and it folded in 1982, after 107 years in existence. A new company was founded following Bridget D'Oyly Carte's death, thanks to a legacy she left for that purpose, supplemented by money raised by the Friends of D'Oyly Carte, and a grant from Michael Bishop of British Airways. In the eyes of traditionalists, the new company had too much in the way of gaudiness, gimmickry, and sales talk. These enterprising features did not prevent its demise, however, and Bradley puts that down to its being a victim of cultural snobbery — adding that this is why the UK will never have an equivalent of the Vienna Volksoper.
A whole chapter is given over to an examination of striking productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, conventional and unconventional, in Australasia, Continental Europe, the UK, and the USA, since 1961. As may be expected, Joseph Papp's Pirates (1980) and Jonathan Miller's Mikado (1986) receive their due, but we also read of a bizarre Swiss version of the latter set in a London brothel. Lest it be thought that Gilbert and Sullivan stalwarts automatically dismiss radical reworkings, there is an account of the warm reception given to the antics of Opera della Luna in the sacred Gilbert and Sullivan heartland of Buxton during the Festival of 2003. Yet, there has always been a place for tradition, and criticism of Gilbert and Sullivan productions as stuffy, old-fashioned, and unchallenging has often been nothing more than the consequence of an inability to appreciate subtlety. What Gilbert and Sullivan needed, in the minds of some critics (and fulfilled in many post-1961 'modern' productions), were interpretations that were up to date and daring. In practice, this frequently meant something along the lines of the Carry On films. Thus, what was actually happening was merely a reversion to types of obvious humour that Gilbert had reacted against in the first place, when he distanced his work from the crudities of mid-Victorian extravaganza and burlesque. Bradley might have been prompted to interesting additional thoughts if he had looked at these old versus new interpretations alongside William Cox-Ife's suggestion that what was actually at issue was "the Present-Day Producer versus Gilbert (the Producer)." In his book W. S. Gilbert: Stage Director (London, 1977, 93–103), Cox-Ife provides an interesting discussion of Gilbert's directions and blocking out, comparing it with later productions.
In a chapter on Gilbert and Sullivan fans, Bradley comments on the extraordinary numbers of male fans and the male domination of Gilbert and Sullivan societies. It is surprising, however, a couple of pages later, to read that women are having to sing male roles in some societies "because of the shortage of men" (97). One explanation for this paradoxical situation is that men tend to be passive fans rather than active performers. Bradley's analysis of Gilbert and Sullivan addicts may, at times, raise eyebrows, especially when he makes links between them and obsessive personalities. The emphasis on masculinity in Gilbert and Sullivan opens up the operas to gay and queer readings, too. Bradley even asks if there's "something intrinsically gay" in Gilbert and Sullivan. He also discusses the attraction of Gilbert and Sullivan to the professions of dentistry, accountancy, law, and the clergy (we should perhaps note that the author is a theologian and minister of the Church of Scotland). In the UK, Gilbert and Sullivan has appealed to the Christian community (especially Methodists), whereas in the USA there are substantial numbers of Jewish admirers (resulting in synagogue-based productions and Yiddish versions).
A chapter is dedicated to amateur performances in the UK, USA, Australia, and elsewhere. There is also a wealth of fascinating information on performances in schools and universities (revealing a healthy state of affairs in the latter). Andrea Atherton, head of music and drama at St Mary's Catholic High School, Astley, near Manchester, counters the idea that Gilbert and Sullivan exist in a Victorian time warp by arguing that they anticipate twentieth-century absurdist theatre (148). There is an entertaining chapter on Gilbert and Sullivan parodies, which informs us, to no great surprise, that the two most parodied songs are Ko-Ko's "little list" song from Mikado and the Major-General's song from Pirates. Another chapter provides a useful guide to research, with its brief summaries of archives, literature, and recent editions of scores. Yet this is to aid the more usual kind of Gilbert and Sullivan research, whereas little previous research has been undertaken of the kind with which we are presented here. This delightful and informative book could only have come from someone with a vast inside knowledge of the subject. It was clearly written as a labour of love, and Ian Bradley's enthusiasm is evident on every page. It is sure to prove compulsive reading for any admirer of Gilbert and Sullivan — oh joy, indeed!
Bradley, Ian. Oh Joy! Oh Rapture! The Enduring Phenomenon of Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford University Press: New York and Oxford, 2005. pp. xii + 220. £18.50. ISBN 0-19-516700-7).
Last modified 15 March 2017