Respectful Perversion

John Pemble

  • BuyGilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody by Carolyn Williams
    Columbia, 454 pp, £24.00, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 231 14804 7

Something remarkable happened one night in 1920, during a performance of Iolanthe at the Prince’s Theatre. After the chorus had sung

To say she is his mother is an utter bit of folly!
Oh, fie! Our Strephon is a rogue!
Perhaps his brain is addled, and it’s very melancholy!
Taradiddle, taradiddle, tol lol lay!

the man sitting next to Maurice Baring turned to him and said: ‘That’s what I call poetry!’ He then predicted that the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan would be the most enduring achievement of the Victorian age. The incident is remarkable because the man was Lytton Strachey and he wasn’t joking. No Bloomsbury raspberry here. The famous debunker of eminent Victorians was handing out a bouquet to the most eminently Victorian of them all. He’d been hooked ever since he’d first seen Iolanthe in 1907. ‘It’s impossible to believe that a lord chancellor in love with a fairy can be anything but ridiculous,’ he told Leonard Woolf; ‘but one goes, and when the moment comes, it’s simply great … I should like to go every night, for the comedy and wit is as enthralling as the tragedy.’

Strachey wasn’t far wrong, either. What even Victorians regarded as Victoriana at its most ephemeral has outlived the Crystal Palace, the British Empire and Punch. No sooner is it diagnosed as terminal than it rallies and thrives. For half a century after Gilbert’s death in 1911, the operas were kept in the professional repertoire by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which owned the copyrights, and in the amateur repertoire chiefly by boys’ schools and universities, where they were favoured as a surrogate sport for the unathletic. D’Oyly Carte functioned at the margins of the cultural establishment as unofficial trustee of part of the national heritage, cherishing Gilbert and Sullivan like a precious heirloom. Everybody might look, but no one must touch. Performances were always and everywhere as predictable as church services. D’Oyly Carte replicated the original productions, and the amateurs were required to replicate D’Oyly Carte. Scenery, costumes and stage business were all strictly regulated, changes to words or music forbidden. The copyrights were due to expire in 1961, and a campaign was fought to extend them. The campaign failed, and the highbrows rubbed their hands and moved in for the kill as their old middlebrow bête noire found itself middle-aged and broke. Harold Wilson and Spike Milligan joined forces to save it, but the D’Oyly Carte Company sank in 1982, scuppered by the Arts Council. The hope and expectation clearly was that the whole show would vanish with it. HMS Pinafore would go down with the last of the Savoyards on deck, singing ‘For he is an Englishman!’

Thirty years on, HMS Pinafore is still afloat. Refitted and relaunched by directors like Joseph Papp, Jonathan Miller, Ken Russell and Mark Savage as post-copyright, post-D’Oyly Carte G&S, not only Pinafore, but The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and Princess Ida too have been successfully revived on both sides of the Atlantic. Showbusiness professionals now admire Savoy opera as a prototype of the Broadway musical; and Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s subtle and selective take on the collaboration/conflict between Gilbert and Sullivan, made a box-office hit out of a period soap opera. Still in the repertoire, G&S is now in the academic canon too, and there’s a lot less talk about culture for the culturally retarded or opera for the musically illiterate.

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