Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre and Parody by Carolyn Williams

When life gets dreary, there’s always Gilbert and Sullivan. This British duo’s creative track record is almost as impressive as that of the Beatles, who took over the world in similar fashion three-quarters of a century later. They left us three wildly popular masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and a giant body of lesser-known excellent work that somehow never drops too low in quality (though it does drop, sometimes, in accessibility).

Accessibility is often an issue with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, which were written wholly with contemporary interests and sensibilities in mind. As with Shakespeare or James Joyce (also from the British isles, interestingly), when you enjoy a Gilbert and Sullivan work you can’t ever feel confident that you’re getting more than half the jokes. Both Gilbert’s lyrics and Sullivan’s melodies contain intricate layers of ironic reference to the hot topics of their day. Even though you can appreciate Pirates or Mikado just for the bouncy tunes and funny plots, you can appreciate them a lot more if you put some effort into decoding their cultural context.

That’s exactly what Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre and Parody by Carolyn Williams is designed to help you do, and these insights are organized with a particular focus in mind. The book is part of Columbia University’s “Gender and Culture Series”, and analyzes the operas in three sections: the early ones in terms of genre, the middle period in terms of gender, and the late work in terms of ethnicity and cultural identity.

The time/topic structure feels a bit arbitrary, but the author has so much material to share that it barely matters; one imagines that Carolyn Williams could go on to write a second book that rotates the arrangement in round-robin nature, and then a third. I would happily read all three. Williams knows what we already think we know about Gilbert and Sullivan, and she skillfully deconstructs our preconceptions with precision and gusto.

In the first section on genre, Williams explains that Pinafore, Pirates and Iolanthe were rooted in two dramatic memes well-known to audiences of the time, the nautical melodrama and the extravaganza. This fact would have been plainly obvious to anyone who attended their shows, but many of the connections are obscure today. She shows how Gilbert’s authoritative use of parody allowed him to delve into these blatantly audience-pleasing genres without apology. For instance, HMS Pinafore was written as a parody of the nautical melodrama, which always involved a conflict between a commanding officer and a “Jolly Jack Tar”. But parody can be a great preservative: Pinafore now stands as one of the only instances of this genre (along with Mutiny on the Bounty and Billy Budd) to survive into the canon.

Carolyn Williams is particularly good on Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most literary opera, which was as packed with insider-ish gossip and snark as any Twitter feed today. It’s widely known that the character of Bunthorne is based on Oscar Wilde, but Williams turns this on its head and makes the case that Oscar Wilde, at the time a young literary upstart whose great works were yet to be written, actually based his famous persona on the character of Bunthorne! She also helps us understand how Bunthorne and Grosvenor (the two dueling poets in Patience) were meant to represent entirely different literary fads of the time: Bunthorne was a leader in the Aesthetic movement, Grosvenor the Idyllic movement (a la Alfred Lord Tennyson).

The book treats lesser known works like Thespis as equal to the big hits, and I probably won’t be the only reader who skips the chapters relating to shows like Yeoman of the Guard. But I’ll keep the book around, and if I ever get a chance to catch Thespis or Yeoman I’ll surely be rushing back to my bookshelves immediately afterwards to read up on what I just enjoyed. For a Savoyard like me, Gilbert and Sullivan: Genre, Gender and Parody is nothing but pleasure reading.

9 Responses

  1. For more Gilbert and Sullivan
    For more Gilbert and Sullivan stuff, check out the film Topsy Turvy by Mike Leigh. It centers around the creation of one of their masterpiece, The Mikado, and it reveals the characters not only of G&S themselves, but key members of their company. Plus enough performances of classic Mikado pieces to keep you humming for days.

  2. Mike, that’s one of my
    Mike, that’s one of my favorite movies, by one of my favorite directors. Yes, highly recommended.

  3. My inputs on Litkicks have
    My inputs on Litkicks have been few and far between, but I feel compelled to comment when the topic is Gilbert and Sullivan.

    When you showed me this book last week, and we discussed it (and I showed you one of my own G & S “bibles”), I didn’t realize you were planning to review it. No wonder you didn’t want to lend it to me.

    I’m very glad that I was able to help instill this appreciation of G & S into you and your siblings. You often accepted the invitation to attend a performance in the seven years that I performed in the chorus of a local G & S repertory company. I really don’t remember how many rehearsals and performances you actually came to — I hope it was many — but I guess it paid off, considering your obvious appreciation of their work.

    Yes, the big three operettas that you named are justifiably honored, but as I told you, I consider “Iolanthe” to rank right up there with them (making it the “big four”, I guess). I always had so much fun playing one of the noble, pompous “peers of highest station” in that show.

    Another under-appreciated operetta of theirs, in my opinion, is “Gondoliers”. As for “Yeoman of the Guard”, you should see it just to hear Jack Point and Elsie sing “Heigh-dy, Heigh-dy” (also known as “The Merryman and His Maid”) — after that, it’s pretty much downhill. “Heigh-dy” had a sort of revival in the 1960’s as a “folk” song — it was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary as “I Have A Song to Sing O”.

    As Pooh-bah might have said, “Long life to Gilbert and Sullivan!”

  4. Thanks Dad! I forgot to
    Thanks Dad! I forgot to mention here that, of course, I originally got to know Gilbert and Sullivan through the plays you were in. They were always fun — I think one of the only things that every one of my siblings would all agree on is that that we all really enjoyed going to your G&S shows.

    I don’t think I had any idea, as a kid, how complex these operas were — it was definitely “Topsy Turvy” that rekindled my interest in Gilbert and Sullivan as an adult. And, yes, I just took your advice and bought the full-length D’oyly Carte recording of “Iolanthe”. I’m sure I missed going to this one as a kid, but that just means I can have the pleasure of discovering it now …

  5. We’re running out to buy our
    We’re running out to buy our copy now!
    Always thrilled to find a new resource.
    For an endless stream of G&S chatter, look up Savoynet!

    Thanks for the review, we’ve shared it on twitter.

  6. @ Eli,
    Iolanthe is my

    @ Eli,
    Iolanthe is my absolute favorite! and there is a fabulous DVD from the Stratford Festival in Canada of a production that’s really good.

    Thanks! spread the word !!

  7. Anyone who has never seen The
    Anyone who has never seen The Yeomen of the Guard, RUN, don’t walk to see the next production. Yeomen is the favorite G&S show of many G&S fans, and once you see it, you’ll be hooked.

  8. @Sam — I think Yeomen of the
    @Sam — I think Yeomen of the Guard was Gilbert and Sullivan’s favorite, too! I think the music is ravishing — maybe the best of all of them.

    By the way, everybody — and especially Eli and Levi — did you know there is a big Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Gettysburg at the end of June, modeled on the big Buxton Festival they have every year in England? I’m going! and so will lots of other folks be. Three shows a day, lectures, shops, displays — lots of fun! Try this link:

    But if that doesn’t work, Google “International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival — Gettysburg.” There’s a Facebook page by that name, too.

    See you there!

  9. Carolyn — thanks for letting
    Carolyn — thanks for letting us know about the festival — it does sound great! I had not been aware of it, and wouldn’t mind visiting that battlefield again too.

    You’ve all talked me into it — I’m checking out Yeoman of the Guard next.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!