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.