Silver Donald Cameron

Anticipating Iolanthe

I could not have been much more than ten when my father took me by the hand and led me into the wicked, winsome world of Gilbert and Sullivan – a world I still find magical beyond the dreams of Disney.

A high school not far from our home had developed the tradition of producing one of the Savoy Operas every spring. The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance. Every spring my father would take me to encounter the likes of Dick Deadeye, Little Buttercup, the Lord High Executioner and the Lord High Everything Else, and I loved every bit of it – the rippling music, the cockeyed, surreal plots, the sparkling wit of the dialogue. We didn’t see Iolanthe, which will be presented in Halifax next weekend. I can’t wait.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s characters may have been my introduction to irony, with their ridiculous bursts of bravado and sentimentality delivered without a flicker of self-awareness. And for a boy already in love with language, nothing could be more delicious than the wild, brain-twisting, mouth-warping “patter songs” which are among the operettas’ signature pieces. Sing this, very fast:

You get a good spadesman to plant a small tradesman (first take off his boots with a boot-tree),
And his legs will take root, and his fingers will shoot, and they’ll blossom and bud like a fruit-tree –
From the greengrocer tree you get grapes and green pea, cauliflower, pineapple, and cranberries,
While the pastrycook plant cherry brandy will grant, apple puffs, and three corners, and Banburys –

And of course all of this goofiness and artifice and drollery is constantly puncturing the pretensions of the rich, the pompous, the snobbish and the stupid – who, in these operettas, are often the same person.

The rapier humour retains its timeliness. One of my favourite Gilbert and Sullivan characters is Sir Joseph Porter, a lad who rose through the ranks of the legal profession until “I grew so rich that I was sent/By pocket borough into Parliament.” A pocket borough was a form of Parliamentary rot – a tiny constituency so dominated by a single landowner, usually a lord, that he could simply appoint the MP.

Once “elected,” Sir Joseph boasts,

I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

It would be a rare MP or MLA, I suspect, who could read that couplet without at least a small wince. But party solidarity has its rewards:

I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!

Parse that out. After “winning” a safe seat, I slavishly followed the party line, and I was rewarded with a plummy appointment for which I was, umm, indifferently qualified. That probably describes half of Canada’s judges, most of its senators, and an inconceivable number of Commissioners and Inspectors and Chairmen of This and That.

Before their partnership began, William Schwenck Gilbert was a well established wit, poet and playwright. Arthur Sullivan was a brilliant young composer of concerti, oratorios, and symphonies — not to mention “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” one of the hymns I grew up with. The two had worked together once, in 1871, before producer Richard D’Oyly Carte asked them in 1874 for a short comic opera to fill out a program at his theatre.

The result was Trial By Jury, and it was a hit. The first of their 14 operettas, it turns on a young woman’s suit for breach of promise of marriage. The defendant contends that because he is so worthless, she shouldn’t get much by way of damages. The plaintiff argues that because she loves the defendant ardently, she should get a generous settlement. The judge solves the problem by marrying the plaintiff himself. This is light-footed Victorian theatre of the absurd.

The law and the peerage were favourite targets for Gilbert and Sullivan – and they are targets again in Iolanthe (1882), a story about true lovers, one the child of a fairy, kept apart by secret origins and legal lunacy. Through a mix of comic invention and word-play, it all works out in the end. Gilbert’s genius, says one of his critics, “is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural.”

I haven’t seen Iolanthe yet – but I’ll see it on Friday at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in a production by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Nova Scotia. I wish I could invite my father.

– 30 –

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.