Apprentice to a What??
Apprentice to a What??
By Michael Clive
Nobody really knows who first said “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But it’s apt for the comic world of Gilbert and Sullivan, which pokes fun at social conventions with a seeming effortlessness that only comes with enormous skill and hard work. Among English-language satires of manners and mores, nothing comes close to the series of musically rich, satirically witty operettas of librettist William Schwenk Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan.
Sullivan was one of the most gifted English composers of the 19th century, and was certainly the most successful of his generation. W.S. Gilbert was a brilliant writer whose satirical librettos are not just pleasing rom-coms in which lovers triumph over practical obstacles in appropriate pairs, but also razor-sharp satires that critique the social hypocrisies of Victorian England—and, by extension, any smug ruling class.
The Pirates of Penzance, like all Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, is a frothy romp that kept Gilbert and Sullivan’s contemporary audiences too delightfully amused to notice that those witty satirical barbs were sometimes tipped with venom. The comedy is breezy and the music unfailingly melodic, but make no mistake: The music and the writing are both nuanced, and when the surface is utterly nonsensical, there is an inner logic that makes perfect sense.
Thus it should not surprise us that for both W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, making good comedy was hard. Still, when the English film director Mike Leigh made his remarkable 1999 biopic Topsy-Turvy about Gilbert and Sullivan, it did surprise us by revealing a mismatched creative team—two enormously talented men who were often in conflict, felt artistically frustrated, and were troubled by the demands of their success. Extravagant critical acclaim and boffo box-office tethered them to the operetta form; the public always wanted something new and even wittier. Sullivan longed to write a more serious opera, but few among us will ever have a chance to hear his lone (failed) attempt, a trite romantic comedy called The Rose of Persia. Gilbert, a born worrier, fretted with each hit show that he would not be able to come up with another topsy-turvy idea for the next one.
In fact, the phrase “topsy-turvy” provides a key to the unique humor in operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. First, they turn a familiar but exotically foreign art form upside-down—usually Italian opera. Then, they portray the alien culture as outlandishly goofy and eccentric, but with English manners and mores rather than foreign ones. In the most famous and most extreme example, The Mikado, Gilbert was at pains to produce authentically Japanese-looking costumes, settings, and stage movements, but his characters’ speech and actions are as English as they could possibly be. In this layering of familiar behavior on top of foreignness, it’s the familiar that’s the butt of the joke—a daring comic conceit during the Victorian era, when the British Empire ruled a quarter of the world’s population. In the arts, as in politics, the Empire was more inclined to judge than to be judged.
The Pirates of Penzance was Gilbert and Sullivan’s second smash hit, proving that their first, HMS Pinafore (1878), was no fluke. Pirates premiered during the winter holiday season in December 1879 with a single performance that was mounted for the purpose of international copyright protection. (Unauthorized productions of Pinafore had already cropped up throughout the U.S.)
Though Pirates is nominally a love story, with the young lovers Mabel and Frederic triumphing over the obstacles that separate them, the intentionally ridiculous plot is really about class divisions rather than romance. In Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan broached this subject by having Sir Joseph Porter, the navy admiral who never went to sea, set his plumed cap at the lovely Josephine, whom he presumes to be a captain’s daughter—beneath his station, but as he reminds the audience, “love levels all ranks.” When she is revealed as the daughter of a common seaman, the chorus reminds him that love levels all ranks; he responds, “It does to an extent, but not as much as that.” Here, as in Pirates, the idea of babies’ futures shaped by a nursemaid’s momentary error is borrowed from Italian operas such as Il trovatore, familiar among English operagoers. (In 1895, Oscar Wilde borrowed the device again for The Importance of Being Earnest.)
In Pirates, the mix-up in infancy and the arbitrariness of class divisions are even more absurd than in Pinafore, based upon Frederic’s (presumably deaf) nursemaid thinking that the boy’s father wished him to be apprenticed to a pirate, rather than to a ship’s pilot. As a result, we encounter him in the flush of hunky maturity in the company of the most courteous, considerate, tea-drinking pirates you’re ever likely to meet.
Feel free to keep track of Frederic and his romantic tribulations or to ignore them as you choose; this is romantic comedy, and we know that he will be happily united with his beloved Mabel in the end. But it is almost mandatory to pay careful attention to the individual songs, which have been comic staples for more than a century and are still quoted in television shows and commercials. And do listen carefully; the jokes are rapid-fire. Examples include “I am the very model of a modern major-general,” a classic G&S patter song voiced by Mabel’s father, Major-General Stanley; and the policemen who express their sympathies for unemployed criminals in “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment.” Notable for its expressive color and lyrical beauty is “Sighing softly to the river,” a ballad that could take pride of place in a serious opera with a maritime setting.