A most limited Utopia

Article by Brian Sewell

It was the school chaplain who introduced me to the doubtful pleasures of Gilbert and Sullivan.  A man of bells, smells, Nativity Plays and Easter Tableaux, whose taste in music we thought restricted to the wearier plods of Bach lightened by Gregorian chant, there was clearly a darker side to the pious priest responsible for preparing us for Confirmation, for, shedding his cassock, he took a group of us to a long gone theatre in distant Hammersmith and exposed us to The Mikado.  To a boy who already knew well Bohème and Butterfly, who for years had passionately wound his gramophone to piece together enough crackling  Lohengrin and Tannhauser to make sense of Wagner, who was familiar with the Adam’s Apple of Joan Cross and the rest of the Ben Britten crew, the experience was appalling.

This is not opera, I thought: these people can neither sing nor act, but only strike particular attitudes and with much quavering miss essential notes; this music is nothing but a string of jingles dominated by a childish beat, this orchestra is fit only for an Eastbourne bandstand, this conductor an automaton, his heart a metronome.  Worse still, the audience seemed in the thrall of ritual and superstition, swaying, beating time, conducting batonless, joining in the choruses, mouthing silently the solo songs, demanding encores, laughing in anticipation of the heavy-handed humour and rising to their feet in lunatic applause for singers who, begging on the streets of Naples, would starve for want of charity.  One glance at the school chaplain whom we knew only as a grave divine, and it was evident that he too had been enslaved by music hammered tum-te-tum and loud, and by the human statues on the stage, so stilted of gesture, so creaking of voice that they could only half speak their singing parts, worn-out old bodies playing heroic youths, the would-be maidens whom they wooed stiffly corseted, all their painted faces utterly grotesque.

That one performance turned me into one of Pavlov’s dogs- not slavering in anticipation of a bloody feast, but ready to run from such intellectual torment, a mile or even a marathon if need be.  Gilbert and Sullivan, I was convinced, represented torment to the anguished soul, but to protest there and then might put one in much the same mortal danger as applauding Arsenal from the Manchester United stands or, at a Billy Graham prayer meeting, carrying a banner in praise of uninhibited sex.  Growing older, I realised that Gilbert and Sullivan had written not for the opera enthusiast, but for the Philistine who hated it, for the man who insists on singing in the bath or whistling on his upright bicycle, for the man to whom the doggerel of rhyme set to a trite and easily remembered tune is infinitely preferable to the incomprehensible complexities of Wagner (The Mikado, 1885, post-dated Parsifal by three years).

Some men, feeling as I did, would for ever have closed their minds to Gilbert and Sullivan, but from time to time I gave them the opportunity to convert me; Trial by Jury, however, left me quite unmoved – a thing for straining Welshmen past their prime; with Dick Deadeye and Buttercup the bumboat woman, HMS Pinafore seemed much the same as Captain Pugwash and Roger the cabin boy; to Patience my response was as unmoved as ever but with The Gondoliers there was a small sign of intransigence eroded – to my surprise, amused distress even, my subconscious embarked in the bath, not on Schubert’s Winterreise but on “Take a pair of sparkling eyes”.  Eventually, and still grudgingly, I went to the ENO’s Mikado a production that did no more than nod to the laboured traditions laid down by Gilbert and faithfully maintained by the preposterous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and found myself enjoying it enough to go again, thinking, even, of comparisons with Strauss and Offenbach.

This was not a conversion; I had merely come full circle from a Mikado first seen performed in the stale conventions of the Higher Victorian stage (and perhaps not significantly stiffer than the acting of Wilde’s comedies), to a Mikado played at the pace of modern television farce, and to music now treated with affection and respect as though it were Puccini’s.  I came too to recognition that in the longer term Gilbert, William Schwenck of that ilk, had been the worst enemy of the Savoy Operas.  A professional literary humourist in an age when the visual humour of the Punch cartoon was so ponderous and so predictable that amusement for the quick-witted died, as it does now, before they reach the last words of the caption, Gilbert was under the impression that savoy audiences went to hear his words rather than Sullivan’s music.  He was not a man to surrender a joke to save a melody; time and again in a D’Oyly Carte Company performance. The text had absolute primacy and the music merely pointed the rhythm of the verse – acceptable in the brisk patter songs perhaps but tedious when Sullivan had lifted his invention to the point where it might have been mistaken for opera.  Gilbert was clever – a man who quipped “If I were a cassowary in Timbuctoo, I’d eat a missionary and his hymn book too” when challenged to immediately invent a rhyme for that bird and that place, has a readier way with words than most – but the words are shallow and have no lasting quality other than as period pieces.  It was, nevertheless, their sense of precise period and Gilbert’s disciplined rehearsals that determined the production of the Savoy Operas for a hundred years and all but put an end to them.

At rehearsals Gilbert was a martinet.  “I know nothing about music nor about voice, but I can hear my words,” he once said, satisfied by a performance.  He liked his soloists to be at the front of the stage – “If you are too far back… you lose the power of clear and effective speech,” (speech, not song, readers will note) he said to Henry Lytton, an early Jack Point, and when Lytton asked what he should do with his hands, replied “Cut them off at the wrists, Lytton, cut them off.”  As late as 1925, still cranking out the jester’s role thirty-seven years later, Lytton remarked that the Savoy Operas were still given exactly as first performed – “Nothing is ever touched, for where is the man who could touch these incomparable gems without spoiling them?”  Gilbert dictated every gesture, directed every stance and position on stage, invented every scrap of comic business, and quashed every singer’s dissent, dramatic intervention or inclination to clown, with sarcasm as sharp as a stiletto: departures from his iron-bound laws were sometimes punished by a fine – half-a-crown from the wages of a chorus girl who smiled when she should frown, was not inconsiderable punishment.

The text of Pinafore Gilbert is known to have written with a precise model of the ship at hand, and for every opera a model of the Savoy’s stage at half an inch to the foot in scale, enabled him to plan the exact moves of every character, every grouping of the chorus.  A contemporary journalist thought Gilbert’s discipline based on his knowledge of military maxims (the seminal On War of Karl von Clausewitz was translated into English in 1873) and observed that in his hands the natural gifts of women in particular became artificially stilted – “So many steps to a particular spot; such a gesture to express such an emotion… the tones of the voice to such as the master thought most likely to come over the footlights…”  From this we learn that it was Gilbert, not Sullivan, who controlled even the tone, the timbre, the volume of the players’ voices.  Sullivan too attended the rehearsals, sometimes to revise the music for Gilbert’s benefit, sometimes to assist the singers, some of whom could hardly read music and some. Such as Lytton, not at all – “La la it to me please Sir Arthur,” he requested when he could not get the hang of it.  At times he could match Gilbert’s waspishness – “If you study for another year,” he said to Nellie Melba when she first came from Australia, “there might be some chance of giving you a small part in The Mikado”.

Gilbert the absolutist would tolerate no licence, no bawdy, no burlesque not his own, no rivalry and no alternative interpretation, and there is no doubt that Sullivan, ambitious to be another Mendelssohn or Brahms, Rossini or Gounod (both of whom he knew), was often in despair at the servitude imposed by the Savoy operas.  Though they bickered and quarrelled, their partnership, or The Great Triumvirate as it was known when Richard D’Oyly Carte, builder of the Savoy Theatre, was recognised as essential to their continuing success, produced fourteen Savoy Operas between 1871 and 1896, the last The Grand Duke set in the Duchy of Speisesaal (Dining Room) with characters called Dumkopf, Ludwig and Tannhauser (which suggests some awareness of Bavarian events).  First run performances for Patience, HMS Pinafore and The Gondoliers were well over 500, and a triumphant 672 for The Mikado, but The Grand Duke closed after only 123 nights.

The Yeoman of the Guard, first performed in 1888, ran for 423 nights.  Billed, not as the customary comic opera, but one of “new and original form” with an English historical setting and almost tragic plot, saved the Triumvirate from the dissolution that seemed imminent, for it allowed Sullivan to write more serious music and an almost symphonic overture that he thought worthy of an orchestral concert.  The title was first to have been The Tower of London, the idea variously attributed to Harrison Ainsworth’s historical novel of 1840 and to a poster on the platform of Uxbridge station (Gilbert lived nearby, very grandly) advertising the Tower Furnishing Company, but William Wallace’s opera Maritana of 1845, may also have been the source of Gilbert’s libretto.  The last was recognised by Punch which insisted on corrupting Gilbert’s subtitle The Merryman and his Maid to The Merryman and his Maritana by Sulbert and Gillivan.  The Daily Telegraph, however, thought the book and music on an altogether “higher plane…the genuine English opera.”  Sullivan thought it his finest collaboration with Gilbert, and Gilbert looking back in 1897 declared it his favourite.

Gilbert put some modest but genuine research into Yeoman spending time in the Tower sketching the Beefeaters, seeking period authenticity, eschewing the humour and nonsense that he so much enjoyed, and The Morning Post recognised this with “There is a Shakespearean halo about the whole.”  At first both Gilbert and Sullivan were warm and accommodating with each other – Gilbert never more so, even suggesting to Sullivan’s pleasure , the folk song melody of Jack Point’s “I have a song to sing, O” – but when rehearsals began so again did their old-established quarrelling and Sullivan even threatened to halt them, prepared perhaps, to put an end to the opera; the opening night was delayed until 3 October, and even then, at the full rehearsal, the pair engaged in what witnesses describes as a “regular flare-up.”  Gilbert maintained his habitual discipline at rehearsals and the critic of Truth was brave enough to damn him as stage director of “the Savoy puppets”.

One puppet, however, seems to have had his own way with his role, even determining whether the opera should end on a tragic or a comic note.  The question still asked of Jack Point, the jester, is does he die of a broken heart when all others in this absurd plot reach a happy marriage, does he merely swoon with genuine distress at seeing his beloved Elsie wed the heroic Colonel Fairfax, or does he, as a jester might for comic effect, feign a faint?  The role was written for George Grossmith, a regular funny man by whom the audience expected to be amused, and he could not see himself as a tragedian: he argued with Gilbert that whatever his intention with the plot, with himself in the role the audience would laugh and thus the only thing for Grossmith to do was please them – and he did; his final collapse was described by Henry Lytton as “irresistibly funny” and instead of taking a bow at the curtain, he remained flat on the floor waving one leg to acknowledge the applause.  Lytton, however, concurrently on tour in the role, could not bring himself to clown the part and, with no Gilbert at hand to instruct him, chose to fall dead.  “Keep on like that” said Gilbert later, “it is just what I want.  Jack Point should die and the end of the opera should be a tragedy.”

Inevitably it has been suggested that Jack Point is Gilbert’s self-portrait and that we should see some sexual revelation in the part, probably of impotence caused by idealised desire for young, pretty and innocent girls; his older women characters are largely portrayed with teasing contempt.

There may be an element of self-mockery in Point’s “When a jester is outwitted, feelings fester, heart is lead… Jester wishes he was dead,” but Gilbert was given far more to amour-propre.  With Yeoman well into its stride in the spring of 1889, an exchange of letters with Sullivan is revealing; the composer, encouraged by this more serious opera’s success, told Gilbert he could no longer bring himself to compose for stereotype characters and improbable plots, and wished to work on an opera in which the words suggested music but did not govern it.  Gilbert promptly replied that if the music were to have primacy and the libretto be subordinate then no modus vivendi could be found for their partnership – “If we meet it must be as master and master.”  Sullivan then wrote to D’Oyly Carte “my music gets cruelly murdered,” and Carte showed the letter to Gilbert.  “It is of course impossible that I can ever work with Sullivan again,” thundered Gilbert to the impresario, and Sullivan he reproached with ridicule – “when you … state that you have submitted silently and uncomplainingly for 12 years to be extinguished, ignored, set aside, rebuffed and generally effaced by your librettist, you grievously reflect, not upon him, but upon yourself.”

The Yeoman of the Guard was not the turning-point from musical comedy to the high seriousness of grand opera for which Sullivan hoped until his dying day, but for which Gilbert did not.  Wretched, Sullivan allowed Gilbert to drive the partnership on and, pulling themselves together, they wrote The Gondoliers in 1889, Utopia Ltd in 1893 and the dismal Grand Duke in 1896, Gilbert conceding nothing in the improbability of plots and the predictability of character.  Their partnership ended with a tired plot and elusive melodies, The Times observing that “…the rich vein … worked for so many years is at last dangerously near exhaustion.”  So were Sullivan and D-Oyly Carte; the composer, terminally ill, was snuffed out by a heart attack in November 1900, aged only 58, and the impresario died the following April aged 57.  Gilbert, nearly seven years older than Sullivan, soldiered on until May 1911, when a heart attack killed him while teaching two young women to swim in the lake on his estate at Harrow – a faintly ridiculous death in keeping with his plots.

NOTE: The Savoy operas is a slightly misleading portmanteau, for the first six were staged at the Gaiety and Royalty Theatres and the Opera Comique.  Richard D’Oyly Carte built the Savoy Theatre in 1881 specifically for Gilbert and Sullivan operas, with a capacity of about 1,000 seats and after the failure of The Grand Duke staged comic operas by other composers.  In 1903 it passed to lessees, Henry Irving one of them, and became a conventional theatre.  It was completely reconstructed in 1929.