Gilbert and Sullivan--one might argue that their operettas are immensely entertaining but basically trivial and that their literary and musical achievement was ultimately insubstantial. In fact, the two men might have agreed with this estimation of their collaborations; both argued that the “serious” work they produced individually was superior to their comic operettas, somewhat like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s insistence that his most popular fiction--Sherlock Holmes--was inferior to his other creations.
Deems Taylor, in his preface to Gilbert’s Complete Operas, disagrees with Gilbert’s evaluation of his own work: “Occasionally, in the ballads, he is serious, either in attack or defense, and results are almost invariably unfortunate. Gilbert always affected to regard the Bab Ballads as inconsequential trifles, and was even heard to refer to his operettas as ‘twaddle.’ While he was doubtless a good deal less indifferent to his humorous writings than he pretended to be, it is true that he took himself very solemnly as a serious thinker and dramatist, and resented the fact that neither his serious plays nor his serious thoughts were as much esteemed as his nonsense” ([New York: Dorset Press, 1932] xiii-xiv).
But are the operettas truly nonsense? One might believe it upon hearing Sullivan’s “bouncy” music--as Stravinsky, who was a fan, described it (Caryl Brahmns, Gilbert and Sullivan: Lost Chords and Discords [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975] 13)--and such lines as “it might have been on his pocket-handkerchief, but Japanese don’t use pocket-handkerchiefs” (The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan [Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., n.d.] 334).
However, Edith Hamilton, that lover of the classical world, clearly holds a very high opinion of Gilbert; she compares the librettist to Aristophanes at great length in The Greek Way, concluding that “the mid-Victorian Gilbert of Pinafore fame saw eye to eye with Aristophanes as no other writer has done. The differences between Aristophanes and Gilbert are superficial; they are due to the differences of their time. In their essential genius they are alike” ([New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1930] 99).
And indeed they are--the notion that Gilbert’s lyrics are mere nonsense may be dispelled by a close examination of The Mikado, where he nastily satirizes everything and everyone from moral legislation to “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist” (304).
Legislation and the Victorian legal system feature prominently in Gilbert’s librettos--most notably in Trial by Jury--very likely because of Gilbert’s early unsuccessful career as a barrister (which reads like something out of the operettas [see Caryl Brahms, 20]). Gilbert jabs at Victorian moral legislation in The Mikado, where the title character has “Resolved to try / A plan whereby / Young men might best be steadied. / So he decreed, in words succinct, / That all who flirted, leered or winked / (Unless connubially linked), / Should forthwith be beheaded” (299).
This sounds to a modern audience like the height of silliness (and on one level it is), but it must have had a sharper ring in a society where, because of absurd blasphemy and obscenity laws, one conservative judge declared blasphemy “a hanging charge” (Leonard W. Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salmon Rushdie [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933] 483), and Sir Richard Francis Burton feared imprisonment after the private publication and sale of his translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.
Gilbert attacks lawmakers (“that’s the slovenly way in which these Acts are always drawn,” laments the Mikado after sentencing Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing to a lingering death; “I’ll have it altered next session” [334-35]); judges (“Lord High Executioner of Titipu! Why, that’s the highest rank a citizen can attain! . . . Our logical Mikado, seeing no moral difference between the dignified judge who condemns a criminal to die, and the industrious mechanic who carries out the sentence, has rolled the two offices into one” [300-301]); aristocrats and politicians (Pooh-Bah, who can “trace [his] ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule,” is “Lord High Everything Else,” and “degrades” himself by taking bribes and socializing with the lower classes ); and even himself, grouping “the Judicial humorist” among those people who “never would be missed” (304).
Perhaps one reason for the dismissal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas as trivial is the same reason that Shakespeare’s comedies are, historically, less likely to receive standing ovations than his tragedies. There exists an unfortunate but widespread belief that literature must be serious to be truly great and that comedy’s only (or at least primary) purpose is the production of laughter. And the combination of Gilbert’s biting lyrics with Sullivan’s sentimental music produces a tremendous amount of laughter.
However, tragedy and comedy, society and satire are closely linked. Comparing the drama of “Elizabethan England and the Athens of Pericles,” Edith Hamilton finds that “uproarious comedy flourished side by side with gorgeous tragedy, and when one passed away the other passed away too. There is a connection between the sublime and the ridiculous” (91). And just as a court fool may serve as an emotional and critical outlet for the subjects of absolute rulers, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera provides an antidote for the daunting heaviness of Wagner and the stuffiness of Victorian England. (In fact, Patrick O’Connor argues that the operetta developed as a direct consequence of Wagner’s weighty operatic style: See “The Case for a Lighter Mood,” BBC Music Magazine [Opera Special, Autumn 1995] 48-49.)
One may wonder at this point if Gilbert’s social satire is still relevant in the late twentieth century, and the answer is a resounding “yes.” While some of his targets may be dated, others--including capital punishment, the censorship of speech and behavior, and even sexual harassment (do Katisha’s actions qualify?)--still loom in modern life, enormous bull’s eyes which Gilbert’s words continue to pierce. So perhaps our culture’s obsession with Gilbert and Sullivan is not merely an infatuation with comic nonsense but also a recognition that some serious maladies are best cured with the medicine of comedy.