I grew up on Gilbert and Sullivan.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother singing, “Willow, tit willow, tit willow,” to me at bed time. I heard my father often call out to Mother, as he went to work, “Farewell, my own, light of my life, farewell!” sometimes in song. (Once in a while he would add, “For crimes unknown, I go to my dungeon cell!”)
In the family library we had a big book, which may have been the complete works of Gilbert and Sullivan, in which I was able to look up the words and understand what they were—on the records my brothers and sisters would play, the words went by so fast that I couldn't catch them all.
My brothers and sisters would talk of making “the punishment fit the crime,” and say that “things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream,” among other Gilbert and Sullivan truisms. There were even references in the popular press. I remember seeing a caption in Life magazine, under the picture of the Russian ambassador looking glum, that read, “A. Gromyko's lot is not a happy one.” (For those too young to know, Andrei Gromyko was his name.) Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics were everywhere, as much a part of the culture as comments from Shakespeare or the Bible.
And then they weren't. I suppose it was gradual, and I certainly never noticed as it was happening, but by the time I got to high school, there were no more routine performances of the main works—HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, or The Pirates of Penzance. Maybe it was the introduction of the American musical in the mid-forties, when Oklahoma became such a huge hit, that pushed Gilbert and Sullivan aside, but whatever it was, that's the way it was. High school operettas—we did one every other year at our school—stopped being Gilbert and Sullivan festivals. Local adult performing groups found other things to do.
Of course, the works did not disappear altogether. They are too good for that to happen. D' Oily Carte Theatre in London, which was founded solely for the purpose of presenting the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, did the entire canon and kept the comic operas alive in England, where a combination of tourism and nostalgia brought in enough people to keep the flame burning. There were also performances of the three main works here and there in America from time to time, but that was about it until a pop singer named Linda Ronstadt decided to do a summer revival of The Pirates of Penzance in the theatre in Central Park in New York, about twenty years ago.
There was much clucking and harumphing in the press about this at the time, as I recall. Her pop music fans thought she was out of her mind; they had never heard of The Pirates of Penzance. Gilbert and Sullivan purists were offended that someone with her background would enter their turf. But she went through with it and was a big enough draw that people came.
And they loved it; the public response was terrific. The show sold out all summer. Ronstadt got herself several new albums, a few years added to her career, the respect of some critics who had dismissed her talents before and a starring role in a The Pirates of Penzance movie. And Americans (admittedly, in smaller numbers than before) rediscovered Gilbert and Sullivan.
The music is good, we decided. It is a respectable challenge for the singers who aspire to present it. (That would delight Sullivan, who considered himself a serious composer and always felt that his collaboration with Gilbert somehow lowered his stature. However, aside from his music for the hymn "The Lost Chord," almost none of his other works has survived—it has been his collaboration with Gilbert that has preserved his memory.)
And the lyrics are genuinely funny, very clever and—dare we say it?—Even topical. Gilbert was the leading satirist of his day, and political satire, properly done, never goes out of style. Some examples:
—HMS Pinafore tells us about the intellectual state of English parliamentary politics: “I always voted at my party's call, / and I never thought of thinking for my self at all. / I thought so little they rewarded me, by making me the ruler of the Queen's Navee.”
—As well as British class distinctions. The Mikado is not about Japan at all, but commentary on the idiocy of bureaucratic rule making, with perfectly placed barbs at self-important public officials: “Defer-r! Defer-r! To the Lord High Executioner!”
—And The Pirates of Penzance takes on the question of excessive devotion to "Duty."
The plots are ridiculous—and that's the point. Satirists always attack society's excesses with ridicule. In The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert gives us a hero who is bound to a life of crime just because his nurse maid was so hard of hearing that she confused the word "pilot" with "pirate." He stays there because it is his "duty" to honor this absurd deal. As soon as he is free of his contract, of course, it will be his "duty" to pursue, arrest, and perhaps even seek to kill all the men who have become his dearest friends. This day of transformation is avoided, however, because of a bizarre legal interpretation (that he is also duty bound to honor) that extends his allegiance to the pirate band for another sixty-three years.
Naturally, there is a love interest, bringing new concepts of "Duty." The modem major general appears, with his own problems about how he has discharged his duty. The arrival of the policemen, doing their duty, adds to the hilarity, but everything is resolved without any bloodshed in the end when everyone automatically does his duty to the queen.
All of this delightful but insightful nonsense comes wrapped in truly wonderful, hummable
music, with meticulously crafted lyrics that are filled with elegant internal rhyme schemes, marvelous stage business that recalls the best of broad farce ("with cat-like tread"—CLOMP) and some of the most difficult tongue twisters ever performed. Modem rappers should try discussing “matters animal and vegetable and mineral" at full speed to see if their skills are as good as they think they are.
I think it is fully appropriate that the Utah Shakespeare Festival has chosen to perform The Pirates of Penzance this season, because the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, while certainly not as extensive or insightful as the Shakespeare canon, is worth perpetuating and preserving. Isn't perpetuating and preserving the truly good things in drama what the Festival is for?