Sometimes in my zeal to denounce the prophets who purport to be able to tell us what sorts of political developments or technologies (“disruptive” or otherwise) we are destined to see in coming years, I go a little too far. There have, after all, been those who, from much greater historical distances than we are accustomed to dealing with, have proven able to predict the manner in which societal and organizational trends seemed likely, even destined, to evolve. I speak not of Nostradamus or Maimonides or Jeremiah or their ilk, but rather of a pair who, through lyric and music, foretold the fundaments of organizational trends a hundred and more years hence: Sir William Schwenk Gilbert, and Sir Arthur Sullivan.
Gilbert and Sullivan to the masses, or G&S for short.
Gilbert and Sullivan to the masses, or G&S for short.
Over 25 years, this pair produced a collaborative opus consisting of 14 operettas in the opera buffa style, many of which contributed tunes and turns of phrase to posterity. The song “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here”, for example, is lifted directly from the chorus of “With cat-like tread” from The Pirates of Penzance; while the term “grand poobah” originated with the character Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything-Else from The Mikado. While generally taken as light-hearted comedy, Gilbert’s mastery of Victorian turns of phrase and Sullivan’s glorious compositions have kept their body of work alive for more than a century. It also probably didn’t hurt that they’re easier for high school drama troupes to perform than, say, Das Rheingold. And no one has ever had to say of their masterworks, as Wilde did of Wagner, that their operas are “better than they sound”; in my humble opinion, they are exactly as good as they sound.
One of the things that make Gilbert and Sullivan so timeless is their propensity for prodding certain sectors of British society. Reviewers often make the mistake of accusing the pair of nursing a vendetta for the upper crust, but this is a base calumny and misinterprets their true intent. Both were, especially as a result of their joint work, rather well off themselves. Sullivan had little interest in society’s foibles (other than to partake of them), while Gilbert - a much more complicated fellow than he is usually portrayed - was more interested in pricking the bubbles of self-importance that seemed to proliferate amid the wealth and splendour of fin-de-siècle Victorian society. He selected his targets with great precision and skewered them with a glorious combination of audacity and wit.
Cleaving solely to their best-known works, the objects of his barbs were as follows:
Cleaving solely to their best-known works, the objects of his barbs were as follows:
Trial by Jury (1875) - the judiciary
The Sorcerer (1877) - shady businessmen
HMS Pinafore (1878) - the Royal Navy
The Pirates of Penzance (1879) - the Police
Patience (1881) - the Aesthetic movement
Iolanthe (1882) - the House of Lords
Princess Ida (1884) - feminism and chauvinism
The Mikado (1885) - bureaucracy
Ruddigore (1887) - the fascination with the supernatural
The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) - no one (this was Gilbert’s only non-satirical libretto)
The Gondoliers (1889) - the monarchy and republicanism
Gilbert and Sullivan produced two more collaborative pieces - Utopia, Ltd (1893), and The Grand Duke (1895) - but the energy had gone out of their partnership and neither work did as well as their predecessors. Of the eleven operas listed above, only The Yeoman of the Guard explicitly did largely away with the satirical, comical side of their best work, and had a serious as opposed to happy (or nonsensical) ending.
What’s interesting about the remaining ten pieces is how reviewers tend to pigeonhole them - as I have deliberately done - into attempts to lampoon this or that element of Victorian society. That’s taking too broad a brush to Gilbert’s prose. In Trial, for example, Gilbert was not lampooning “the judiciary” so much as he was describing the hypocrisy of it. The eponymous trial of the piece, after all, is a complaint of breach of promise by a young lady, Angelina, jilted by her lover Edwin, and it begins with the judge’s autobiographical piece, “When I, good friends, was called to the bar”, in which he describes how he made his career as a barrister by wooing “a rich attorney’s elderly, ugly daughter”. The song wraps up with the memorable lines:
At length I became as rich as the Gurneys; an incubus then I thought her
So I threw over that rich attorney’s elderly, ugly daughter.
The rich attorney my character high tried vainly to disparage -
Judge (gleefully): Yes! And now, if you please, I’m ready to try this breach of promise of marriage!
You see, it’s not “the judiciary” that Sullivan is mocking; it’s the corruption of the institution of the judiciary by individuals who exploit its foibles to rise high in its ranks.
The same theme runs through all of their satirical plays. In Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty, has a similar introductory song in which he describes how he became Britain’s chief sailor by working as a clerk in an attorney’s office, cleaning the windows, sweeping the floor, and polishing the handle on the big front door: “I polished up the handle so carefully / That now I am the ruler of the Queen’s Nay-Vee!” His song, like the Judge’s from Trial, concludes with some helpful advice for would-be bureaucrats:
So landsmen all, whomever you may be / If you want to rise to the top of the tree
If your soul isn’t fettered to an office stool / Be careful to be guided by this Golden Rule:
Stick close to your desks, and never go to sea / And you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Nay-Vee!
Those who aver that Gilbert was poking fun at the RN won’t find much evidence for their position in the play; the individual sailors are all caricatures, exemplifying the best (and in only one case, that of the traitorous Dick Deadeye, the worst) of the “jolly jack tar” of popular legend. It is Sir Joseph, the bureaucrat who knows nothing of ships and the sea, who attracts Gilbert’s especial scorn. Porter spends most of the play trying to cure the swabbies of their lamentable tendency toward profanity; and it is only when the Captain, upon learning that his daughter has fallen in love with “the low’liest tar who plies the water”, utters a thoroughly understandable “Damn!” (euphemized as “Damme”, and pronounced “Damn-me!”, for purposes of assuaging both Victorian sensibilities and the demands of lyrical scansion), that Sir Joseph displays his temper and banishes the Captain to his stateroom. Basically, Porter is a thoroughly useless political appointee who rose to his position through processes that had nothing to do with developing the skills necessary to his duties, and who - absent those skills - focuses on the least important aspects of his position. Gilbert isn’t mocking the sailors of the RN, in short; he’s mocking, once again, the manner in which their leaders are chosen, expressing surprise and derision in equal measure at an organization that allows itself to be managed by people who make a virtue out of knowing nothing about what their subordinates do.
Contempt for the artful posturings of high position is a theme that runs through all of their work. In Pirates, the same sort of character - the genial old duffer promoted far beyond his capabilities - is exemplified by Major-General Stanley, who sings the well-known song, “I am the very model of a Modern Major-General”, in which he boasts of his mastery of every conceivable topic (“I quote in elegiacs on the crimes of Heliogabolus / In conics, I can floor peculiarities parabolous!”), but in the last verse laments that the only lacunae in his vast repertoire of knowledge are in matters military:
In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin” / When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at / And when I know precisely what is meant by commisariat;
When I can tell what progress has been made in modern gunnery / When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery,
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy
(Searches for a rhyme)
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat-a-gee!
There he is again; the quintessential high-ranked bureaucrat who knows all sorts of trivia but is ignorant of what he needs to know to actually do his job.
The trend continues. In Patience we have the Dragoons (and their three officers: Colonel Calverly, Major Murgatroyd, and Lieutenant the Duke of Dunstable) whose entire chorus is dedicated to describing how utterly fascinating they look in uniform. The Colonel spends a lengthy song (“If you want a receipt”) listing the qualities of the “remarkable persons of history” that go into producing “that popular mystery, known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon”), of which “The pluck of Lord Nelson on board of the Victory / Genius of Bismarck devising a plan” are only one part; and it’s not ‘till near the end that he includes “The genius strategic of Caesar or Hannibal / Skill of Sir Garnett in thrashing a cannibal”. Military qualifications are an afterthought in his recitation, no more important than “The style of the Bishop of Soder and Mann.”
Even the protagonist (if you can call him that) of the play, Reginald Bunthorne, the “melancholy literary man” whose affected aesthetic transfiguration has captivated the hearts of the female chorus, is merely playing a role; he pretends to be a poet in order to fascinate the ladies: “This air severe / is but a mere / veneer; This cynic smile / is but a wile / of guile”. The only female in the cast not taken in by his complicated elocutions is the eponymous female lead, the milkmaid Patience, who is too simple and straightforward to understand the complexities of Bunthorne’s voluminous prose. After one of the exalted one’s readings, the reaction of the ladies is a typical effusion of praise for something that none of them can understand:
Angela: How purely fragrant!
Saphir: How earnestly precious!
Patience: Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.
Saphir: Nonsense, yes, perhaps -- but oh, what precious nonsense!
Patience spends most of the play baffled by Bunthorne’s nonsense, which nonsense the other ladies lap up with a smile. Bunthorne the fraud, meanwhile, spends most of the play basking happily in the praise of his willing acolytes - at least until a rival who makes even less sense shows up and lures them all away from him. It is impossible to listen to their interplay without thinking of the management consultant who commands huge sums for drowning gullible listeners in periodic deluges of drivel, while they applaud wildly and beg (and pay) for more.
In describing and delighting in the frailties of the uncredentialed self-important caste, though, the preceding works all pale in comparison to Iolanthe, which takes on the task of lampooning the House of Lords (and whence, I might add, comes the official regimental march of the military college professorial cadre, whose lyrics begin with the line “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!”). In the Lord Chancellor we find another individual who rose to high station through a combination of legal studies and political preferment, who finds himself charged with supervising “pretty young wards in chancery”, and who is therefore conflicted because he’s “not so old, and not so plain / And quite prepared to marry again.” The true duffers of the piece, though, are the two Lords, Tolloller and Mountararat, who manage to go through the play without a single thought in their heads other than what’s put there by others, and who seem to be most contented by that arrangement:
Lord Chancellor: I feel the force of your remarks, but I am here in two capacities, and they clash, my Lords, they clash!
Lord Tolloller: This is what it is to have two capacities. Let us be thankful that we are persons of no capacity whatever.
The Lord Chancellor, having fallen enamoured of his ward Phyllis, sees no incongruity in pleading his suit to himself, and describes in great detail how earnestly he did so, and how sternly he demanded proof of his own bona fides.
Lord Chancellor: Victory! Victory! Success has crowned my efforts, and I may consider myself engaged to Phyllis! At first I wouldn’t hear of it – it was out of the question. But I took heart. I pointed out to myself that I was no stranger to myself; that, in point of fact, I had been personally acquainted with myself for some years. This had its effect. I admitted that I had watched my professional advancement with considerable interest, and I handsomely added that I yielded to no one in admiration for my private and professional virtues. This was a great point gained. I then endeavoured to work upon my feelings. Conceive my joy when I distinctly perceived a tear glistening in my own eye! Eventually, after a severe struggle with myself, I reluctantly – most reluctantly – consented.
The Lord Chancellor virtually defines the ability of the amoral individual to bend the rules according to his own interests, and to argue any potentially beneficial position, no matter how inherently nonsensical it might be. It also demonstrates how the term “conflict of interest” can be conveniently overlooked by someone sufficiently motivated to do so.
The Mikado too is rife with the sort of unearned sinecures that Gilbert so loved to twit. Ko-ko, an ex-tailor condemned to death for flirting, obtained his post as Lord High Executioner through an act of deductive reasoning on the part of the citizens of the town of Titipu. Commanded by the Mikado to start executing criminals, the townsfolk reasoned that if they made a condemned criminal the town’s executioner, he could not execute anyone else until he had first beheaded himself. The town’s remaining officials, refusing to serve under an ex-tailor, resigned in a body, leaving all of their offices (and the attendant salaries) to be appropriated by Pooh-Bah, who de facto became “First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buck Hounds, Groom of the Back Stairs, Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect” - in other words, the Lord High Everything-Else. When these august officials are informed that the Mikado intends to begin mass executions if they don’t start beheading people, they launch a scheme to deceive the emperor which, naturally, unravels in a spectacular fashion.
Pooh-Bah is the Gilbertian exemplar of the underhanded bureaucrat, willing to sell anything to anyone. Lamenting the fact that one of his ancient lineage has become a “salaried minion” and must accept the “insult” of regular pay, he describes in detail how far he’ll stoop to make a buck; and immediately upon learning of Nanki-Poo’s infatuation with the delightful Yum-Yum, he offers to sell the lad information about the object of his affections:
POOH-BAH: But I don’t stop at that. I go and dine with middle-class people on reasonable terms. I dance at cheap suburban parties for a moderate fee. I accept refreshment at any hands, however lowly. I also retail state secrets at a very low rate. For instance, any further information about Yum-Yum would come under the heading of a state secret.
(NANKI-POO takes the hint and gives him money.)
POOH-BAH (Aside): Another insult, and I think a light one.
His self-absorption is underscored in the second act when, in the course of recounting the (fraudulent) execution of Nanki-Poo to the Mikado, Pooh-Bah describes the behaviour of the minstrel’s severed head in terms designed to highlight his own immense importance:
POOH-BAH: Now though you’d have said that head was dead / (For its owner dead was he),
It stood on its neck with a smile well bred, / And bowed three times to me
It was none of your impudent off-hand nods, / But as humble as could be
For it clearly knew the deference due / To a man of pedigree!
And it’s oh, I trow, this deathly bow / Was a touching sight to see;
Though trunkless, yet it couldn’t forget / The deference due to me!
It takes a special species of twisted genius to make someone else’s execution all about one’s-self.
Ruddigore gives us Dick Dauntless, “a man-o-war’s man”, who manages to describe as heroically merciful the act of retreat by a British revenue sloop from a more powerful French frigate. Dauntless explains that “To fight a French fal-lal is like hitting at a gal; ‘tis a lubberly thing for to do”:
DAUNTLESS: So we up with our helm, and we scuds before the breeze / As we gives a compassionatin’ cheer;
Froggy answers with a shout as he sees us go about / Which was grateful of the poor mongseer, d’ye see?
Which was grateful of the poor mongseer!
And I’ll wager in their joy, they did kissed each others’ cheeks / Which is what them furriners do,
And blessed their lucky stars we were hardy British tars / Who had pity on a poor parly-voo, d’ye see?
Who had pity on a poor parly-voo!
It’s not about the facts…d’ye see? It’s about the narrative; it’s about spinning a defeat as a victory, about describing a lack of accomplishment as accomplishment, about turning abject failure into flawless success with brilliant prose (and, in Dick’s case, a fancy hornpipe).
It’s a theme we return to in The Gondoliers, which features the Duke of Plaza-Toro, a Spanish don who made a name for himself as a myrmidon of repute, and who seems to have figured out the key to enjoying a long and successful career as a military leader:
In enterprise of martial kind, when there was any fighting
He led his regiment from behind, he found it less exciting
But when away his regiment ran, his place was at the fore, oh!
That celebrated, cultivated, under-rated nobleman, the Duke of Plaza-Toro!
When to evade destruction’s hand, to hide they all proceeded,
No soldier in that gallant band did half as well as he did!
He lay concealed throughout the war, and so preserved his gore, oh!
That very knowing, over-flowing, easy-going paladin, the Duke of Plaza-Toro!
(That image, BTW, is from the 1984 production of The Gondoliers by the Stratford Festival, which IMHO is the best one ever produced or recorded)
It doesn’t get much better than that - until the two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, are found by the Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor, and informed that one of them is the rightful King of Barataria but that no one knows which, as one of them is the son of the old king, spirited away shortly after birth to escape the claws of revolutionaries. The brothers decide to take up and share the throne pending resolution of the mystery, but (to the Grand Inquisitor’s chagrin) to reorganize the kingdom on republican principles, in which “all departments rank equally, and everyone is at the head of his department”, leading to a duet:
MARCO: For everyone who feels inclined, some post we undertake to find / Congenial with his frame of mind, and all shall equal be!
GIUSEPPE: The Chancellor in his peruke, the Earl, the Marquis and the Duke / The groom, the butler, and the cook, they all shall equal be!
MARCO: The aristocrat who banks with Coutts, the aristocrat who hunts and shoots / The aristocrat who cleans our boots, they all shall equal be!
GIUSEPPE: The noble lord who rules the state, the noble lord who cleans the plate
MARCO: The noble lord who scrubs the grate, they all shall equal be!
GIUSEPPE: The Lord High Bishop orthodox, the Lord High Coachman on the box
MARCO: The Lord High Vagabond in the stocks, they all shall equal be!
The result, of course, is a court in which everyone is a courtier, and the only work done is done by the two kings themselves, who (in another song) describe how they must perform every duty from “rising early in the morning” to light the fire, to standing sentry “at the palace private entry”, and finally serving their own dinners before retiring to their attic “with the satisfying feeling that their duty has been done”. When the Grand Inquisitor visits to inspect their arrangement, he has to gently remind them that things work a certain way for a reason, and gives them an example of what happened to a king “in the wonder-working days of old” who “wished all men as rich as he (and he was rich as rich could be) / So to the top of every tree, promoted everybody”:
DON AL.: Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats, and Bishops in their shovel-hats / Were plentiful as tabby cats - in point of fact, too many
Ambassadors cropped up like hay, Prime Ministers (and such as they) / Grew like asparagus in May, and Dukes were three-a-penny
On every side, Field Marshalls gleamed, small bill were Lords-Lieutenant deemed / With Admirals the oceans teemed, all ‘round his wide dominions.
And party leaders you might meet, in twos and threes in every street / Debating with no little heat their various opinions!
The end is easily foretold - when every blessed thing you hold / Is made of silver or of gold, you long for simple pewter
When you have nothing else to wear but cloth of gold or satins rare / For cloth of gold you cease to care; up goes the price of shoddy.
In short whomever you may be, to this conclusion you’ll agree / When everyone is somebody, then no-one’s anybody!
There is so much wisdom in this one song that it’s hard to overstate the value of the lessons Gilbert is trying to impart. One is that picking winners and losers is a fool’s errand for a king (or, one might venture to suggest, a President); and another is, as it was put nearly as eloquently in “The Incredibles”, saying that “everyone’s special” is the same as saying “no-one is”. This sort of example puts the lie to the whole redistributionist argument so beloved of a certain class of demagogues - for example, the hoodie-wearing ne’er-do-wells cluttering up streets and bridges in New York and elsewhere this past week. Someone has to scrub the grate, and it doesn’t make the job any easier if you call him an “aristocrat” while he’s doing it.
There’s a lot more that could be said about Gilbert and Sullivan, and how their works seem as applicable to the modern-day foibles of organizations as it was tailor-made to prick the pomposities of Victorian England. Their best operas are timeless, probably because a lot of the same pomposities are on display today. The prevalence of hypocrites who manipulate systems for their own ends; of bureaucrats who derive their power from preferment rather than ability; of mandarins who, blithely unconscious of inherent conflicts of interest deriving from “two capacities”, are able to argue themselves into anything that might benefit them; of willing dupes who recognize an argument as nonsense, but are nonetheless happy to applaud it anyway because it’s trendy nonsense; of self-important fools who arrogate to themselves all manner of power simply for its own sake, and who make certain that everything, one way or another, is always about them; of cowards who lead from behind, and yet who construct a “narrative” diametrically opposed to factual evidence to make their actions seem heroic; and above all, of ideologues who believe that they can change the meaning of words by fiat, and who think that reality is whatever they say it is.
These plagues, it seems, are timeless. Sir William and Sir Arthur knew them, and for twenty-five years they pilloried and abominated them in one of the most effulgent bodies of satirical work ever to grace the English language. They are, to borrow a Wagnerian concept, the leitmotifs of modern organization; recurrent themes that, although they change slightly from time to time, continue to resound throughout the score to indicate the presence or fate of a particular character. The persistent popularity of the G&S operas today probably owes something to the fact that the targets of their derision are still with us, seemingly just as prevalent as they were in the closing decades of the gaslight century. The tunes of the past echo in the organizations of the present.
Do I have any recommendations to offer? Sure! Anyone with a yen for more G&S should get their hands on the film Topsy-Turvy, an absolutely brilliant period piece about Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration on The Mikado that features a truly spectacular performance by Jim Broadbent as Gilbert (and a hilariously fey interpretation of the tenor Durward Lely by none other than Kevin McKidd, Rome’s Lucius Vorenus. Andy Serkis - Gollum - is in it too, but good luck picking him out).
P.S. Next week: a critical analysis of the internal logic of the 25 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas as seen through the lens of complexity theory.
P.P.S. Just kidding. But if you want a brief (22 minute) explanation of what happens in the 25 hours of Das Ringe der Niebelungen, you should listen to Anna Russell's magnificent 1953 summary of the four operas of Wagner's masterwork.