Monday, June 03, 2024

Memories of Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert & Sullivan: Iolanthe (1882)

Between 1976 and 1978, I was in the cast - that is to say, the chorus - of three Gilbert & Sullivan productions at my old High School, Rangitoto College. They were, in chronological order, Iolanthe, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Gondoliers. I had a (very) small speaking part in the last of them.

To be honest, I was no great shakes as an actor or a singer, but I could hold a note and follow directions, and I turned up to all the rehearsals (including the weekend "Opera Camps" held for each production). The picture above should give you some idea of the kind of thing they were: a big stage, crowded with figures, with a few vague props and a backdrop.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers (1882)

Mrs. Zigliani was in charge of the music, and Mr. Carter (was it?) in charge of the acting and stagecraft. Both were inspirational figures - particularly the latter, who had a little group of (so-called) "drama sucks" who hung on his every word.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Pirates of Penzance (1879)

Years later, watching Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie in yet another school production, I was very struck by the strange coincidences with my own family: the introverted Laura seemed a close fit with my sister Anne, the "gentleman caller" Jim O'Connor's past school triumphs as the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance matched up with my own brother Jim's success in the same role ...

Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie (1944)

What did it all mean? I'd never actually read Williams' play, so there was a strange, dislocating moment where I wondered if the director had rewritten it slightly for a local audience, as he was wont to do with the Gilbert & Sullivan operas. It soon became clear to me that that was not the case, but I still find that play bafflingly personal and - dare I say it? - prophetic of some of the stresses and strains, and future disappointments, in my own family.

That's probably the main flavour of these reminiscences, in fact. I remember mooning hopelessly, helplessly over the desperately glamorous girls from higher forms who took the main parts in the operas. And yet, when one of them spoke kindly to me when she found a copy of Marvell's poems I'd brought with me to rehearsal, I found myself quite unable to reply. I still writhe with embarassment every time my mind insists on re-enacting that scene, in fact.

Gilbert & Sullivan: Chorus of Peers in Iolanthe

What else has it left me? A few snatches of verse and tunes to hum in moments of stress:
He who shies
at such a prize
is not worth a maravedi!
I don't recall the rest of that one, but I seem to remember it ending up with the ingenious rhyme "House of Peers for House of Peri" - the male chorus of Iolanthe consisted of members of the House of Lords while the female chorus were all fairies (or "Peri", in Persian folklore).

There was also a splendid ballad halfway through the Opera where one of the principals described the vital necessity of retaining the Upper House of Parliament:
When Wellington beat Bonaparte
as every schoolboy knows
the House of Lords
all through the war
did nothing in particular
and did it very well

H.M.S. Pinafore left me quite a bit more in the way of memories: for example, the following beautiful sample of Sullivan's more lyrical vein, sung by the unfortunate Captain Corcoran, who is (you'll recall) "never, never sick at sea":
Fair Moon, to thee I sing,
Bright regent of the heavens
And then there's this piece of crosstalk between Sir Joseph ("The ruler of the Queen's Navee"), the captain, the crew, and the redoubtable Little Buttercup:
Sir Joseph:My pain and my surprise
you may guess from the expression of my eyes!

Chorus:How terrible the aspect of his eyes!

Buttercup:Ere upon this loss you lay much stress
a long forgotten crime I would confess:

A many years ago
when I was young and charming
as some of you may know
I practised baby-farming

Oh this is most alarming
when she was young and charming
she practised baby-farming
a many years ago
Two tender babes I nussed
one was of low condition
the other upper-crust
a regular patrician

So this is the position
one was of low condition
the other upper-crust
a regular patrician
... etc. etc.
I find, on consulting an online version of the text, that my recollections are pretty hazy and inaccurate. Never mind, I leave them as they stand, in the interests of adding verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, to quote Pooh-Bah in The Mikado.

Li'l Abner (1956)

The Gilbert & Sullivan team had had enough of pushing water uphill by the end of The Gondoliers, however, so another member of staff, Mr. Baumgart, offered to take up the baton. The musical he selected was Li'l Abner, however, and even though I was offered quite a meaty role in it, I somehow took it against this choice of entertainment.

Pure snobbery, no doubt - and I blush for it now, but the one thing I'll say for this rather peevish decision of mine is that it meant that I was finally able to sit in the audience for one of these productions. I have to say that it hugely amused and entertained - and the guy who ended up playing my role did a wonderful job, far better (probably) than I would have done myself.

Mike Leigh, dir. Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I certainly don't regret spending so much time compulsorily immersing myself in W. S. Gilbert's famous "world of topsy-turvydom." It's one of those rare, incommunicable experiences - a little like being in a Shakespeare play, I suppose. The audience hopefully enjoys the end product more than the cast (it's not much of a production if they don't), but they can never really know the play in as much depth without having rehearsed and recited and stumbled over every line and bit of business.

Certainly being in some kind of a school dramatic production is seems like a necessary rite of passage. There was no way I would ever have had the skills to be in the chorus of West Side Story - another one of the plays they put on while I was there. For me, Gilbert & Sullivan was just the ticket.

You can find an (almost) complete list of Gilbert's plays here, at the Gilbert and Sullivan archive, along with a list of what Sullivan considered his more major works. I've listed below the books and editions by and about the pair which I myself have collected.

'Spy': W. S. Gilbert (1881)

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert

  1. The Bab Ballads, with which are included Songs of a Savoyard. Illustrated by the Author. 1904. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd. / New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1964.
  2. Original Plays. In Four Series. 4 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1911 & 1917.
    • First Series: The Wicked World (1873); Pygmalion and Galatea (1871); Charity (1874); The Princess (1870); The Palace of Truth (1870); Trial by Jury (1875); Iolanthe (1882)
    • Second Series: Broken Hearts (1875); Engaged (1877); Sweethearts (1874); Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith (1876); Gretchen (1879); Tom Cobb (1875); The Sorcerer (1877); H.M.S. Pinafore (1878); The Pirates of Penzance (1879)
    • Third Series: Comedy and Tragedy (1884); Foggerty's Fairy (1881); Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1874); Patience (1881); Princess Ida (1884); The Mikado (1885); Ruddigore (1887); The Yeomen of the Guard (1888); The Gondoliers (1889); Utopia, Limited (1893)
    • Fourth Series: The Fairy's Dilemma (1904); The Grand Duke (1896); His Excellency (1894); "Haste to the Wedding" (1892); Fallen Fairies (1909); The Gentleman in Black (1870); Brantinghame Hall (1888); Creatures of Impulse (1871); Randall's Thumb (1871); The Fortune-Hunter (1897); Thespis (1871)
  3. The Plays & Poems of W. S. Gilbert: Including the Complete Text of the Fourteen Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, Three Other Gilbert Plays, and All the Bab Ballads. With Illustrations by the Author. [Thespis (1871); Trial by Jury (1875); The Sorcerer (1877); H.M.S. Pinafore (1878); The Pirates of Penzance (1879); Patience (1881); Iolanthe (1882); Princess Ida (1884); The Mikado (1885); Ruddigore (1887); The Yeomen of the Guard (1888); The Gondoliers (1889); Utopia Limited (1893); The Grand Duke (1896); with The Palace of Truth (1870); The Mountebanks (1892); His Excellency (1894)]. Preface by Deems Taylor. New York: Random House, 1932.
  4. Haining, Peter, ed. The Lost Stories of W. S. Gilbert. Illustrated by ‘Bab’. 1973. London: Robson Books Ltd., 1982.

  5. Carlo Pellegrini: Arthur Sullivan (1874)

    Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan

  6. The Savoy Operas: Being the Complete Text of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas as Originally Produced in the Years 1875-1896. 1926. London: Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1927.
  7. Bradley, Ian, ed. The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan [Trial by Jury (1875); The Sorcerer (1877); H.M.S. Pinafore (1878); The Pirates of Penzance (1879); Patience (1881); Iolanthe (1882); Princess Ida (1884); The Mikado (1885); Ruddigore (1887); The Yeomen of the Guard (1888); The Gondoliers (1889); Utopia Limited (1893); The Grand Duke (1896)]. 1982, 1984, 1996. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

  8. Leslie Baily: The Gilbert & Sullivan Book (1952)


  9. Pearson, Hesketh. Gilbert and Sullivan: A Biography. 1935. Penguin Books, 791. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1950.
  10. Baily, Leslie. The Gilbert & Sullivan Book: Revised Edition. 1952. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1956.
  11. Baily, Leslie. Gilbert & Sullivan and Their World. 1973. London: Book Club Associates / Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1974.

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