Why don’t people take Gilbert and Sullivan seriously?

Gilbert & Sullivan shows were huge hits in the late Victorian age; yet, as Tom Service has discovered, they remain not only masterful but also sharp and pertinent

Why don't people take Gilbert and Sullivan seriously?

Let me confess: I have not, for the majority of my life, been the very model of an unadulterated fan of the work of William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Instead, I have thought of their Savoy Operas as reliquaries of an antiquated Victorian-era jingoism, complacent bourgeois sentimentality, one-dimensional expressive jollification and tub-thumping establishmentarianism.

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That was, at least and at last, until I got off my high horse of prejudices, and realised what a pompous prig I was being in not properly attending to the miraculous world of topsy-turvy-dom that Sullivan and Gilbert create in their operas most satirical.

Some prejudices fall more easily than others: the idea of Sullivan’s musical sentimentality is easily overturned by hearing the precision, economy and sincerity in how he builds the dramatic tension of a scene like the end of the first act of The Yeoman of the Guard. He brilliantly mixes the funereal sombreness of a minor-key procession to a scaffold with an impassioned major-key melody for Elsie, the wife of the unfortunate prisoner – who fortunately for him and for the drama, manages to escape his date with destiny.

Sullivan’s creative conservatism? Again, easily o’erthrown: Sullivan explores the limits of the fearlessly ghoulish in his miraculous music for the ghostly ancestors of Ruddigore, and finds a manic delight in the music he composes for his patter songs, like the Modern Major General’s in The Pirates of Penzance, in which the momentum is made by Sullivan’s exquisite sense of rhythmic and harmonic timing just as much as it is by Gilbert’s words so quadrilateral and animalculous.

Yet the idea of Sullivan’s music being the soundtrack of imperial dreams of Little-Britisher patriotism seems harder to dislodge. But that’s only – yet again – because of my manifold cloth-eared ignorances. G&S’s penultimate collaboration in 1893 was a show called Utopia, Limited, a rapier-like satire on colonial ambition, British parliamentary democracy and the Joint Stock Company Act of 1862. And Sullivan’s music – with its parodies of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ as well as his own previous hits – is the expressive engine which makes the satire stick.

The subtlety and the savagery of the opera’s finale, a chorus mocking the hypocritical example set by Britain, the ‘island that dwells in the sea… Let us hope … that she’s all she professes to be!’, is that Sullivan’s deliriously joyful music makes his audiences clap the sight and sound of their own complicity in the colonial misadventure they’ve just witnessed. It’s as if Sullivan and Gilbert are saying to us: ‘you all know how corrupt and cronyist you are, but you’re going to keep doing it anyway, aren’t you?’ It’s in effect a fourth-wall-breaking satire that appears the more virtuosic, visionary and necessary today. 

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Illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan