Why W.S. Gilbert is my spirit animal

Now that I have gotten past the initial “why I started a blog post” it is time to get to the actual blogging. So where to begin?

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Anyone who has known me for even a short period of time knows of my borderline obsession with the 13 operas (Thespis does not count) written by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in the 1870s and 1880s. But what is it about the so-called Savoy Operas that I find so enthralling? Sullivan’s music is a key part. But Sullivan’s music is important enough for a separate blog entry. This article is about W.S. Gilbert, and how 13 “topsy-turvy” operas that he wrote over 130 years ago (Iolanthe turned 130 last year) can resonate in the 21st Century.

For a more comprehensive biography of Gilbert, I would recommend Wikipedia. The short version is W.S. Gilbert was a lawyer turned journalist turned writer. By the 1870s, Gilbert was a prolific writer of satires and farces. In 1875, he began a collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, and together they became one of the greatest librettist-composer duos of all times, producing such famous works as HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.

So back to the original question: What is it about these operas that a 22-year old American in the 21st century like myself can find entertaining? The short answer: They are funny. Gilbert was a master of satire. He was a 19th-century Stephen Colbert, critiquing politics and society by taking viewpoints and stances to their logical extremes. He also went after the sacred cows of his day. In his first six operas with Sullivan, he satirized the British legal system, British social norms, the Royal Navy, the British Army, a popular British cultural fad, and the British government (are you noticing a theme here?). His opera Iolanthe (1882) was considered scandalous at its opening because the members of the male chorus portrayed Britain’s House of Lords. We see parodies of politicians all the time on SNL, but in the 1880s this was considered quite shocking. And the audiences loved it.

For example most people are familiar with the famous song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” from Act I of The Pirates of Penzance. However, the humor of the song can be missed if you don’t play close attention for the punchline. Here is a Major-General boasting about his knowledge of mathematics, natural science, history, languages, and the fine arts. It’s a fun song full of tongue-twisting lyrics, but the last line of the song actually delivers the joke: “For my military knowledge thought I’m plucky and adventure-y/ has only been brought down to the beginning of the century. But still in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” So as much as this general knows about art and science, his knowledge of military matters is about 70 years out of date, and furthermore this seems to be typical for most “modern major-generals.”

It’s true some of the humor is lost on modern audiences. For example, the 1881 opera Patience was a smash hit in its day but is one of the lesser known Savoy operas today. The reason is because it specifically satirizes the Aesthetic movement, a ridiculously popular cultural trend in the late 1870s. Because of the opera’s topical nature, it quickly faded into obscurity. But the fundamental plot is still funny. It stars a poet named Reginald Bunthorne, who has adopted a persona similar to Oscar Wilde’s as a way of attracting women. It only takes a few minutes with Bunthorne on stage to realize what he truly is: A Hipster. He even sings a song about how special he is for liking artists and reading books you’ve never heard of.

And that right there is what makes Gilbert’s humor special: it’s capacity to be timeless. Sure, not a lot of people in the 21st century have met an aesthetic poet, but we’ve all met someone that thinks they’re cool because they can say “Oh my favorite band? You’ve never heard of them.” Gilbert’s humor is able to satirize elements of the human condition that are still with us today. Topics addressed in the Savoy Operas include: Ineffectual politicians (Iolanthe), governments trying to legislate morality (The Mikado), love and marriage (The Sorcerer), annoying pop culture fads (Patience), gender relations and inequality (Princess Ida), and incompetent people in positions of authority (actually this is pretty much common in all 13 Savoy Operas). These are all still relevant issues today, so Gilbert’s humor stays relevant.

It’s not just Gilbert’s humor that interests me, but his life and personality resonate with me too. I recognize a lot of myself in W.S. Gilbert. He constantly suffered from anxieties, felt uncomfortable in large groups, stressed over insignificant details, and was generally introverted. People that didn’t know him very well often characterized him as misanthropic, a characterization he did not go out of his way to dispel. He even tended to cultivate this image. But at the same time, he enjoyed the company of close friends and went out of his way to help people he cared about (he died in 1911 at the age of 75 trying to rescue a drowning girl).

Is this all a tad corny? Yeah. But hey, I’m sure everyone at some point in their life looked at some famous person as a role model. Mine was just an English playwright that died 80 years before I was born.

At some point, I will dedicate a full blog post to each of the thirteen Savoy Opera (again, Thespis doesn’t count). I really love these operas, and nothing would make me happier then for you, dear readers, to go out and discover them on your own. Spotify is very helpful in that regard. But it is occasionally hard to understand all of them (I still don’t get all the jokes), so stay tuned for my Gilbert and Sullivan’s sparknotes series, coming soon to a blog near you. Hopefully this will help you understand (if only just a little) why I am the way I am.

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