Book Review: The Mikado And Five Other Savoy Operas

The Mikado And Five Other Savoy Operas, by W.S. Gilbert

W.S. Gilbert, best known as half of the late Victorian powerhouse duo Gilbert & Sullivan, lived the sort of life that was full of drama and incident.  Queen Victoria snubbed him when offering knighthood to illustrious Brits.  He was kidnapped while a child in Italy and his parents had to pay a 25 quid ransom to get him back.  He was known as being a particularly biting person towards the prerogatives of class and the Queen appears to have been upset at the way that he mocked British culture and institutions in his farces.  This particular book provides a look at some of the more obscure of the Savoy Operas and provides little difficulty for the reader who is fond of reading plays [1], and will likely allow the reader to become familiar with plays that demonstrate the concerns of the author and that show a good deal of continuity throughout.  There is a remarkable consistency in the sort of preoccupations that these plays show, which indicates that aside from the silliness of the plays themselves that there was, at the base of them, something that Gilbert was trying to say in his scripts that is worth pondering about even as we laugh at the dialogue and songs and the contrived nature of many of his plots.

The contents of this particular book are as straightforward as can be imagined.  The book opens with a short biography of W.S. Gilbert.  After that come the scripts to six Savoy Operas:  The Mikado; Or, The Town Of Titipu, Ruddigore; or, The Witch’s Curse, The Yeoman Of The Guard; Or, The Merryman And His Maid, The Gondoliers; Or, The King Of Barataria, Utopia Limited; Or, The Flowers of Progress, and The Grand Duke; Or, The Statutory Duel.  There are some broad elements that many of these operas share, and among these operas I think that at all of them have at least something worth saying in our contemporary period and most of them would likely be immensely enjoyable.  In reading these particular plays, though, I can understand why Queen Victoria felt offended.  Many of these plays make rulers look ridiculous and totally incompetent, and most rulers are understandably more than a little bit sensitive about that sort of matter.  Much of the successful operation of authority in any institution is a certain amount of respect and there is no question that these plays reduce the respect put in authorities.

It is worthwhile to at least mention some of the serious concerns these plays tackle with in their ridiculous ways.  For there is no question that these plays are immensely silly–one could hardly expect otherwise.  Whether dealing with authoritarian rulers in places like Japan, Germany, and the South Pacific, or dealing with murderous ghosts as in Ruddigore, or the threat of execution in the Tower of London, which hits perhaps closest to home for Queen Victoria, the characters deal with the struggles of love and marriage as well as the barriers to happiness and even survival that spring from inflexible law or custom.  In the end love prevails and those characters of driving ambition are punished in some fashion.  Even if the characters frequent express fatalism or cynicism about the state of morality in their nations and in the behavior of authorities, there is basically a moral world within the plays itself, a sense of cosmic (if comic) justice, and an aspect of divine providence despite its oddness.  This may not be the sort of world many people are familiar with, but it has a lot to say, and some of the people that the librettist was talking to were not so inclined to heed the lessons.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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