It is with somewhat more than my usual trepidation that I set out to write my column this week.
The operettas written by Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur S. Sullivan in the last quarter of the nineteenth century are, for many of us, Ur-Monty Python. They are the comic source from which we are able to quote at endless length, because there is always something germane on any topic. They are the material which allows us instantly to find the other fanatics in the room, because they cheerfully cap our quotations or equally cheerfully wrangle with us about whether we’ve gotten the words precisely right. We sing them in the shower. We are always willing to see a production, no matter how expensively professional or embarrassingly amateur.
These operettas are, in other words, “The true embodiment of everything that’s excellent.”
They are also charming reading and listening for those who are possessed of a somewhat skeptical attitude toward political institutions.
Take, for example, the path to promotion of Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (Knight Companion of the Order of Bath). Sir Joseph appears in the operetta H.M.S. Pinafore as First Lord of the Admiralty, which was a civilian post rather than an office in the Royal Navy. The comic value of a naval commander with no naval experience did not escape Gilbert. He wrote a song to introduce Sir Joseph to the audience that records his rise from office boy to clerk, to the possessor of a junior partnership (“And that junior partnership I ween/Was the only ship that I ever had seen). He then becomes a member of parliament, where he “always voted at his party’s call/And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.” That sycophancy is rewarded with the post at the head of the Royal Navy. The ludicrous quality of this path to power is emphasized when Gilbert makes sure to have Sir Joseph inform us that he gets terribly seasick “when the breezes blow.”
Gilbert’s skewering of the political world probably peaks in Iolanthe, an operetta about the romantic misadventures of a band of fairies and the members of the House of Lords. The details are far too silly to explain here, but the operetta’s hero, Strephon, is half fairy and half human (“He’s a fairy down to the waist—but his legs are mortal”), and is unable to get the Lord Chancellor to allow him to marry Phyllis, the chancellor’s lovely young ward. To help him gain respectability, the Fairy Queen offers to put him into parliament, but Strephon objects that his mixed heritage is against him there as well. “I’m afraid I should do no good there—you see, down to the waist I’m a Tory of the most determined description, but my legs are a couple of confounded radicals, and, on a division, they’d be sure to take me into the wrong lobby. You see, they’re two to one, which is a strong working majority.”
After a brief pause while the Lord Chancellor attempts to collect some romantic rents by wooing his ward for himself, Strephon is magically hustled into parliament, “Liberal or Conservative, Whig or Tory, I don’t know, but into Parliament he shall go!,” and threatens that while there he will radically reform such practices as dismissing parliament for hunting season and will institute competitive examinations for dukedoms. The members of the House of Lords are horrified because “with a House of Peers composed exclusively of people of intellect, what’s to become of the House of Commons?” All ends happily, of course, when the Peers decide to marry the fairies and fly off to fairyland, because “now that the Peers are to be recruited entirely from persons of intelligence, I really don’t see what use we are, down here.”
But my all-time favorite politician in the world of Gilbert and Sullivan is Pooh-Bah, from The Mikado. This most aristocratic of gentlemen was “born sneering” but insists that his humble public service is a necessary sacrifice that helps to mortify his ancestral pride.
When all the great Officers of State resigned in a body because they were too proud to serve under an ex-tailor, did I not unhesitatingly accept all their posts at once? …It is consequently my degrading duty to serve this upstart as First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buckhounds, Groom of the Back Stairs, Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect, all rolled into one. And at a salary! A Pooh-Bah paid for his services! I a salaried minion! But I do it! It revolts me, but I do it.
The ever humble Pooh-bah also lowers himself, for his own good, to take bribes. His many offices often bring him into conflict with himself, requiring further bribes in order to achieve the desired outcome.
It’s all nonsense, of course, as are the comic turns on executions and imprisonment in The Mikado; the madcap versions of the legal system in Trial By Jury, Pirates of Penzance, and Iolanthe; and the topsy-turvy politics in nearly every operetta. But as the comic commentary begins to pile up, one begins to suspect that this is comedy with sharper teeth than anticipated. The operettas warrant a closer look, not just as comedy and as glorious music to hear and perform, but as sharp parodies of Victorian pretentions that should appeal to any Freeman reader and to all political skeptics.
Of course, as First Lord of the Treasury, I could propose a special vote that would cover all expenses, if it were not that, as Leader of the Opposition, it would be my duty to resist it, tooth and nail. Or, as Paymaster-General, I could so cook the accounts that, as Lord High Auditor, I should never discover the fraud. But then, as Archbishop of Titipu, it would be my duty to denounce my dishonesty and give myself into my own custody as First Commissioner of Police. … I don't say that all these distinguished people couldn't be squared; but it is right to tell you that they wouldn't be sufficiently degraded in their own estimation unless they are insulted with a very considerable bribe.