Carolyn Williams on Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert & SullivanThe following is an interview with Carolyn Williams, author of Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody. You can also listen to an interview with Williams on WHYY Radio.

Question: What’s new in your book about Gilbert and Sullivan?

Carolyn Williams: This is the first book that makes a sustained argument about how and why gender matters in the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Too often, Gilbert is blamed for employing stereotypes—when that is the whole point. Only by making the received views, the stereotypes, and the cultural absurdities of the Victorian period show up in high relief could he launch a critique. Gender roles, relations, norms, assumptions, and patterns of socialization—all are subject to this critique.

The surprising thing is: seen through this lens, the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan turn out to be not at all as conservative as many people have thought.

Another thing that’s new is my discussion of parody. In the first place, I treat parody as a matter of temporality. A parody sets up an implicit distinction between now and then, favoring the present moment of the parody and casting the object of the parody back into the past, as a thing old-fashioned and outworn. Inherent in parody is the force of this historical distinction.

In the second place, I emphasize genre parody. True, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan are often based on the parody of a single work; for example, The Sorcerer (1877) is founded on a parody of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (1832). But the generalized parody—of the traditional convention of the magic potion—is even more important.

So, in the third place, genre parody allows for a differentiated audience. Some audience members will “get” the specific reference, while others will enjoy the opera just as much by focusing on the general allusion. This differentiated audience becomes important especially when the objects of parody are oriented around class, gender, and cultural politics.

Q: How can you tell that Gilbert and Sullivan really were thinking about gender?

CW: Well, there are both thematic and formal ways of making this clear. Let’s start with themed representations. When the young princesses in Utopia, Limited (1893) are exhibited in the public square, “from ten to four without a pause,” displaying the behavior of proper English girls during courtship, it’s easy to see that those decorous forms of gendered socialization are being criticized. Or take Rose Maybud in Ruddigore (1887), who was hung, as an infant, in a plated dish-cover to the knocker of a workhouse door, with only a change of baby-linens and an etiquette book. That etiquette book stands in for the entire process of feminine socialization, and Rose consults it obsessively. There is something overt like this—or many things—in every single opera. Nor is this attention to gender only about women. Humorous stereotypes of the Dragoon Guards in Patience (1881) and the Peers in Iolanthe (1882) call attention to an old-fashioned form of masculinity, stuffy and useless but still successful on the marriage market. Representations of gender often abut on considerations of sexuality, too—in the depiction of the “aesthetic poets” in Patience, for example, or the analysis of the lawsuit for breach of promise in Trial by Jury (1875).

The form of the operas, too, emphasizes gender. One of the best ways to see this is to look at the Savoy Chorus. One great innovation on Gilbert’s part was to make the Chorus part of the opera’s action, and another was to divide the Chorus into a male and a female cohort, characterized as stereotypical “opposites.” It’s funny on the face of things to consider Fairies and Peers as gendered opposites, or Pirates and Wards in Chancery. But these oppositions form the major structural element—and thus the basis for an analysis of gender—from Trial by Jury in 1875 until The Yeomen of the Guard in 1888. The device is raised to its highest power in the grand double choruses—in which the male and female choruses sing together, but two different melodies (that is, often contrapuntally).

Then there are the conventional figures having to do with gender. The huge contralto character, for example, gets a new interpretation in my book—not as an embodiment of misogyny, but as a figure of parody, a response to the pantomime and burlesque of the time. And I treat many other conventional figures whose representation bears on gender, as well—the Jolly Jack Tar, for example, the Aesthete, the Fairy.

Q: Why do you use the term “parody” for those thematic representations and those conventional figures, instead of “satire”?

CW: Because I want to concentrate on how those conventions are formed over time, in history, in culture, and especially in genres. In other words, they are not realistic; they don’t pretend to refer to a real world outside the theater. They are ostentatiously conventional. They are artificial, shaped, and made things. If you concentrate on social forms and social formations, even figures like lawyers and sailors can be seen in their conventional rather than their realistic aspect.

What I most want to accomplish with my book is to show that Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t come out of nowhere—but that their work was profoundly related to, embedded in, and indebted to the cultural and theatrical forms of the nineteenth century.

Q: What about the terms “genre” and “parody” from your title?

CW: Genre is always associated with gender, for one thing. But aside from gender, the other main argument of my book is that Gilbert and Sullivan created a new genre—“English comic opera”—and they did so through parodies of older genres of theater, music, and literature, both English and Continental. For example, they parodied grand opera, melodrama, burlesque, extravaganza, music hall, minstrel shows, Shakespeare, Victorian poetry—to name just a few of the most important. And the result—English comic opera, often simply called “Gilbert and Sullivan”—is an amalgamation of these parodies.

Interestingly enough, once this new genre was formed, it, too, became susceptible to parody in its turn. I’m fascinated by all the parodies of Gilbert and Sullivan over the years.

Q: Is this book about the libretti mainly—or does the music join in with the parody, too?

CW: The music is often parodic, too. Sullivan was a master of so many musical styles, and his musical wit is incredible. My book is mainly about the way the operas as a whole fit into and make fun of Victorian culture—but there is a big section in the introduction about Sullivan’s music and the way it contributes to the things I’m saying about gender, genre, and parody.

Q: What is your favorite Gilbert and Sullivan opera?

CW: Iolanthe—that’s the one in which the Fairies take over Parliament. What’s yours?

Q: The Mikado, I guess. I loved Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film, which focuses on the original production of The Mikado (1885).

CW: I loved that film, too—and I talk about it in my book. The depth of historical research evident in Topsy-Turvy is really impressive, and the characterizations are excellent. I would say that that film contains the very best representation of the Gilbert and Sullivan performance style that I’ve ever seen.

Q: Are there any other recent productions that you’ve especially liked?

CW: Depending on what we mean by “recent,” I could go back as far as Joseph Papp’s Pirates of Penzance (Broadway, 1981) and the Stratford Festival’s Iolanthe (1984), both of which I liked a lot. I think that updates and modernizations can be good sometimes. After all, the genre itself is built on parody, and what is an update but a parody by another name? A strong momentum toward further parody is set in motion by the operas themselves (which I talk about in an afterword called “The Momentum of Parody”). But productions that successfully attempt fidelity to the late-nineteenth-century performing style are my favorites. The last few Gilbert and Sullivan operas staged by the New York City Opera have been great—especially Patience (2005) and Pirates (2007).

Q: Do you plan to continue writing about Gilbert and Sullivan?

CW: Yes! Comprehensive as it tries to be, this book excluded a lot of out-takes that will probably see the light of day before long. But my main current research at the moment has to do with Victorian melodrama. I found my way to this topic while I was doing research on Gilbert and Sullivan. I knew that they were making fun of melodrama, but I didn’t understand enough about melodrama to grasp the humor fully. So several years of my time were devoted to learning about melodrama in order that I could understand H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1880), and Ruddigore. And now I’m interested in Victorian melodrama in its own right.

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