William S. Gilbert's wicked wit for liberty

Gilbert (1836-1911) was the greatest English dramatist since Shakespeare, best known for a dozen comic operas he wrote with composer Arthur Sullivan. Individualist H.L. Mencken wrote, "The great quality of Gilbert's humor was its undying freshness, an apparent spontaneity which familiarity could not stale...[he was] even above Mark Twain, the merrymaker of his generation."

The first Gilbert and Sullivan success was Trial by Jury (1875) which pokes fun at the legal profession:

"Yes, now I am a Judge!
"Though all my law is fudge,
"Yet I'll never, never budge,
"But I'll live and die a Judge!"

H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), a romp about politics and the British Navy:

"I always voted at my party's call,
"And I never thought of thinking for myself at all."

Gilbert ridiculed the naval bureaucracy, as in these lines:

"When I was a lad I served a term
"As office boy to an Attorney's firm.
"I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
"And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
"I polished up that handle so carefulee
"That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee...

"Now, landsmen all, whoever you may be,
"If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
"If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
"Be careful to be guided by this golden rule --
"Stick close to your desk and never go to sea,
"And you may all be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!"

As imperialism was embraced by intellectuals throughout Europe and America, Gilbert parodied the lust for military glory. The Pirates of Penzance (1879):

"Go ye heroes, go to glory,
"Though you die in combat gory,
"Ye shall live in song and story.
"Go to immortality!
"Go to death, and go to slaughter;
"Die, and every Cornish daughter
"With her tears your grave shall water.
"Go, ye heroes, go and die!"

The Pirate King sings:

"When I sally forth to seek my prey
"I help myself in a royal way:
"I sink a few more ships, it's true,
"Than a well-bred monarch ought to do;
"But many a king on a first-class throne,
"If he wants to call his crown his own,
"Must manage somehow to get through
"More dirty work than ever I do,
"For I am a Pirate King."

From the famous Pirates of Penzance patter-song:

"I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
"I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
"I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical,
"From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
"I'm very well acquainted too with matters mathematical,
"I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
"About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot 'o news --
"With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse...

"For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
"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."

Patience (1881), with more jibes at military swagger:

"When I first put this uniform on,
"I said, as I looked in the glass,
"'It's one to a million
"That any civilian
"My figure and form will surpass,
"Gold lace has a charm for the fair,
"And I've plenty of that, and to spare...'"

In Patience, Colonel Calverly delivers this patter-song (one needn't understand all the allusions to appreciate the humor):

"Get at the wealth of the Czar (if you can) --
"The family pride of a Spaniard from Aragon --
"Force of Mephisto pronouncing a ban --
"A smack of Lord Waterford, reckless and rollicky --
"Swagger of Roderick, heading his clan --
"The keen penetration of Paddington Pollaky --
"Grace of an Odalisque on a divan --
"The genius strategic of Caesar or Hannibal --
"Skill of Sir Garnet in thrashing a cannibal --
"Flavour of Hamlet -- the Stranger, a touch of him --
"Little of Manfred (but not very much of him) --
"Beadle of Burlington -- Richard's show --
"Mr. Micawber and Madame Tussaud!
"Take of these elements all that is fusible,
"Melt them all down in a pipkin or crucible,
"Set them to simmer and take off the scum,
"And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum!"

Iolanthe (1882), which takes on politicians:

"The Law is the true embodiment
"Of everything that's excellent.
"It has no kind of fault or flaw,
"And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
"The constitutional guardian I
"Of pretty young Wards in Chancery,
"All very agreeable girls -- and none
"Are over the age of twenty-one.
"A pleasant occupation for
"A rather susceptible Chancellor!"

Strephon becomes a Member of Parliament and introduces a bill to make competitive examinations the basis for admitting people to the Peerage. One Lord Mountararat expresses his objection:

"When Britain really ruled the waves --
"The House of Peers made no pretence
"To intellectual eminence,
"Or scholarship sublime;
"Yet Britain won her proudest bays
"In good Queen Bess's glorious days!
"When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
"As every child can tell,
"The House of Peers, throughout the war,
"Did nothing in particular,
"And did it very well:
"Yet Britain set the world ablaze
"In good King George's glorious days!"

A chorus sings:

"Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
"Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!
"Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses!
"Tantara! Tzing! Boom!
"We are peers of the highest station,
"Paragons of legislation,
"Pillars of the British nation!"

Princess Ida (1884),with barbs going all around:

"I know everybody's income and what everybody earns;
"And I carefully compare it with the income tax returns;
"But to benefit humanity however much I plan,
"Yet everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
"And I can't think why!"

In The Mikado (1885), which may be the most frequently performed theatrical work in the English speaking world, Gilbert aimed his wicked wit at those who believed laws could uplift people. For instance:

"Our great Mikado, virtuous man,
"When he to rule our land began,
"Resolved to try,
"A plan whereby
"Young men might best be steadied
"So he decreed, in words succinct.
"That all who flirted, leered or winked
"(Unless cunnibially linked),
"Should forthwith be beheaded
"And I expect you'll all agree
"That he was right to so decree.
"And I am right,
"And you are right,
"And all is right as right can be!"

For The Mikado, Gilbert wrote an amusing dialogue about the stupidity of laws:

"YUM-YUM: And we must obey the law.

"NANKI-POO: Deuce take the law!"

"YUM-YUM: I wish it would, but it won't!

"NANKI-POO: If it were not for that, how happy we might be!

"YUM-YUM: Happy indeed!

"NANKI-POO: If it were not for the law, we should not be sitting side by side, like that.

"YUM-YUM: Instead of being obliged to sit half a mile off, like that.

"NANKI-POO: We should be gazing into each other's eyes, like that.

"YUM-YUM: Breathing sighs of unutterable love -- like that.

"NANKI-POO: With our arms round each other's waists, like that.

"YUM-YUM: Yes, if it wasn't for the law.
"NANKI-POO: If it wasn't for the law."

It seems unimaginable that anybody could find humor in totalitarian terror, but Gilbert did it when he wrote these lyrics for the Lord High Executioner:

"And some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
"I've got a little list -- I've got a little list
"Of society offenders who might well be underground,
"And who never would be missed -- who never would be missed!
"There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs --
"All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs --
"All children who are up in dates, and floor you with 'em flat --
"All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that --
"And all third persons who on spoiling tet-a-tetes insist --
"They'd none of 'em be missed -- they'd none of 'em be missed...

"Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
"All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
"And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
"And who 'doesn't think she waltzes, but would rather like to try';
"And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist --
"I don't think she'd be missed -- I'm sure she'd not be missed...

"But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list,
"For they'd none of 'em be missed -- they'd none of 'em be missed!"

In another vein:

"LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER: The Mikado is struck by the fact that no executions have taken place in Titipu for a year and decrees that unless somebody is beheaded within one month the post of Lord High Executioner shall be abolished, and the city reduced to the rank of a village!

"PISH-TUSH: "But that will involve us all in irretrievable ruin!

"LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER: "Yes. There is no help for it, I shall have to execute somebody at once. The only question is, who shall it be?

"POOH-BAH: "Well, it seems unkind to say so, but as you are already under sentence of death for flirting, everything seems to point to you.

"LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER: "To me? What are you talking about? I can't execute myself.

"POOH-BAH: "Why not?

"LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER: "Why not? Because, in the first place, self-decapitation is an extremely difficult, not to say dangerous, thing to attempt; and in the second, it's suicide, and suicide is a capital offense."

Ruddigore (1887), which explored contemporary morality:

"ROBIN: On Tuesday I made a false income-tax return.
"ALL: Ha! ha!
"1ST GHOST: That's nothing:
"2ND GHOST: Nothing at all.
"3RD GHOST: Everybody does that.
"4TH GHOST: It's expected of you."

More digs at the aristocracy:

"Ye well-to-do squires, who live in the shires,
"Where petty distinctions are vital,
"Who found Atheneums and local museums,
"With views to a baronet's title --
"Ye butchers and bakers and candlestick makers
"Who sneer at all things that are tradey --
"Whose middle-class lives are embarrassed by wives
"Who long to parade as 'My lady',
"Oh! allow me to offer a word of advice,
"The title's uncommonly dear at the price!
"Ye supple M.P.'s, who go down on your knees,
"Your precious identity sinking,
"And vote black or white as your leaders indite
"(Which saves you the trouble of thinking),
"For your country's good name, her repute, or her shame,
"You don't care the snuff of a candle --
"But you're paid for your game when you're told that your name
"Will be graced by a baronet's handle --
"Oh! allow me to give you a word of advice --
"The title's uncommonly dear at the price!"

The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), a story involving the Tower of London where so many political dissidents had been imprisoned and executed.

"Tower Warders,
"Under orders,
"Gallant pikemen, valliant sworders!
"Brave in bearing,
"Foemen scaring,

"In their bygone days of daring!
"Ne'er a stranger
"There to danger --
"Each was o'er the world a ranger;
"To the story
"Of our glory
"Each a bold contributory!"

The Gondoliers (1889), about the seduction of political power: "Yes, that's the sort of politician for my money!"

After two gondoliers, Giuseppe and Marco Palmieri, declare themselves to be ardent republicans who hate kings, Don Alhambra del Bolero, the Grand Inquisitor, informs them that one of them -- he doesn't know which -- is heir to the throne:

"GIUSEPPE: When I say that I detest kings, I mean I detest bad kings.

"DON ALHAMBRA: I see. It's a delicate distinction.

"GIUSEPPE: Quite so. Now I can conceive a kind of king -- an ideal king -- the creature of my fancy, you know -- who would be absolutely unobjectionable. A kin, for instance, who would abolish taxes and make everything cheap, except gondolas --

"MARIO: And give a great many free entertainments to the gondoliers --

"GIUSEPPE: And let off fireworks on the Grand Canal, and engage all the gondolas for the occasion --

"MARIO: And scramble money on the Rialto among the gondoliers.

"GIUSEPPE: Such a king would be a blessing to his people, and if I were a kin, that is the sort of king I would be."

Don Alhambra makes both Marco and Giuseppe king until he can determine which one is the rightful heir. "And may we take our friends with us, and give them places about the Court," Mario asks. Don Alhambra: "Undoubtedly. That's always done!"

Their wives relish the fun of being a royal:

"Then one of us will be a Queen,
"And sit on a golden throne,
"With a crown instead,
"Of a hat on her head,
"And diamonds all her own!
"With a beautiful robe of gold and green...

"She'll drive about in a carriage and pair,
"With the King on her left-hand side,
"And a milk-white horse,
"As a matter of course,
"Whenever she wants to ride!
"With beautiful silver shoes to wear
"Upon her dainty feet;
"With endless stocks
"Of beautiful frocks
"And as much as she wants to eat!"

Giuseppe sings about his vision of ruling:

"First, we polish off some batches
"Of political dispatches,
"And foreign politicians circumvent:
"Then, if business isn't heavy,
"We may hold a Royal levee,
"Or ratify some Acts of Parliament.
"Then we probably review the household troops --
"With the usual 'shalloo humps!' and 'Shalloo hoops!'
"Or receive with ceremonial and state
"An interesting Eastern potentate.

"Oh, philosophers may sing
"Of the troubles of a King;
"Yet the duties are delightful, and the privileges great;
"But the privilege and pleasure
"That we treasure beyond measure
"Is to run on little errands for the Ministers of State."

Gilbert goes on to lampoon Marx's mindless egalitarianism:

"For every one who feels inclined,
"Some post we undertake to find
"Congenial with his frame of mind --
"And all shall equal be.
"The Aristocrat who banks with Coutts --
"The Aristocrat who hunts and shoots --
"The Aristocrat who cleans our boots --
"They all shall equal be!"

"In short, whoever you may be,
"To this conclusion you'll agree,
"When every one is somebodee,
"Then no one's anybody!"

Utopia, Limited (1893), making light of many conventional ideas: "Life without a care -- every want supplied by a kind and fatherly monarch, who, despot though he be, has no other thought than to make his people happy...Here we have no need to think, because our monarch anticipates all our wants, and our political opinions are formed for us by the journals to which we subscribe..." By contrast: "England has made herself what she is because in that favoured land every one has to think for himself."

The Grand Duke (1896), about a peaceful revolution:

"Unlike the complicated laws
"A Parliamentary draftsman draws,
"It may be briefly stated.
"By this ingenius law,
"If any two shall quarrel,
"They may not fight
"With falchions bright
"(Which seemed to him immoral);
"But each a card shall draw,
"And he who draws the lowest
"Shall (so 'twas said)
"Be thenceforth dead...

"The winner must adopt
"The loser's poor relations --
"Discharge his debts,
"Pay all his bets,
"And take his obligations,
"In short, the winner takes the loser's place,
"With all its obligations."


"ALL: Well -- what's the news? How is the election going?

"ERNST DUMMKOPF: Oh, it's a certainty -- a practical certainty! Two of the candidates have been arrested for debt, and the third is a baby in arms -- so, if you keep your promises, and vote solid, I'm cockshure of election!

"OLGA: Trust to us. But you remember the conditions?

"ERNEST DUMMKOPF: "Yes -- all of you shall be provided for, for life. Every man shall be ennobled -- every lady shall have unlimited credit at the Court Milliner's, and all salaries shall be paid weekly in advance!

"GRETA: Oh, it's quite clear he knows how to rule a Grand Duchy!"

Harry Benford, author of The Gilbert and Sullivan Lexicon, reports that in the United States alone, there are some 150 theatrical companies which produce at least one Gilbert & Sullivan operetta a year. According to the BBC's Bradley, their work is "performed more often than those of anyone else except the Beatles...In terms of the number of both amateur and professional performances they are well ahead of more recent musical partnerships like Rogers and Hammerstein or Rice and Lloyd Webber." High quality video productions reach people who can't get to a live performance. It looks like Gilbert's free spirit is soaring into the new millennium.

"Song and Dance" in Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty, A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom's Greatest Champions (New York: Free Press, 2000).

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