Saturday, April 09, 2005

Gilbert & Sullivan On Iraq

Via the Washington Monthly Blog, this surprisingly good article in Harper's Magazine ("All scolding, all the time"), on the mistakes made in the reconstruction of Iraq, got me to thinking about Gilbert and Sullivan.

Let me explain. The article, by Canadian and all-around scold Naomi Klein, is about the way the reconstruction was planned and executed based on ideology, on the dream of making Iraq a national guinea-pig for conservative ideas about how to run an economy:

Governments, even neoconservative governments, rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: despite their enormous ideological advances, even George Bush's Republicans are, in their own minds, perennially sabotaged by meddling Democrats, intractable unions, and alarmist environmentalists.

Iraq was going to change all that. In one place on Earth, the theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect and uncompromised form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions.

As the rest of the article tells, it didn't quite work out that way. But there's already been a story of what happens when a group of people from the most powerful country in the world goes to a smaller country and tries to implement a lot of utopian economic theories. And it's Gilbert and Sullivan's next-to-last operetta, Utopia Limited.

This was Gilbert and Sullivan's "reunion" work, written in 1893 after they had been semi-officially split up for several years. It was a modest success but hasn't been much revived since: it's not as tuneful as Sullivan's earlier scores, has a poorly constructed libretto with too many sub-plots that never pay off, and has very few really good roles. But the basic story may be the sharpest satire Gilbert ever created, a remarkably astute send-up of colonialism and the misguided assumptions of both the colonisers and the colonised.

The setting, as the title implies, is Utopia, an island where nothing ever happens and the natives live all day "in lazy languor." The island is ruled by the benevolent despot King Paramount, whose power is checked by two "wise men," Scaphio and Phantis, who are empowered to have the King blown up if he gets out of line (Tarara, the "Public Exploder," stands by waiting to do that job). As the play begins, Paramount and his have become obsessed with England; they have heard so much of its greatness and superiority that they all want to be like the English... or, at least, what they have heard about the English:

CALYNX: England has made herself what she is because, in that favored land, every one has to think for himself. 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. Oh, think how much more brilliant this dialogue would have been, if we had been accustomed to exercise our reflective powers! They say that in England the conversation of the very meanest is a coruscation of impromptu epigram!

To make the country more English, Paramount has banned the native language, insisting that all subjects speak English; he has hired a proper English governess, Lady Sophy, to teach his youngest daughters how to be demure and shy, and his oldest daughter, Zara, is returning from England with a collection of English officers and officials who will show Utopia how to become "Anglicized." When Zara enters, accompanied by the British Captain Fitzbattleaxe, Paramount is shocked to find the Utopian maidens ogling Fitzbattleaxe's soldiers:

KING: Your Troopers appear to be receiving a troublesome amount of attention from those young ladies. I know how strict you English soldiers are, and I should be extremely distressed if anything occurred to shock their puritanical British sensitiveness.

FITZBATTLEAXE: Oh, I don't think there's any chance of that.

KING: You think not? They won't be offended?

FITZBATTLEAXE: Oh no! They are quite hardened to it. They get a good deal of that sort of thing, standing sentry at the Horse Guards.

KING: It's English, is it?

FITZBATTLEAXE: It's particularly English.

KING: Then, of course, it's all right. Pray proceed, ladies, it's particularly English.

Zara introduces the six officials she has brought with her from England to assist in the reconstruction of Utopian society:

ZARA: With a view to remodelling the political and social institutions of Utopia, I have brought with me six Representatives of the principal causes that have tended to make England the powerful, happy, and blameless country which the consensus of European civilization has declared it to be. Place yourself unreservedly in the hands of these gentlemen, and they will reorganize your country.

The six British expatriates are Fitzbattleaxe, the military man; Sir Bailey Barre, the lawyer:

A marvelous Philologist who'll undertake to show
That "yes" is but another and a neater form of "no."

Lord Dramaleigh, the former Lord Chamberlain, whose specialty is in purging all "indecency" from the stage; the County Councillor who purges indecent behaviour from the streets; the naval officer, Captain Corcoran (a cameo from H.M.S. Pinafore), and most importantly, Mr. Goldbury, the stockbroker, whose dream is to take the British principles of corporatism and limited liability and apply them to an entire society. Goldbury explains the basic theory of the limited-liability corporation:

If you come to grief, and creditors are craving
(For nothing that is planned by mortal head
Is certain in this Vale of Sorrow--saving
That one's Liability is Limited),--
Do you suppose that signifies perdition?
If so, you're but a monetary dunce--
You merely file a Winding-Up Petition,
And start another Company at once!
Though a Rothschild you may be
In your own capacity,
As a Company you've come to utter sorrow--
But the Liquidators say,
"Never mind--you needn't pay,"
So you start another company to-morrow!

Goldbury's idea is for Utopia to be governed on the corporation principle: not only will the whole country be run as a corporation, but every individual in Utopia should become a corporation. Paramount has reservations, but comes around when Goldbury tells him that this is his chance to be even more Anglicized than the English:

Well, at first sight it strikes us as dishonest,
But if its's good enough for virtuous England--
The first commercial country in the world--
It's good enough for us...
And do I understand that Great Britain
Upon this Joint Stock principle is governed?

We haven't come to that, exactly--but
We're tending rapidly in that direction.
The date's not distant.

(enthusiastically) We will be before you!
We'll go down in posterity renowned
As the First Sovereign in Christendom
Who registered his Crown and Country under
The Joint Stock Company's Act of Sixty-Two.

Act two takes place after the six Englishmen (known as the "Flowers of Progress") have acted on their plans for the Anglicization of Utopia. As Fitzbattleaxe explains, because they are free from the constraints of democracy and can enact whatever policies they want, they have been able to put into practice all the brilliant ideas they could never sell to England:

FITZBATTLEAXE: Freed from the trammels imposed upon them by idle Acts of Parliament, all have given their natural talents full play and introduced reforms which, even in England, were never dreamt of!

ZARA: But perhaps the most beneficent changes of all has been effected by Mr. Goldbury, who... has applied the Limited Liability principle to individuals, and every man, woman, and child is now a Company Limited with liability restricted to the amount of his declared Capital! There is not a christened baby in Utopia who has not already issued his little Prospectus!

FITZBATTLEAXE: Marvelous is the power of a Civilization which can transmute, by a word, a Limited Income into an Income Limited.

As the Flowers of Progress explain in a catchy number, a parody of the Christy Minstrels, they have made Utopia into the England that they always hoped England would be:

It really is surprising
What a thorough Anglicizing
We have brought about--Utopia's quite another land;
In her enterprising movements,
She is England--with improvements,
Which we dutifully offer to our mother-land!

In the number, and in several of the dialogue scenes that follow, we learn that the Flowers of Progress have sold their policies to the Utopians by assuring them that they are all the official policies of England, whether they are or not: "Are you aware that Sir Bailey Barre has introduced a law of libel by which all editors of scurrilous newspapers are publicly flogged--as in England?" All seems well for the Utopians, though, and especially for Paramount: Scaphio and Phantis no longer have any power over him, because as a corporation, he cannot be blown up: "You may wind up a limited company, but you cannot conveniently blow it up."

But in the final scene, Scaphio and Phantis strike back, leading the people in revolt against the Flowers of Progress. As Scaphio explains, the reconstruction of Utopia has made a mess of everything:

Our pride and boast--the Army and the Navy--
Have both been reconstructed and remodeled
Upon so irresistible a basis
That all the neighboring nations have disarmed--
And War's impossible! Your County Councillor
Has passed such drastic Sanitary laws
That all the doctors dwindle, starve, and die!
The laws, remodeled by Sir Bailey Barre,
Have quite extinguished crime and litigation:
The lawyers starve, and all the jails are let
As model lodgings for the working-classes!
In short--Utopia, swamped by dull Prosperity,
Demands that these detested Flowers of Progress
Be sent about their business, and affairs
Restored to their original complexion!

Paramount and Zara are baffled. They have tried to make Utopia into a perfect replica of England, but they have failed; something is clearly missing. Then Sir Bailey Barre reminds Zara of what it will take to make Utopia just as crime-ridden, diseased and poverty-infested as England: democracy.

ZARA: Of course! Now I remember! Why, I had forgotten the most essential element of all!

KING: And that is?---

ZARA: Government by Party! Introduce that great and glorious element--at once the bulwark and foundation of England's greatness--and all will be well! No political measures will endure, because one Party will assuredly undo all that the other Party has done; and while grouse is to be shot, and foxes worried to death, the legislative action of the country will be at a standstill. Then there will be sickness in plenty, endless lawsuits, crowded jails, interminable confusion in the Army and Navy, and, in short, general and unexampled prosperity!

ALL: Ulahlica! Ulahlica!

KING: ...From this moment Government by Party is adopted, with all its attendant blessings; and henceforward Utopia will no longer be a Monarchy Limited, but, what is a great deal better, a Limited Monarchy!

The work ends with a chorus in praise of the greatness of England, or, at least, the greatness of its self-made reputation:

Oh, may we copy all her maxims wise,
And imitate her virtues and her charities;
And may we, by degrees, acclimatize
Her Parliamentary peculiarities!
By doing so, we shall in course of time,
Regenerate completely our entire land--
Great Britain is the monarchy sublime,
To which some add (but others do not) Ireland.
Such, at least, is the tale
Which is born on the gale,
From the island which dwells in the sea.
Let us hope, for her sake
That she makes no mistake--
That she's all she professes to be!

Maybe you can see now why Shaw claimed that he enjoyed Utopia Limited more than any previous Gilbert and Sullivan work; in its slightly bitter tone and its portrayal of England as a seriously fouled-up country spreading its dysfunctions around the world, this is the hardest-edged satire Gilbert ever wrote.

It's also one of the more insightful portrayals of colonialism, and the problems with colonialism, that has ever hit the stage. Most attacks on colonialism (as I can attest from having sat through endless college English classes where poor Rudyard Kipling was ripped to shreds) portray it as a straightforward case of exploitation: the bad colonists come in to plunder the good natives at the point of a gun. There's something to that, of course, but there's more, and this is what Gilbert gives us in Utopia Limited: many colonialists were people who were frustrated, fed-up or bored with their home countries and wanted to go somewhere else and try the things they couldn't try at home. The Flowers of Progress all have their pet ideas about how to build the perfect society, but they can't put them into practice in England because democracy, with its inherent gridlock, keeps getting in the way. The solution: go to a non-democratic country, tell them you're bringing progress, and use that country to carry out all the plans that a democracy would never enact. The country may be called Utopia, but the Flowers of Progress are the real utopians. And they are trading on the near-mythical status of their country -- the awe with which the Utopians have heard of British power and prosperity -- to gain support for their utopian schemes.

Flash-forward to today, and it's not surprising that many of the most enthusiastic Flowers of Progress are people who are, to some extent, fed up with their own country and the obstacles it places in the way of utopian schemes. As that article makes clear, what is loosely referred to as "colonialism" is as much about ideology as anything else. And the final goal, of course, is to establish Government by Party, which will undo everything and make things run as inefficiently as they do back home.

So, college professors, throw out your colonialism textbooks and teach Utopia Limited instead. The D'Oyly Carte company recorded it sometime in the mid-'70s, though I don't remember whether the recording is still in print.

1 comment:

MusicianMom said...

What a wonderful piece! I just wanted to let you (the author) know that I have copied it for my Gilbert & Sullivan Class at Oakton College, Skokie, IL. A student asked specifically about the political satire of Gilbert, and your essay addresses it spot-on.

Too bad that he isn't around today. He'd make chopped liver out of the current world leaders!