Sunday, October 16, 2005

Noël Coward's Annotated Guide to the Victorian Era

Noël Coward's After the Ball, a 1954 musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, was his last operetta, and not one of his more successful ones. As is described here, Coward miscalculated in writing music for Mary Ellis, playing Mrs. Erlynne, that she could no longer handle, with the result that much of the best material had to be cut during the tryouts. Much of the music that remained was irrelevant comedy material that sounded like a refuge from Coward's cabaret act.

But one irrelevant comedy number, I think, should have had a life outside of the show: the opening chorus, "Oh, What a Century It's Been." In this song, the chorus basically fills us in on the entire political and cultural history of England in the 19th Century and in particular the Victorian period. Some enterprising English teacher should track it down and use it as a class teaching tool.

Here are some excerpts from the song (yes, only excerpts -- Coward habitually over-wrote his songs), annotated with the help of Wikipedia and Google.

We've seen the birth of Queen Victoria
And the death of William Pitt,
And then we won the battle of Waterloo.
Which gave our island story a
Certain lift, you must admit --
And if you don't, we do.
We've seen the National Gallery open
And the Houses of Parliament burn,
The introduction of income tax,
Which gave us quite a turn,
We've seen the late Prince Consort
On a magic-lantern screen.
What a happy and glorious,
Most meritorious
Century it has been.

We've read The Daisy Chain and Romany Rye
And passionately clung
To Walter Scott and Emily Brontë too.
We're rather cross that so many buy
The works of Charlotte Yonge,
But nonetheless they do.
We simply worship Christina Rossetti
And we're mad about Tennyson's "Maud,"
We love to be up an apple tree
With Mrs. Humphrey Ward.
From William Blake to Kipling,
With the Brownings in between,
What an uneconomical,
Tragical, comical
Century this has been.

We've praised the works of Frederick Leighton and hurled
Abuse at Holman Hunt,
For he invites Pre-Raphaelites to tea.
And if they hung "The Light of the World"
Completely back to front,
We shouldn't even see.
We only care to go shootin' and huntin'
On chestnuts and fillies and roans,
We're sick to death of Watts-Dunton
And we'd like to burn Burne-Jones,
We much prefer the pictures
In a weekly magazine.
What a Royal Academy,
Too Alma-Tademy,
Practical, mystical,
Highly pictorial,
Albert Memorial
Century this has been.

We've made the most exhaustive scrutiny
Of the cause of England's might,
Convinced that ev'ry Britisher's born to boss.
We thought the Indian Mutiny
Was extremely impolite --
It made us feel quite cross.
We then embarked on a war in Crimea with egos a little enlarged,
And cheered the charge of the Light Brigade
No matter why they charged.
And then those swine in China
Made a most disgusting scene.
What a quite irresistible,
Oliver Twist-ible,
Woman in White-able,
Wuthering Height-able,
Mill on the Floss-ible,
Frankly impossible
Century this has been.

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