Tuesday, June 07, 2005

More Gilbert-isms

I found an interesting essay on W.S. Gilbert, by Andrew Crowther, called "Hunchbacks, Misanthropes, and Outsiders: Gilbert's Self-Image". For the most part it's about a figure that recurs constantly in Gilbert's plays: the person who, by virtue of his appearance, is forced to play the role of the put-upon outcast, even though he may be a better person than the designated "hero." Gilbert was fascinated with the idea that people are trapped in assigned roles in life the way actors are type-cast in roles in the theatre; characters like Dick Deadeye or the characters in Ruddigore act a certain way because it is expected of them, based on the way they look. (Deadeye is pretty clearly the character in H.M.S. Pinafore that Gilbert sympathizes with the most: he constantly gets the lines that cut through the nonsensical Victorian melodrama that Gilbert is satirizing and inject some cold hard reality; e.g. responding to all the love-levels-rank platitudes with the brutally truthful "When people have to obey other people's orders, equality's out of the question.") And Gilbert's inherent cruelty, combined with his dislike of melodramatic conventions, made him very interested in the idea of the sympathetic-but-ugly character who is cruelly ignored in favor of an unsympathetic-but-handsome hero; this happens in The Yeomen of the Guard, in the verse tragedy Broken Hearts, and in a poem Crowther doesn't mention, "Woman's Gratitude," about Baker, a good but misshapen and ugly man who loves a beautiful woman, and is rebuffed in favor of James, a "well-made" but stupid and cruel young man. Some excerpts:

In underbred society
Which I was nurtured in,
No species of impiety
Is reckoned such a sin,
No shocking inhumanity
So lowly to degrade
(Alas, oh, human vanity!) --
As being badly made.

...JAMES, though adored by MARIAN,
Was pitiably dense,
A commonplace vulgarian
With no poetic sense.
"Now, BAKER, go your ways, my boy,
You poor misshapen loon --
Spend, if you like, your days, my boy,
In crying for the moon."

...No man of true nobility
Could stand such taunts and names
Or suffer with tranquility
The gibes of well-made JAMES.
He used his blade unskilfully --
With blunderbuss instead,
He aimed at JAMIE, wilfully,
And shot that springald dead!

You would have fancied, tearfully,
He would not sigh in vain
Who braves the gallows cheerfully,
His only love to gain.
Don't let such wild insanity
Upon your thoughts intrude,
You little know the vanity
Of female gratitude!

Gilbert's last illustration for the poem shows haughty Marian walking away from Baker, who is pleading on his knees.

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