Saturday, April 24, 2010

Art and Nature, Thus Allied

After writing an earlier post about the old-school approach to Gilbert and Sullivan -- and how at this point it often comes off better than attempts to freshen them up -- I found this longer excerpt from the 1966 D'Oyly Carte film of The Mikado, the first 10 minutes of the second act. (It was their second film of G&S's most popular work, though the 1938 film version was abridged, and had a non-member, Kenny Baker, as Nanki-Poo. The 1938 version is closer to an actual movie; the 1966 version is just a studio reproduction of what they were doing on stage at the time.) I think it conveys the strengths and weaknesses of the "traditional" G&S approach.

The weakness is that stilted delivery of dialogue, the broad gestures, become predictable and rule out any possibility of surprise or sudden illumination of character or theme. (I think Gilbert was stronger in themes than characters -- his characters are helpless puppets in the power of society's arbitrary rules -- but I could see a director or performer bringing more individuality to his characters than they usually get.) You can almost predict, if you know the music and the text, what the next movement will be.

The good thing is that the movements are related to the music and text, and don't try to go against them. The staging of "The Sun Whose Rays" in 1966 probably had a lot more movement than Gilbert's own staging (I don't know if it was as static as the version in Topsy Turvy, but I do get the impression that he preferred as little movement as possible during a song), but it's certainly not "busy" and doesn't try to pep it up with additional business. And the madrigal "Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day," of which we unfortunately get only the very beginning in this clip, is done exactly as it needs to be: very statically, with all the visual interest coming from the way the characters are posed. There's not much that a director can do to add to this great number, and plenty he or she can do to detract from it with gimmicks.

Every time I return to Gilbert and Sullivan, I feel that Gilbert is one of the most fascinating, frustrating figures in the history of theatre, and one who has never fully received the kind of in-depth study he needs. His portrayal in Topsy-Turvy, as the ultimate repressed Victorian who appropriates another culture without really understanding it, shows how little Gilbert himself is understood. The extraordinary thing that Mike Leigh almost completely missed is that at a cruical moment in the G&S partnership, when Gilbert was under pressure to come up with a libretto with humanity and realism, he instead delivered the darkest comedy he'd ever written (and that's saying something), a play that is virtually all about the threat of death and torture, and society's desensitization to death and torture.

There's only one character who isn't either bloodthirsty or desensitized: ironically, it's Ko-Ko, whose job is to execute people, but "can't kill anybody," and is the only person in the play who seems to understand that inflicting death on other people is horrible (everyone else is mostly worried about being killed). And, typically of Gilbert, the one character who displays a spark of humanity is the one who's punished in the end, in this case by being made to marry the awful Katisha.

I've sometimes thought of Gilbert as a misanthrope, but this isn't really right; there's usually someone on the stage -- one character, usually, sometimes more than one -- who has his admiration or compassion, though it's not always who we think it is. In Yeomen of the Guard Jack Point is usually portrayed as the sympathetic figure, but though he's partly Gilbert's self-portrait, I don't think he comes off very well at all. Gilbert cared so little about him that he originally had Elsie "laugh aloud" at his plight at the very end, changing it to "dropped a tear" only when audiences found the line too cruel. But the character Gilbert seems to admire is Phoebe, the one person who feels something resembling unselfish love for another character, and the only character who will speak out against English bloodthirstiness. And, like Ko-Ko, she's horribly punished and forced to marry a disgustingly bloodthirsty character.

So Gilbert doesn't hate all people, but he does have a very dark view of most people, and his consistent view -- in his plays and poems -- is that there's not much hope for anyone who points out the stupidity of social rules and conventions, or the society's obsession with casually-inflicted death. The only way to arrive at a happy ending in Gilbert's world is to work within the system and make up your own stupid rules to amend the ones that already exist, the way the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe rewrites one arbitrary, bloodthirsty law ("Every fairy shall die who marries a mortal") into another ("Every fairy shall die who doesn't marry a mortal"). Unlike Shaw, he has no hope that anything can be changed by social enlightenment or a better system; the enemy, he implies, is humanity's compulsion to make up rules to live by. The theme that runs through all of Gilbert's work is that people will do anything, no matter how idiotic and awful, if convention dictates that they should. It's almost as if his enemy is society itself, because society is based on rules, and rules are inherently arbitrary and even evil.

Again, not much of this comes through in portrayals of Gilbert, but a lot of it is there in the texts, waiting to be brought out by an imaginative director. In the meantime, I think more of it will come out in a fairly straightforward, unfussy staging than one that tries to make points about things that are less interesting (like, for example, the cultural-appropriation issue in The Mikado) than the bleakness and anger of Gilbert's own themes.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I just read Mike Leigh's introduction to the recent Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Gilbert and Sullivan, and there Leigh does point out Gilbert's "anarchist" sensibility. However, it was written after he made Topsy Turvy, so perhaps for him it was a belated insight.