How America Improved My English

The Arts

Listening to Gilbert & Sullivan recently I was reminded that I owe America a debt of gratitude for teaching me about something so deeply English.

At school we had been taught to avoid G&S as outdated and ‘impure’ music. It was operetta, or ‘opera bouffe’ in that like Offenbach it contained recitative, and therefore was not divided into arias but songs. What we were not told was that Gilbert was denied a knighthood for his satirical attacks on the state and the law. During the Poll Tax protests in London, ‘The Ratepayers’ Iolanthe’ retooled G&S for a new generation with appropriate lyrics aimed at the government. Satire will never make you popular with those in power.

But the main reason G&S had missed my generation was that the only licensed performers, the D’Oyly Carte company, had become a cobwebbed, clapped out group that plodded through terrible productions that remained preserved in aspic for decades. Amateur versions were even worse.

While I was living in Los Angeles, G&S came out of copyright. New York’s Joseph Papp production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ gleefully updated everything again, and although they depoliticised the play they put in fresh new energy. Giving it a try, I fell in love with the complexity of Gilbert’s language, which could be heard clearly for the first time in my experience.

Commissariat. Emeutes. Caravanseri. What did they mean? And now on earth could the Major General find a rhyme for ‘Strategy’? Offenbach was sexier, but G&S was crafty and clever.

A Hollywood film version of ‘Pirates’ was shot in England with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline, but flopped partly because it was sold in the US as the first Pay Per View movie before the technology was really in place.

For me, though, it had done its job and created a fresh appreciation of theatre language. When G&S receives innovative direction it can still be wonderful. When it’s slow and hard to follow, it’s truly appalling to sit through. There are two good films on the subject. ‘The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan’ is wonderfully witty and sprightly, with a terrific cast. Mike Leigh’s film ‘Topsy Turvy’ catches something else – the creation of a play from the fights, absurdities and tragedies to the opening night. There’s a moment in the film where the decision to cut a piece from the show creates more tension than Tom Cruise dangling from a building – and Andy Serkis is hilarious.

G&S has once more fallen out of fashion, and awaits reinvention again. But it may not be too far out of reach for many.

And the Major General’s rhyme for ‘Strategy’ was, of course, ‘Sat A G’, as in ‘rode a horse’.

7 comments on “How America Improved My English”

  1. keith page says:

    I reckon ‘Topsy Turvy’ is one of the finest films ever; it joins ‘ Lawrence of Arabia’ on my shelf.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Gilbert & Sullivan were always big on the ‘player in my parents’ house: Mikado, Pirates, H.M.S. I learned early from G&S that a woman’s elbow (*) could be sexy. And that English sped trippingly off the tongue with clever words was charming and really funny. Lot of G&S sung in their house and at speed. (*) Later, in Afghanistan, I learned a brief glimpse of an ankle in a stylish shoe was as good as it got for a foreigner, or an Afghan. And, of course, I then thought of Kikipo and hummed the bit about the temptation of the elbow.

  3. Carol Carr says:

    This post really struck a chord (ahem). My first exposure to G&S was seeing Linda Ronstadt in the stage production of “Pirates” in Washington, D.C. sometime between 1979-1982. Can’t be more specific than that as I was in law school at the time and the whole period is blurry. I was immediately hooked. And now I’ll be humming “When the Foeman Bares His Steel” all day.

  4. Gretta says:

    My mother adores G&S, so it has never gone out of fashion with me. I seem to recall one of my Primary School teachers attempting to teach the class Modern Major General, as well. Pretty ambitious, since we were only about seven at the time. And I’m with Keith, Topsy Turvy is an absolute gem of a movie.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Danny Kay recorded The Major General’s Song and My Name is John Wellington Wells and that was one of my favourite records as a child. There’s nothing like G&S for improving enunciation. I love Mikado and would really enjoy having a copy of the updated Canadian version that was staged at Stratford (Ontario). It was wonderfully funny to a Canadian but you have to understand our politics in order to “get” it. Is it true that the Japanese Crown Prince went to the theatre in London in the late 1800′s and it was Mikado that was playing?

  6. Alan G says:

    Thank you for an unexpected memory. Poll tax protesters used to gather outside Pentonville prison and sing songs to those of us in cells in the same protest.

    Older and wiser now – flamethrower not quite enough…

  7. Gretta says:

    I heard a production of Mikado from a ‘proper’ opera company(the Lyric Opera of Chicago)on RadioNZ Concert a few months back. Apparently they copped some flack for doing a light opera, so they suitably amended a couple of verses in I’ve Got A Little List to take a swipe at their detractors. :)

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