The Bad Boys Are Back
There’s a running gag in the Bryant & May books about Bryant and Gilbert & Sullivan that reaches its head in the the new novel out next week, ‘Wild Chamber’.
I’m drawn to partnerships, the push and pull of people who can’t live with or without each other, and whatever one thinks of their music, Gilbert & Sullivan were a fascinating mismatch; one a difficult bad-boy, the other a much-loved classicist. But these days both are deeply, deeply unfashionable.
I know an American bad-boy theatre director, famous for shocking audiences with his outrageous ideas, and quite like his work but don’t particularly find it shocking (it’s London, you get used to school parties in theatre at matinees watching sex on stage). Sometimes, though, my friend is too intent on being daring to the detriment of the piece. In the rush to reinvent old works in outlandish new ways, Gilbert & Sullivan have all but vanished, apart from one hoary old production of ‘The Mikado’. But for me, the joke about Bryant adoring them is that he perfectly understands why he adores them. He sees all investigations as Gilbertian paradoxes, and he likes the music, so to hell with what anyone else thinks.
I think as you age you become more confident in your own choices and less interested in what you’re meant to like. And I still love Gilbert & Sullivan (at least, the Sir Malcolm Sargent recordings). But it was while researching something else entirely that I stumbled across an old volume quoting Igor Stravinsky, of all people, on the subject. Stravinsky, you need no reminding, was every bit the bad boy of his day, so to find him writing this is fascinating. I scanned the appropriate section for you, should anyone be as interested as I was.
If opera is on the ropes today, written off as an elitist pastime, operetta is doubly hated as it also incurs the displeasure of opera purists. There’s also a tendency in play revivals to pepper everything with busy bits of action to prevent ADD-afflicted audiences from fidgeting, but G&S took care of that. You require the same attention level you’d reserve for a Tom Stoppard play to follow Gilbert’s dazzling (and occasionally awful) wordplay.
After yesterday’s post about overlapping timelines, I should add that Sullivan was a good friend of Dickens (unsurprising) but also Rossini (more surprising as he was very old by then).
For my money, Caryl Brahms wrote the best G&S biography explaining not just their good but their bad points. It helps explain why I’ve done what I’ve done in ‘Wild Chamber’.