Giddy For Gilbert and Sullivan


I was nine or so when my classroom teacher at my “special school” for gifted children had a bunch of us at a “secret meeting” for which she had closed the front stage curtain on the auditorium stage and sat us all around her on the well-waxed stage.

“This year, we are going to perform Gilbert and Sullivan.  We will be doing the ‘Pirates of Penzance’.”

We looked at each other and her, a bit confused.  This was outside the purview of even a fairly gifted nine-year-olds.
“Don’t worry — it’s really funny.  Even the title is funny.  ‘Penzance’ is a resort, like Atlantic City.  Wouldn’t it be funny to have a bunch of Pirates hanging around in a place like Atlantic City?”

My parents had already told me Atlantic City was too far to drive in the car without staying over so we were never going to go there which I suddenly thought was pretty good because it sounded better to avoid pirates, even funny ones.

I did know pirates were mostly an 18th and maybe 19th-century thing, but they were generally evil in cartoons and such and I was pretty sure they never hung around Boston.

Our teacher had to explain all the laughs to us.  We performed with great gusto to packed houses.

I went on to play the role of “Ruth, the Piratical maid of all work” in other productions, as it was the only role in that operetta suitable for a fat little girl with a loud voice.  I played it next in greater Boston when I returned home from medical school.  In any possible production, including that first one, I was also in the women’s chorus, the male chorus, changing costume a couple times and hamming it up beyond explanation.

I cannot count how many times I have seen various productions, from live to the wonderful Linda Ronstadt film, from New England to Canada.

Queen Victoria loved Gilbert and Sullivan.  Although she started with the idea to commission a grand Opera from them her first Royal Command performance was of “The Gondoliers.”  Yes, the queen herself loved funny stuff.

Gilbert the librettist and Sullivan the music guy created funny stuff.  A bit cookie-cutter like (my Ruth in “Pirates” did bear certain resemblance to Buttercup in “Pinafore”) but hilarious.

In the late 18th early 19th century the operetta was a European idiom, I think, overlapping with the grand opera a bit.  Carmen, which I have seen on popular local stages in France is very European, and may be the most-performed in public of all operas to this day.

Gilbert and Sullivan are unmistakably British.  The lovable Pirates of Penzance are simply “Noblemen who have gone wrong” who proclaim at the conclusion of the production “with all our faults we love our Queen.”

Gilbert keeps making up these preposterous permutations of Victorian Society that progress by some simple internal logic to a peaceful and joyous conclusion.

It is to laugh of course.

When I went to western Canada, under the auspices of the U.S.Army to study neurosurgery, of course I got to know as many locals as possible.  Clever folks (with delightful British accents) told me Gilbert and Sullivan were “boring” and such.  I learned that they had been brought up with regular listening to Gilbert and Sullivan Records often heard on a daily basis.  This seems to have been a surprisingly significant part of an attempt to imbue them with Brittanic culture, as opposed to those “heathens” south of the border.

(That would be us — the USA)

Some people actually told me Canada had a “heritage of gold” because it had never bothered having a “heritage of lead” because we did.

(That would be bullets, as in the Wild West of the late 18th-early 19th centuries).

There were an awful lot of great quality Gilbert and Sullivan productions in Canada.  They performed the Mikado with godlike reverence in Toronto, I think it was.  My husband and I also saw it in Bakersfield, California, with a bit more emphasis on slapstick.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting with a mentally challenged pirate-loving patient and we broke into “For I am a Pirate King” from “Penzance,” thereby scandalizing his case manager and delighting the patient.

I am happy to know that Queen Victoria got her jollies from these guys.  I am delighted to know that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) does too.

Britannia rules.

All you really got to do is speak English.

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