Finding meaning in the duo’s comic operas
When Carolyn Williams first heard work of librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan as a graduate student at the University of Virginia, she found their quick-witted, flamboyant operas disorienting.
“I didn’t grow up in one of those households where Gilbert and Sullivan was played all the time,” says Williams, chair of the Department of English at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences. “At first I just couldn’t understand what kind of art it was,” Williams notes. “It seemed like it was from Mars.”
Nonetheless, the work of Gilbert and Sullivan made a lasting impression on Williams; she eventually joined the legions of G & S aficionados who can’t get enough of the duo’s comic operas that blend silliness and satire with occasional biting social critique.
It was only a matter of time before Williams had immersed herself in research on the theatrical pair. The result is Williams’s recently published Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody (Columbia University Press), in which the Victorian scholar seeks to reconsider and revitalize Gilbert and Sullivan’s contribution to theatrical and parodic traditions.
In many ways, the pair of Gilbert and Sullivan was the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of their time – casting a critical eye to the day's political and cultural obsessions.
“It is a serious kind of parody,” Williams says. “In every performance, Gilbert and Sullivan are doing something, and lots of times doing lots of things, to parody gender roles and behaviors, other social norms, governmental activity, prior genres, and, in one case, imperialism.”
Much like Stewart and Colbert bring to light the ridiculousness of politics by engaging with them, Gilbert and Sullivan did the same thing with gender stereotypes. With characters like the larger-than-life Katisha of The Mikado and the domineering Fairy Queen of Iolanthe, who cross the line between masculine and feminine, Gilbert and Sullivan provide refreshing alternatives to the gender conventions of their time.
“Too often, Gilbert is blamed for employing stereotypes – when that is the whole point,” Williams says.
“Only by making the stereotypes and the cultural absurdities of the Victorian period show up in high relief could he launch a critique. Gender roles, relations, norms, assumptions, and patterns of socialization – all are subject to this critique.” Household names in their time, Gilbert and Sullivan, who collaborated on 14 comic operas in the 25 year period from 1871 to 1896, were wildly popular in England, enjoyed by royalty and middle classes alike. Spin-off merchandise was rampant, including trading cards and figurines of the many characters.
“People enjoy thinking things out through humor,” says Williams. “It’s an intellectual exercise where the audience is forced to ask of themselves, ‘What are they making fun of and why is it funny?’”
Williams explains how parody works: “Parody has a temporal or historical function. Once you start parodying something, the object of parody gets seen all of a sudden as something from the past.” Thus, parody can aid in social change. “By loosening our hold on things, parody makes room for something else,” she says.
She anticipates her book – which includes many illustrations, some that have not been widely seen before – will mostly be read by Victorian scholars and Gilbert and Sullivan fans. But she is very much interested in revitalizing their works for a younger audience and the general public.
During the fall semester, she taught an undergraduate honors seminar on their works, which included close-readings of their texts, watching films of and about their productions, and viewing a live performance of their last work, The Grand Duke, in New York City.
“By the end of the course the students realized how much Victorian popular culture is still with us today,” Williams says. “The influence of Gilbert and Sullivan – their wit and sense of irony, the send ups of politics and contemporary culture – goes beyond musical theater to comedy in general. Allusions to their work have made their way into our own popular culture, from shows like West Wing, Frazier, and The Simpsons to the innumerable parodies of G & S on YouTube.”