Gilbert, as in Sullivan: a Victorian paradox

September 29, 1996|By Jeffrey M. Landaw | Jeffrey M. Landaw,sun staff

"W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theater," By Jane W. Stedman. Oxford. 373 pages. $30

The trouble with Gilbert and Sullivan is that people think they know them. A few catch phrases (when you call some pompous higher-up a pooh-bah, you're paying tribute to Gilbert), tunes to sing in the shower, jokes about hundred-year-old social controversies. At the end of the 20th century, why should anyone care?

There's no answering that without trying to see Gilbert and Sullivan at full length, so to speak, and in context. Arthur Jacobs did a first-rate job of that for Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1984, and now Jane W. Stedman has done the same for W.S. Gilbert.

Over more than 40 years of teaching, most of them at Chicago's Roosevelt University, Stedman mastered a mountain of Gilbert's work: not just the Savoy operas, but the Bab Ballads, operatic burlesques, theater reviews, correspondence, interviews and the "serious" plays that Gilbert, like Sullivan, wrongly prized above the "nonsense" of the comic operas. Other scholars, and quasi-scholars, have given us Gilbert's personality; Stedman concentrates on a man who played an overlooked role in helping Victorian theater grow up.

Gilbert, Stedman writes, pioneered in realistic, contemporary settings; he lambasted, personally and in print, actors who substituted their pet business for the text; he kicked against the censorship of plays; and - despite his reputation for heartless misanthropy - he pushed the envelope on treatment of crime and sexual morals.

Gilbert took a sympathetic view of "fallen" women, and a harsh one of the standard that condemned them and gave their seducers a wink and a nod. And while he kidded soft-on-crime sentimentality in the song "A Policeman's Lot" in "The Pirates of Penzance," he wrote another song, cut from "Iolanthe" shortly after the first night, that ends: "I might be as bad / as unlucky, rather / Had I only had / Fagin for a father!"

For some people, Gilbert's cutting of the "Iolanthe" song would be enough to mark him as a philistine, an intellectual coward or both. But Gilbert seems to have known that open political argument wasn't his strength; Stedman calls him "an iconoclast who, paradoxically, was not a revolutionary." And after a hundred years of revolution in art and politics, we should know that not being a revolutionary is not a crime.

When Oscar Wilde tried to live by the inversions of the Victorian pieties that he put on stage, he destroyed himself. And the more we know about George Bernard Shaw's politics - which began with a generous anger on behalf of the poor and turned by the 1930s into open-eyed praise of Stalin, Hitler and even Mussolini - the more his work smells of death.

Even if Gilbert had been the philistine he's widely supposed to be, he'd deserve better from history. Jane Stedman deserves full credit for helping to set the record straight.

Jeffrey M. Landaw, who has worked for The Sun since 1977 graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a degree in English and earned a master's degree from Syracuse University. He worked for four years on small-town newspapers before coming to Baltimore.

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