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Jane Stedman discusses the works of Gilbert and Sullivan

BROADCAST: Jan. 25, 1965 | DURATION: 00:22:01

Synopsis

Jane Stedman discusses the lives of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and the works they created jointly as Gilbert and Sullivan with emphasis on their comic opera "Utopia, Limited."

Transcript

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Studs Terkel "Make way for the prize-men, for the Wise Men they are prize-men - double first men of the university!" This is the first big entrance in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that was never produced in England by D'Oyly Carte, rarely produce. "Utopia, Limited," and that Bernard Shaw thought the best, was his favorite. Jane Stedman, Associate Professor of Literature at Roosevelt University, who is the Gilbert and Sullivan authority, I feel, in our country. Jane's written her doctorate thesis on this, is working on a book now to be published in England on Gilbert and Sullivan, was our guest before, as was her husband George McElroy, in the matter of Gilbert and Sullivan. Jane, the first question as we hear this opening the entrance, this work of Gilbert and Sullivan, never produced publicly in England.

Jane Stedman Oh yes. It was produced publicly in 1893, but it's never been produced since. It had a run of 245 performances in 1893, '94. Which, for Gilbert and Sullivan, was a failure almost.

Studs Terkel Why wasn't it, hasn't it been produced since?

Jane Stedman It's terribly expensive. It came, the second last of the series after their tremendous success of "Gondoliers," then they had a great fight. I think Gilbert was right in it, but they finally patched things up and they produced this fantastically expensive, fantastic operetta which cost them seven thousand pounds to produce which would be, oh, phenomenally expensive in our day.

Studs Terkel It's over a million dollars today by the change in the standard.

Jane Stedman Yes, for instance they put on stage a reproduction of the entire drawing room of Queen Victoria with all the uniforms, all the costumes. Well, one reviewer said, "If every woman in London doesn't demand to be taken to "Utopia, Limited" so that she can see the gowns, then I just don't know reviewing."

Studs Terkel "Utopia, Limited" itself may be the tip off as to why Shaw, like you said, Edmund Wilson too thought it was, it was his favorite, too.

Jane Stedman I think it was his favorite opera.

Studs Terkel Why? Why did, why were they so taken with it?

Jane Stedman Well, the reason that they were so taken with it is in a sense the reason, one of the reasons why it hasn't been put on again. They liked it because it satirized everything, absolutely everything: Army, Navy, stage, commerce, especially commerce it's a very commercially satiric opera. And it tried and, I think it really tried to do too much. Gilbert wanted to take all of England for the basis of his satire and its got marvelous bits, but it hasn't really got much plot. And the fact that after you take the spectacle away from it, it doesn't have a nice firm structure of "The Mikado" or "Iolanthe," I think is one of the reasons why it isn't put on.

Studs Terkel What was the, this is there second from there last work, what was the year of this, this was 18?

Jane Stedman '93.

Studs Terkel So it could be, as you describe it, what it deals with, it could be 1965.

Jane Stedman Oh yes. The satire is certainly contemporary and it was, would have been applicable to 1869, too. But, it called for a tremendous cast. D'Oyly Carte thought of reviving it in the 1920s, but they couldn't afford it. Every bit player has to be a first rate singer in this. And, today, you just can't afford salaries for those singers.

Studs Terkel Shaw compared this with the, with Mozart, the music, and he preferred the libretto to any of the others, Shaw himself did.

Jane Stedman Yes, he certainly did. He was reviewing music in those days and he, he really didn't like Gilbert. I think partly Gilbert had the audience Shaw wanted to.

Studs Terkel Mhmm.

Jane Stedman Shaw had just had his first play staged when "Utopia" was in the works and Shaw paid Sullivan, of course, the compliment of saying, "You're like Mozart," because for Shaw this was the highest possible praise.

Studs Terkel Oh, was that it? So, Shaw had a certain feeling about Gilbert though, the fact there was a nature, a sort of competition involved here to some extent.

Jane Stedman Well, he said once, "I could paradox Mr. Gilbert off the stage if I chose, but I don't choose." And, obviously, he liked this one because it was closer to what Shaw would have written if Shaw had written an opera.

Studs Terkel Before we ask about the plot itself and the themes that dealt, there were no sacred cows, they took off on everything here.

Jane Stedman Absolutely everything. One, in fact, one thing got them rather into trouble with the Prince of Wales. The king, King Paramount of Utopia, is depicted as wearing a British field marshal's uniform with the star and ribbon of the Garter. The Prince of Wales got up in a huff.

Studs Terkel This would be Edward VII.

Jane Stedman Edward VII got up in a huff at this because he was the only man in England who was allowed to wear a field marshal's uniform and the star and Garter.

Studs Terkel So they piqued his vanity.

Jane Stedman Yeah and they took off the Garter in subsequent performances. This was one reason that was given for its not being so successful. I don't really think so because Edward was a very genial sort of guy, and once they corrected the uniform.

Studs Terkel Most genial we understand.

Jane Stedman Very genial.

Studs Terkel So the opening, that big opening, we have the Wise Men come in. They are the, they're the savants, they're the ones who.

Jane Stedman They are the people who control the king and the kingdom.

Studs Terkel The Mandarins! They're the ones.

Jane Stedman Yes, yes, as a matter of fact.

Studs Terkel We have them around today too don't we, in a way. To some extent.

Jane Stedman Yes, but they don't take double firsts in universities.

Studs Terkel So, we have then the, "A Tenor, All Singers Above." Where does this come in?

Jane Stedman Oh, this is sung by Captain Fitzbattleaxe, the name incidentally comes from Thackery, and it's a love song of a tenor who can't sing because he's in love. Now, one of the things, another reason I think that "Utopia" did not achieve a lasting success on the stage was that Sullivan, by this time, was rather tired and rather prematurely old, and his orchestration, even though Shaw compared it to Mozart, his orchestration doesn't really have all the little sly, comic bits that it used to have. In this song, Gilbert gave him every chance to do funny things with the orchestra, and to do witty things with the orchestra, and he didn't take it. I think it's an amusing song, but Sullivan, in the days that he was writing, let's say "The Mikado," would have just gone wild with it.

Studs Terkel You think some of the fire, juice had gone out of him by then?

Jane Stedman Some of the [vivacity?].

Studs Terkel How old was he?

Jane Stedman In his 50s.

Studs Terkel 50s. And they had collaborated for, what, 20 years?

Jane Stedman Yes. They started at the beginning of the '70s and their collaboration actually lasted about 26 years. It went two more years after "Utopia" and fizzled out in "The Grand Duke," which was a failure, it only ran five months, you know, by Gilbert and Sullivan standards.

Studs Terkel This is, because you say only by their standards, so some of the successes would run for years then?

Jane Stedman Yeah. Yes, they were they were the first great long run musicals.

Studs Terkel They were that, were they. So "A Tenor, All Singers Above," this is Captain Battleaxe.

Jane Stedman Fitzbattleaxe.

Studs Terkel Captain, we got to get the Gilbert and Sullivan, Captain Fitzbattleaxe. [Pause in Recording] That poor tenor. This is really a study in the arts, isn't it? Be detached. He can't sing because he really was in love.

Jane Stedman Yes, of course that's a point that Oscar Wilde made about the girl in "The Portrait of Dorian Gray." As soon as she fell in love she could no longer act Juliet.

Studs Terkel And so this theme he says it here, "It's easy enough if you're acting, when one's emotion is born of devotion you mustn't be over-exacting. I could sing if my fervor were mock!"

Jane Stedman Zara comforts him, she says, "We don't condemn the coconut because it's husky."

Studs Terkel Thus we come to the story of all artists now, if you're going to portray that scene don't kill the guy, pretend you're killing him, but don't be in love, pretend you're in love. Gilbert and Sullivan hit everything, the plot then, the plot of "Utopia, Limited."

Jane Stedman Well, as I said, it's a very sprawling plot. It begins on a desert, well, no, on a South Sea island paradise: Utopia. Which is described as "lazy land," where everyone lies around, enjoys himself, doesn't have to think, because the King thinks for them. But all Utopians have become devoted to the idea of having a country as much like England as possible. You know, Empire was taking over.

Studs Terkel This is also, Gilbert and Sullivan took off on Empire continuously too, didn't they?

Jane Stedman Well, yes. Although, more in the sense of laws, of the legalistic structure, than in the Sicile Rois, Empire building kind of thing. But, the King, at the request of his people, turns Utopia into England with improvements. He does this by having his eldest daughter, Princess Zara, educated at the first women's college that had been set up in England. She comes back and she brings with her six flowers of progress or pro-gress, as I suppose we should say, who are to reform the Army, the Navy, the stage, the music halls, finance, etc., etc., etc. And, the King, who is a despot tempered with dynamite, which was a new thing then, doesn't really have any power. He's run by the Wise Men, and, perhaps a bit of the dialogue of the opening scene in which the public Exploder, whose duty it is to blow the king up, explains his position would set the donnee of the plot. And then we could go on from there.

Studs Terkel So this is the Wise Men, the dialogue of the Wise Men. This is not from a D'Ooyly Carte recording, this is a.

Jane Stedman This is recorded by the Lyric Theatre of Washington, one of the few American companies, semi-professional I gather, which have put on "Utopia" when it was done in the 19th century here. It was an absolute flop because, of course, all the comedy was very British.

Studs Terkel That, that, I suppose that's another reason for the flop. The comedy in all the other works, the successes, were pretty much universal in nature.

Jane Stedman This was much more topical.

Studs Terkel This was topical and almost parochial, it was British in nature very much.

Jane Stedman The accidentals were, but as you say, the basic thing was certainly 20th century.

Studs Terkel As you describe it, it's sure to fit us or anybody now. Here then the dialogue, some of the dialogue, of the Wise Men. [Pause in Recording] As we listened to this portion of the dialogue from "Utopia, Limited," I take back that parochial comment I made about it. This is so timely, everything, here again, in this dialogue, it easily could be 1965.

Jane Stedman Well, there are certain parochial, or at least highly topical, what should I say?

Studs Terkel References.

Jane Stedman References. Parts of plot. For instance, the fact that seven is the lowest number who can form a limited company is important in one of the songs and that sort of thing. But, the satire which is directed against the supposedly ideal kingdom, England, and is in juxtaposition with the supposedly benighted kingdom, Utopia, which is really an ideal kingdom, is one of these Gilbert-ian kind of "triple play" levels.

Studs Terkel This has been Gilbert's theme, his favorite target, is it not? The Eagle of England throughout, and so this has been his favorite target throughout, hasn't it? He uses topsy-turvy technique.

Jane Stedman Well, yeah, from Gilbert's earliest works we get a whole series of imaginary kingdoms which are rather like Voltaire's "El Dorado," the perfect, or More's "Utopia," which set up the name, the perfect kingdom. Which in some way you can't stay with because it is perfect and which he then uses to satirize the absurdities of England which likes to think of itself as perfect. It, well, "Iolanthe" does some of this and, in fact, in writing "Iolanthe" he developed the basic idea that he was going to use for "Utopia, Limited," but then he didn't go on with it. Used it again later in "Fallen Fairies," but way back, in 1869, before he had collaborated with Sullivan, in his first German Reed piece, those were little musical comedies that he did, he introduced a song which evidently became a very popular song. There are lots of references to it in other works. And in this song he depicted the benighted ignorant country of Babbetyboobledore from the British point of view, but of course with a double meaning.

Studs Terkel So, he sings, this is Mrs. Pennythorne, and what, in what work does she sing this?

Jane Stedman In "No Cards."

Studs Terkel Babbetyboobledore. She had three verses from this perhaps.

Jane Stedman Mhmm.

Studs Terkel This is Gilbert taking off on a number of things, "The girls of the island are pretty and fair in Babbetyboobledore! But they never attempt to color their hair in Babbetyboobledore! They're horribly wanting in matters of taste, they haven't a notion of jewels or paste, and as for their figures, there isn't a waist in Babbetyboobledore!"

Jane Stedman No corsets.

Studs Terkel No corsets, no, and they don't, and they don't, in Babbetyboobledore, this benighted kingdom, they don't color their hair, they're wanting to have the notion of jewels or paste. "They are strict in their methods of dealing with thieves in Babbetyboobledore! But they come down as well on the man who receives in Babbetyboobledore! If they know that a thief in that singular clime is planning a robbery, coming in time, they take him before - and not after - the crime in Babbetyboobledore! Civilization takes no stride in Babbetyboobledore. There's nothing like self-respect or pride in Babbetyboobledore. They have little regard for money or birth - unless it's allied to genuine worth. There isn't another domain on earth like Babbetyboobledore!" It's pretty biting stuff here, he's taken off. I like that they come down on this benighted kingdom on the man who receives, as the man, as well as the man who thieves.

Jane Stedman Yes.

Studs Terkel And they try to stop the crime [unintelligible].

Jane Stedman Gilbert was very strict on this. Part of it, he was against sentimentality in dealing with criminals because he himself was a rather tough, martinets sort of person. And, this motif comes up repeatedly in other Gilbert Utopias, in Topsy-Turvydom, for instance, in which everything happens upside down.

Studs Terkel But there's something else here, too. He's taking off on the big boys as well.

Jane Stedman Oh, sure.

Studs Terkel He says that they come down on the man who receives, on those who might be respectable otherwise, he takes off on that. And I like that, he's taking off on caste too, isn't he? You know, "There's nothing like self-respect or pride, they've little regard for money or birth - unless it's allied to genuine worth." What nuts, you know?

Jane Stedman Yes, yeah. No place could possibly be like this.

Studs Terkel Well, a question, isn't the other reason possibly because of Gilbert's whole approach here, and "Utopia, Limited" dealing, having its targets as formidable as they are, isn't it possible that some of the "jingos" may have put some pressures on too here? You don't think so.

Jane Stedman No, I don't really. It was certainly successful in its immediate run. It just couldn't sustain itself for a year, which was unusual for a Gilbert and Sullivan work. And then, well, there are all sorts of reasons given: one that the royal family was irked because in it they satirized Victoria's drawing rooms where people didn't really get any refreshments and had to stand for long hours. One of the characters says here that he has introduced a cheap expedient, a cup of tea and a plate of mixed biscuits. And when you think of a monarch, of the greatest kingdom on earth, giving people who attend his or her drawing room a plate of cookies and a cup of tea, this, you know, just doesn't fit in.

Studs Terkel In the, there's so many aspects to this. Some of the performers who took part are interesting. There's a Nancy McIntosh, an American singer, right? Who's participated [unintelligible].

Jane Stedman Yes, Nancy McIntosh was from Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was the president of a gas company. She went to England to take singing lessons, was seen by Gilbert, given the role of Zara, and eventually adopted by him. He and Lady Gilbert, well, Mrs. Gilbert, he didn't have his knighthood yet, made her their adopted daughter and she lived until, well she only died a few years ago. She lived in London and sort of sitting there with 60 volumes of Gilbert's letters and all the memories of her career and his around her. She was an extremely pretty girl, Gilbert liked pretty girls. And he, I think, built up the role of Zara for her. She had a voice that could handle Wagnerian music. Some critics didn't think so and he wrote them nasty letters. It's sort of like President Truman when Margaret's voice was called into question.

Studs Terkel Well, that wasn't the first time then, was it?

Jane Stedman Oh, no. And she was however not, I think, a skilled comic actress. And Zara has to carry a good deal of the comedy and perhaps Nancy's lack of stage presence in this, well, it's like someone with no experience at all suddenly being asked to replace Callas.

Studs Terkel Thinking of "Utopia, Limited" again, the targets, the subjects of satire, limited liability companies. Here we come to the corporate structure.

Jane Stedman Yes, it's "Utopia, Limited" because one of the flowers of progress, who is a capitalist and company organizer, introduces the concept of a limited liability company. You declare that your liability will be 18 pence, run up a debt into millions, and allow yourself to be wound up as bankrupt. And Gilbert, of course, saw two comic things in this quite clearly. First of all, the real dishonesty by using a legal expedient. You can fool people out of quantities of money and commerce was pretty free wheeling in the '90s. And the second thing is you've got a corporate entity that isn't a person, but can be treated like a person. You've, you have a thing which is a person that doesn't exist. And, this is exactly the sort of situation.

Studs Terkel Like today.

Jane Stedman Yeah. This is the sort of situation that Gilbert would [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel In which a person is a

Jane Stedman corporate entity. And each person in Utopia becomes a corporate entity. Every baby has issued his little prospectus. Everybody is a limited company with limited liability and when they're asked to pay their bills they simply say that their liability is limited and declare bankruptcy. The kingdom is absolutely ruined by this progressive concept. In fact, the flowers of progress improve everything so much that the Utopians rise in a revolution and demand to get rid of the flowers of progress and you know how they solve it? It's sort of Gilbert's final nose-thumb at British system, particularly at the mother of parliaments, as the British Parliament liked to be known in this, in its Empire days. They solve it by Zara saying, "Oh, I know I forgot to import something: government by party. As long as we have government by political party, one party will undo all the good the other does. They won't get on to legislation because they will be out hunting and shooting. They'll never come to decisions because they'll always be arguing. And all of this prosperity, which has so swamped you, will disappear and we will have a highly successful country again."

Studs Terkel Well, we'll see, we moved about an inch and a half since then. Gilbert apparently was a pretty, his prescience is amazing. I just, he seemed to know everything and what's happening now as well then.

Jane Stedman He could certainly see the absurdities in any situation and I think he saw them in the structure of the limited liability company. He has been, sometimes critics have said, "Well, he didn't know much about finance." I think in Mr. Goldbury's song he knew a great deal about finance.

Studs Terkel So Mr. Goldbury sings now about, what about, limited liabilities?

Jane Stedman He's the company promoter. And he explains how you get seven men and form a corporation.

Studs Terkel And are there different references in here too, in the song?

Jane Stedman Well, he refers to the corporate structure as it then existed. And the point of it, of course, however, is if you can't pay, never mind. Just say you can, go and start another company tomorrow.

Studs Terkel This could be not only installment buying, installment planning.

Jane Stedman Yeah.

Studs Terkel Here we go, this is Mr. Goldbury's song.