Jane Stedman discusses the works of Gilbert and Sullivan
BROADCAST: Jan. 25, 1965 | DURATION: 00:22:01
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."
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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 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.
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."
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.
Jane Stedman '93.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!"
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jane Stedman Yeah.