Saturday, June 20, 2009

Character-driven fiction

Don't ask me why, I'm going on a little bit of a Gilbert & Sullivan trip right now. I was at the library, last week, getting a bunch of books for my wife (who'll no doubt read the lot within a fortnight) and I picked up a bunch of books on G&S for no good reason other than I happen to like the Mikado. I also like the Pirates of Penzance, but I'm not a big fan of HMS Pinafore or Iolanthe, the only other shows I'd ever seen. Having read the books, especially one called A Most Ingenious Paradox, I'm even more interested in seeing their other works. Another was called Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World. The first was a very technical and internal discussion of the development of the plays as works by G&S, how they grew and developed, and even what the stories were really about. The second is mostly a discussion of the effect of the team on the London world around them, and of the social elements that were being interpolated in the plays. I also found a recent movie that came out a while back, called Topsy Turvy, about the creation of the Mikado. Kind of interesting, in a year-in-the-life sort of way, and the portrayal of the development of the story was very pleasant, the best part of the film for me.

I first experienced the pleasure of seeing a G&S show when my wife and I were forced for a short period to stay with my parents (trying to find a rental house in mid-winter, no fun) and the movie version, with Kevin Kline, and Linda Ronstadt, was on cable. It was a lot of fun, but I had no idea that that was atypical of G&S. Gilbert was actually against much of the tomfoolery that went on in this version. He was quite specific about everything the actors did. Anyway, I enjoyed the show and naturally learned the songs, especially the Major General's song. I love fast and witty, and I have a trick memory for lyrics and dialog. Shortly after we found a new house to live in, and what a dump it was, let me tell you, I experienced the dubious pleasure of seeing a D'Oyly Carte production of the same show, and it had to be one of the most painfully unfunny and boring things I'd ever seen in my life. I saw a version by Peter Allen as well, which was actually worse, almost like a filmed dress rehearsal or something.

Fast forward a good many years, and I discovered that the library near me had a number of copies of G&S shows, specifically The Mikado, about which I'd heard a lot but never seen. It wasn't a great version, but it had the expanded stage, more room to maneuver, and most important the song lyrics were subtitled, so I've learned many of them as well. Not much patter, but a number have some incredible lyrics in other ways. Unfortunately, the dialog wasn't subtitled, so I still get a little confused about Pooh-Bah's different roles. Love Pooh-Bah.

At a different library I discovered recordings of Pinafore and Iolanthe, but I had to say that they weren't as interesting. Pinafore in particular was very unlike the others I'd seen, and according to the books that's because it was the most tied to the expected norms for the stage at that time. It was still head and shoulders above even that, so I cringe to think what the Victorian audiences of the day were seeing before that. Iolanthe is a much more mature G&S work, and according to the books one of the better ones. I can't say I was moved by it much, with its political plot, but I was watching an old video of a Canadian production on a regular stage and it may have lost something in translation. I should reread that chapter and watch it again.

It turns out both Pirates and Mikado were unusual for G&S, shows they wrote in a hurry, with little time to prepare or tune. So the writing is looser and the parts less cohesive, with room for humor and actors to shine. The versions I saw allowed that. Most of the shows were much more cohesive than these two, with the lyrics, and the dialog and the music all combined to an ever-increasing degree, to tell the story. The height of G&S is their most cohesive work, after which they sort of had little left to do. Sort of a shame really.

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