BOOK REVIEW / Not the very model of a major life in general: Gilbert and Sullivan - Michael Ffinch: Weidenfeld, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
W S GILBERT'S original libretto for Iolanthe included a song about crime. The hero, born to power and riches (father Lord Chancellor, mother a fairy), considers the 'watchful thief' and asks:

What is he but I

Robbed of all my chances

Picking pockets by

Force of circumstances?

In the finished production, this powerful rhetorical question went unasked, a tactful precaution in a critical climate that thought anger 'a passion altogether out of place in a fairy opera'. So much I have learned from Michael Ffinch's book on Gilbert and Sullivan, the men and the operas; and it makes me question the author's introductory statement that Gilbert's satire had 'nothing of waspishness about it'.

In that same Iolanthe, the sentry's famous song about every British child being either a little Liberal or a little Conservative is the kind of avuncular chuckle at political conformity that G & S are famous for. But the implications are more disturbing, and the style less roguishly sedate, in the Chancellor's song about his early career at the bar. His vow of good conduct - no hoodwinking of judge or jury, no bullying of witnesses - is seen as an extraordinary aberration. Gilbert had been a barrister himself, and an unhappy one; for him, as earlier for Dickens, the law became a symbol of everything he detested in his society. His Bleak House is the brilliant jeu d'esprit of Trial by Jury: an outrageously cynical courtroom burlesque from which sentiment and pomposity are cheerfully, and ruthlessly, excluded.

'I don't think much of our profession,' says the Pirate King (of Penzance), 'but compared to respectability it is comparatively honest.' Brecht couldn't have put it better; indeed, his celebrated line about robbing a bank being less criminal than founding one sounds like a clumsy imitation.

Still, however trenchantly the scripts may read, in the theatre their bite is muffled and their style antimacassared. Gilbert, less a committed satirist than an ad hoc ironist, saw or invented the absurdity in everything. When invention failed he could be coy or long-winded. Sullivan's music sweetens and softens the text, and the heavily jocular performing style embalms it. This seems to be the case whoever is doing the performing.

There is also the problem of the dyed-in-the-wool G & S fan, to whom this book is the perfect monument. It begins, some 30 years too late, by prophesying and deploring 'weird interpretations' now that the D'Oyly Carte monopoly on the operas has lapsed. The ensuing loose-jointed biography is mainly about Gilbert; he gets the most space and, when the rows come, the most sympathy. The partnership's massive impact on the British and American theatre is barely discussed. Instead there is synopsis: outlines of the 14 operas that manage to be both slipshod and laborious. Plot twists and paradoxes are brought to our attention with exclamation marks, as in a really bad stage production. Lyrics are quoted, with frequent misprints, but the idea of literary or musical analysis seems not to have entered the author's head.

The publishers' blurb claims that no major study of G & S has appeared for 40 years. Ain't that the truth - still.