The Mikado and Racism
20 July 2014
This year, Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society is producing The Mikado, the most popular of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. It's not my favourite of the canon (that's Iolanthe, obviously) but if done properly I do find it a lot of fun.
On 13 July, the Seattle Times published an Opinion piece by Sharon Pian Chan entitled, The Yellowface of The Mikado In Your Face. In it, Chan criticises the production--and the opera itself--for portraying a fantasy Japan with a cast who are not ethnically Japanese. She calls the opera a "fossil" and says that it opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes.
The story was taken up on 17 July by NBC News in a piece by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang entitled Stereotypes in 'The Mikado' Stir Controversy in Seattle, referring to the opera's "simplistic orientalist stereotypes" and quoting actor Greg Watanabe as calling the decision to produce the opera in Seattle in 2014 "wilfully ignorant". Watanabe added: "It's astounding we have to keep relitigating [reiterating?] this. The galling part is, the producer is aware there are racist elements and yet doesn't think it's relevant, isn't aware that people are offended and have a problem with it, or doesn't care, and then thinks casting no Asians in it is also totally fine."
It would be very easy for a Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic like myself to respond with an easy scoff. That is, after all, what Gilbert and Sullivan teaches us to do. However, the fact is that this whole issue is nothing like as simple as it may seem--on either side of the fence.
The first fact that needs to be brought in, and stated as clearly and baldly as possible, is that the opera was not written with racist intent. It does not portray any of the characters as being "racially inferior" or indeed fundamentally any different from British people. The point of the opera is to reflect British culture through the lens of an invented "other", a fantasy Japan that has only the most superficial resemblance to reality, even the distorted version of reality as known in London in 1885. The mainspring of the plot is an invented "Japanese" law against flirting, which makes sense only as a reference to the sexual prudishness of British culture itself.
This idea of reflection through a distorting lens was not new in Gilbert and Sullivan opera. HMS Pinafore (1878) portrays British sailors in a way that deliberately minimises any resemblance to their real counterparts; the intention was to create cartoonish sailors that agreed with and subverted their stereotypes as known in the popular culture of the day. Similarly the Peers in Iolanthe (1882) are cartoon exaggerations of the popular perception of members of the House of Lords, who themselves prominently attended the opera. In each opera, a deliberate effort is made to divorce the action from a simple relationship with reality.
(But I must admit that I have always felt a little embarrassed at the joke names in The Mikado--Nanki-Poo, Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum, and so on. Surely Gilbert could have done better than these childish gurgles? It is here that I feel the charge of cultural insensitivity is strongest. However, if I were to defend the use of silly names, and I suppose in my position I must, then I would simply mention that Gilbert was fully capable of giving his English characters names fully as silly: Bill Bobstay, Reginald Bunthorne, Lord Mountararat, Captain Fitzbattleaxe....)
Josephine Lee, associate professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, is the author of The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), which investigates, in much greater depth than the current controversy allows, many of the issues relating to performing The Mikado, especially the element of "yellowface" (ie ethnically Western people portraying Japanese people, in a way argued to be analogous to "blackface").
Lee discusses the opera's relationship to racism and to the cultural assumptions that racism makes, in an amount of detail which I cannot hope to summarise adequately here. While taking into full account the opera's intention to reflect Britain and not Japan, she finds in the opera, and especially its performance history, an unhelpful relationship with an assumed "exoticism" based on Westerners' imagined fantasies of the East. She argues cogently and convincingly, and brings to the debate arguments which should give every Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast cause to stop and think. I can only urge the interested reader to read this book.
On page xiv, Lee writes: "Both the tragic Madame Butterfly and The Mikado have been identified as orientalist, but these two musical versions of Japan work quite differently. The Mikado in particular defies charges that it is a racist work. Though its characterizations, setting, and story clearly misrepresent Japan in ways that can be seen as patronizing and insulting, at the same time it is a comic opera that disclaims the seriousness of these representations."
I would like to repeat a key phrase in that quotation: "The Mikado... defies charges that it is a racist work." If I could, I would set it in stone. The opera has its problems, and I do not defend it to the death or even to the minor flesh wound, but this sentence, written from "the other side of the fence", will stand up to serious examination.
If we accept the fact that, however the opera may appear today, it was not written with any racist intent, this is surely a very remarkable thing, bearing in mind the almost reflexively racist culture existing in London at that time.
(NB: In the interests of full disclosure, I do need to mention that the opera as written in 1885 did contain two uses of the word "nigger", which at that time was not believed (by white Britishers) to be offensive or necessarily insulting. The word was used casually in much of the literature of the day. In the 1940s, after this perception changed in the UK, these incidences of the word were taken out of The Mikado's standard performed text.)
The opera has not always been produced in the traditional "yellowface" fashion. Jonathan Miller's 1986 production for English National Opera relocated it to an imagined cartoon 1920s England:
In 2001 The Mikado was performed with a Japanese cast in Chichibu (suggested to be a model for the opera's town of Titipu):
This production was later seen at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England.
Other productions have come to other solutions.
However, I have been looking anew at some of the easily available production shots of "traditional" productions of the opera, and if one views these with the eyes not of an insider who knows the intention of the opera, but of one from the outside, some of these photos do appear to be somewhat insensitive, not to say insulting. I will not reproduce any of the photos here, but they can be found easily enough. It should, in theory, not be impossible to avoid such things in the future, with a little sensitivity.
The conclusion I wish to emphasise is this: there is no point in wilfully offending your audience. This is not a matter of "political correctness" but of simple courtesy and even, when you come down to it, commercial common sense.
I would certainly be very happy to see the last of the idea that such shots as this are acceptable for use, by a very major record firm, as the obvious image to promote Gilbert and Sullivan (the album came out in 2000: I repeat, 2000):
Please let me say, loud and clear and with every decibel at my disposal:
This is NOT what Gilbert and Sullivan is about.
G&S is about silliness, and fun, and being intelligent and mocking the powerful, and accepting the fundamental absurdity of life, which we all have to go through together:
Is it but a world of trouble--
Sadness set to song?
Is its beauty but a bubble
Bound to break ere long?
Are its palaces and pleasures
Fantasies that fade?
And the glory of its treasures
Shadow of a shade?
Gilbert and Sullivan... and UKIP
26 May 2014
Back in 2010, Sir Jonathan Miller, after careful consideration, expressed his “contempt” for Gilbert and Sullivan, adding that it was simply “UKIP set to music.” It will be noticed that Sir Jonathan had no word of criticism for Sullivan’s music; it was only Gilbert’s words that he considered to bear comparison with UKIP. At any rate, it will be understood that since he made this pronouncement I have felt a special interest in observing UKIP’s changing fortunes. Its recent successes in local and particularly European elections leave me with emotions which are indescribable.
I am the Secretary of the W.S. Gilbert Society. It is statistically probable that some of its members voted for UKIP in the elections, more or less in proportion to the national vote. It is expedient, therefore, for me not to say exactly what I think about UKIP, for fear of causing offence which will lose Society members. I will only say that I did not, and will not, vote for that party.
No, I’m wrong. I will say one more thing. Let me explain something of what I see in UKIP. I see a party based on the return to an idealised past: a past which, if it ever existed, started to disappear sometime in the 1970s, when Britain was not part of Europe, when a drink and a fag were not considered unhealthy or wrong in any way, before a certain set of new ideas had taken root in our society and caused a disturbing instability in our thought. UKIP is a visionary party: it exists to pursue a dream of how things were in the rosy past. As Gilbert wrote in Foggerty’s Fairy (1881): “Every age is matter-of-fact to those who live in it. Romance died the day before yesterday. To-day will be romantic the day after to-morrow.”
In a sense, it is no surprise to see that UKIP might be associated in some minds with the works of two Victorians. Victorian thought would fit right in to the workings of such a party as I have described, and this would imply no criticism at all of the Victorians involved, whose thoughts were, of course, from their point of view, thoroughly up-to-date.
However, it is important, I think, to go back to Sir Jonathan Miller’s pronouncement and to suggest (with all due respect to him) that he may have been, on this one occasion only, wrong. The reputation of W.S. Gilbert as a writer is problematic for all sorts of reasons, many of them nothing to do with him. The Gilbert and Sullivan operas are too often associated with a set of values which do not in fact belong to them.
Gilbert famously wrote in H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) a stirring patriotic lyric which starts to look sarcastic only if you pay attention:
He is an Englishman!
For he himself has said it
And it’s greatly to his credit
That he is an Englishman!
For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations
He remains an Englishman!
When Gilbert rewrote H.M.S. Pinafore as a children’s book late in life (1908) he took the risk of explaining his joke a little: “Speaking for myself, I do not quite see that Ralph Rackstraw deserved so very much credit for remaining an Englishman, considering that no one seems ever to have proposed to him that he should be anything else, but the crew thought otherwise and I daresay they were right.”
Of course, the conclusion to that thought is that the only people who deserve praise for their nationality are those who chose it: that is, immigrants.
The late Gilbert and Sullivan opera Utopia, Limited (1893) is a satire on cultural colonialism in which the island of Utopia is “reformed” (for which read, ruined) by the importation of English institutions and ideas. I merely mention this as a fact to ponder.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into Gilbert’s thought and philosophy here. It would take too long. Gilbert, like every writer, was flawed, and unthinking prejudices do show themselves in his works on occasion. But there is one thing I want to say, as strongly as I can. Gilbert was not a backward-looking man. He saw no idyllic past. While mocking the absurdities of his own time, he did not believe they were any worse than the absurdities of previous ages. The well-respected historian David Cannadine has characterised the Gilbert and Sullivan operas as “a paean of praise to national pride and to the established order,” but this is to ignore the tone of sarcasm that invariably appears whenever patriotism crops up in the operas.
The past is dead and we cannot return to it. I believe with all my heart that if we are to survive as a civilisation we must face up to the challenges that exist now, specifically the destruction of our environment, and not turn our backs on them. I can’t immediately think of a quotation from Gilbert to support this statement, but it is true all the same. To speak personally, I do not believe voting for UKIP is the correct way to do this.
Oh... one last thing. There is one aspect of UKIP which I think Gilbert would appreciated, as a grim joke at any rate: the fact that the party exists mainly to elect people to the European Parliament because they hate the European Parliament. That is the kind of topsy-turvy logic that would have confirmed everything Gilbert believed about the nature of humanity.
My Books of the Year
29 December 2013
Everyone seems to have a list of their Best Books of the Year; you can't open the Guardian or the Observer without setting eyes on yet another lot of the stuff. So I don't see why I should be left out.
I don't know how all the others who get asked to do this kind of thing, do this kind of thing; but this is how I did it. I tried to remember what I had read in the past year. And then, when I couldn't think of anything, I looked on my shelves. Anything that didn't make much of an impression when I read it has already been recycled to a charity shop. So this, more or less, is what remains. Not everything that follows was first published in 2013. But it was first read by me this year.
First up: William Gallagher's study of The Beiderbecke Affair (BFI TV Classics, 2012). A lovely little book, a celebration of the work of Alan Plater and in particular this ITV series of the 1980s which mixed together humour, jazz, intrigue, and a little light socialism to create something amazing. Gallagher seems to have interviewed everyone involved with the programme, except Plater himself, who, being dead, is unavoidably absent. The writer is suitably light in his style and has good things to say, especially about the alleged plotlessness of the series (actually it contains a lot of dramatic events, but it is the style of the piece that no one bats an eyelid at any of it). Perhaps most affectingly, Barbara Flynn (Jill Swinburne) speaks of how working on the Beiderbecke series changed her in a personal, political sense.
Charles Dickens by Simon Callow (2012) was originally published under the title Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World and, to be truthful, I don't know why it isn't still called that. This is a great book, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, stylish. Compared with the lauded biography by Claire Tomalin, it has the tremendous advantage of being a real book, a story, a narrative; not a bag of facts in the usual modern biographical style. Callow has taken the trouble to think about Dickens and the arc of his life, and to connect the events to show how one thing led to another, how certain events affected Dickens as a person and how he chose to act thereafter. What comes out from the book is the portrait of a man almost superhuman in his qualities: in his energy, his drive to succeed and to be a force for good in the world; almost superhuman also in his flaws and his selfish cruelty in relation to his wife. The big flaw with the book is the absence of references; but I suppose Google would find me the source of most quotations if I needed to find them.
The Lord Chamberlain Regrets.... by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson, and Miriam Handley (British Library, 2004) is a well illustrated history of the censorship of British plays between 1824 and 1968 (when the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain's Office was abolished). From my point of view, the most valuable section is that dealing with Victorian censorship, written by Miriam Handley; very illuminating on what could and could not be said on the Victorian stage. The later section, quoting extensively from readers' reports on some of the major works of 20th century theatre, is entertaining and flabbergasting in about equal measure. Fallen Angels by Noel Coward: "The whole is a revolting sex-play and has not the redeeming feature of containing a moral lesson." The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter: "An insane, pointless play. Mr. Pinter has jumbled all the tricks of Beckett and Ionesco with a dash from all the recently produced plays at the Royal Court Theatre, plus a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy. The result is still silly."
Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers by Ian Bradley (SCM Press, 2013) is a genuinely revelatory book, a study of the sacred music of Sir Arthur Sullivan that makes a persuasive case that this sacred music was in fact at the heart of Sullivan's music: deeply felt and with a true style of its own deriving from Sullivan's earliest years. Perhaps the most daring part of the book is the section which takes the allegations of Sullivan's "sentimentality" and turns it back on the accusers, accepting the charge and pleading that sentimentality is not necessarily false or despicable.
I love the work of Dashiell Hammett, and am only frustrated that there is not more of it. Only five novels! (Six if you count the short Woman in the Dark.) The publication, in The Return of the Thin Man (Head of Zeus, 2013) of Hammett's narrative treatments for the Hollywood movies After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man is exciting in itself. The style, obviously enough, is spare and functional: these pieces were not intended for publication in this form. But the zest is still there, and the dialogue is still as punchy as ever.
Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Headline, 2013) was, I admit, both a great pleasure in the reading and a slight disappointment in its effect. Gaiman is a lovely writer with a real sense of style and narrative--rare gifts in these days. The book has a great feeling for the wonderful. But it all feels a little too familiar; the whole setup is too reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, especially the Tiffany Aching novels; and the whole business of exciting and impossible adventures occurring in the everyday world goes back to James P. Blaylock (The Digging Leviathan etc.) and probably far beyond. Still, fairy-tales of this sort with a Chestertonian sense of allegorical meaning are not so common that we can afford to cast them aside casually.
Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe (Penguin Viking, 2013) is, like the Gaiman, an allusive book, feeding on other novels and films. The names of off-stage characters are pilfered from Boulting Brothers satires (Carlton Browne, Tracepurcel, etc.); the structure alludes to Stepping Westward and Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury; one or two running jokes are pure David Nobbs; the spy plot could be from almost anywhere. It is, for me, a great joy, perhaps because its in-jokes are so close to my own tastes. It is, like so much of Coe's work, an almost-comic novel, too mindful of artistic truth to rush to a standard farcical finish. It is set in 1958 (need it be said?) and its knowing tone comes in large part from the hindsight of writer and reader looking back at the 50s from 2013. There is therefore an undercurrent of real sorrow to the novel, for all its joy, apparent in the recurring allusions to smoking; one scene in particular ends with a line of savage irony that is painful. I was given the book for Christmas, and read it in a blast on 26 December. A good note to end the year on.
The Third Zone, and others
4 August 2013
Horse and Carriage
31 May 2013
Why Doesn't the National Theatre Perform Gilbert?
14 April 2013
Well, having written the title, I feel I could finish it there. I've said all that needs to be said; everything else follows logically and can be worked out by you, the reader, without my having to go through all the tedious business of spelling it out for you. I wish books could be written that way; literature would be so much more concise and whole forests would be saved. However, I suppose I ought to make the effort.
It all stems from this article which appeared in the Guardian about a week ago. It's in praise of the National Theatre and it's headed: "The National Theatre is the very model of public-private sponsorship." I don't think the Guardian realise how ironic it is to quote Gilbert when referring to the National Theatre. To my knowledge, the NT has produced a Gilbert play only once, a production of Engaged in 1975. That's a long time ago. It hasn't even produced a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, even though it has done Rodgers & Hammerstein more than once, also, if my memory serves me, My Fair Lady.
Such a piece as Patience or Ruddigore simply cries out to be performed by actors. The Gilbert and Sullivan operas are deeply theatrical works, generous in their opportunities to the performers, meatily intelligent to audiences, satisfying and lasting and profoundly sceptical of the ideas that we take for granted.
If Gilbert and Sullivan is still considered too vulgar for the National (though I hope not, bearing in mind that they didn't turn up their noses at Oklahoma!) then Gilbert's vicious masterwork Engaged really ought to take their place, even though the National did do it a mere thirty-seven years ago. This unsparing picking apart of Victorian moral values is as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1877, when it was first performed to an audience who responded with a mixture of cheers and hisses.
Gilbert is one of the glories of the English theatre. His works are performed by amateur groups round the country almost every week of the year. They form the one lasting contribution to the British stage between Sheridan and Wilde. He did much to reform the stage after a period of debasement caused by what he called "the narrow limits of bourgeois thought imposed by the survival of Puritanical prejudice". He fought against the pressure exerted by Victorian society to portray on stage "not what life is, but what it ought to be." Eventually, he caved in and the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are the result, in which his criticism of his society is rendered covert and the portrayal of life as it ought to be is undermined by being shown to be childish and impossible.
I'll say no more. Sometimes I feel the need to shout into the ether, and it would be nice to be heard and listened to, but the mere fact of shouting is sometimes enough. Arts organisations have their own agenda, just as I have mine, and their apprehension of the zeitgeist is not necessarily mine. Still, in these topsy-turvy times, when our society can only be saved by a radical overhauling of our attitudes to the environment, work, and in fact all the fundamental things, and what we have is a government of instinctively backward thinkers who have nothing but empty patriotism and Empire yearning to sustain them, maybe Gilbert is the zeitgeist after all.
Bradford: The Place I Call Home and Other People Call ....
20 January 2013
I can date the beginning of my love of the work of Alan Plater exactly. On Sunday 6 January 1985 the first episode of The Beiderbecke Affair was broadcast on ITV. I was 15 years old, and we watched it as a family, me, mum, dad, and my brother. I loved the humour, of course, the jokes. I liked its gentleness, which is broadly in the tradition of English humour, Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse, and so on. But what I remember most of all is its... well, let's say its understated bonkersedness. You're introduced to the main characters, as in all good TV drama: the two teachers, Trevor and Jill, and their circle. But throughout the episode a shabby old man with a dog ambles in and out, stopping only to have a meaningless conversation with the hero along the way. He has no apparent connection to the plot. He is completely unexplained. And he's one of the funniest things in the series (even though, disappointingly, it does later turn out that he has a part in the story).
I was hooked on The Beiderbecke Affair. When Alan Plater turned it into a novel, I devoured it, and when its sequel The Beiderbecke Tapes came out, I devoured that too. Tapes went the other way, being converted from a novel into a TV miniseries, but the TV version was disappointing--as I now know, it was hamstrung by budget issues and anxious beancounters. The third TV series, The Beiderbecke Connection, a beautiful rounding off of the story, followed after (from my point of view) too long a gap.
Since then I have counted myself a Plater fan. I bought all his books more or less as they came out, tried to see all his TV series and episodes, read his plays. Why? Because the man has... had... style. He died in 2010, dammit, much too early. Googling his name today, I came across John Burn's citation which was given when Plater was made a Doctor of Letters at Newcastle University. In the course of the eulogy he said: "as a doctor I must encourage him to stop drawing on cigarettes because we want him to go on writing for many more years." I wish, pointlessly, that Alan Plater had listened more to that kind of advice. We need writers like him today; he would have been furious at what he would have seen around him, but at the same time he would have been in his element.
Anyway. Style. He always said that his beginning as a real writer came when he started to listen to the vernacular poetry of normal speech. He loved dialogue, what it can do. Humour was for him the same as poetry.
All this musing about Alan Plater has been triggered off in my mind by the publication late last year of a new title in the BFI TV Classics series, a study by William Gallagher of The Beiderbecke Affair. He interviews everyone connected with the series that he can lay hands on, he details its history, and he comments, lightly and intelligently, on the importance of the series. Naturally, he doesn't get all his attitudes just right--only I have the fully correct views about the series, unclouded by prejudice. He dismisses the second two series as inferior to the first, even though Connection is actually a gorgeous piece of work. Still, it's a great book. Buy it.
He interviewed Barbara Flynn, of course. She says this: "I jokingly say there are actors who speak Plater and and understand Plater and there are those who don't.... He really had his own language and he brought all his love in one place in Beiderbecke, it was where he put everything he loved." This nails it absolutely. Plater is his own world and vocabulary. Some people are bewildered by the seeming "plotlessness" and slowness of his work. They don't understand and they never will. Why aren't there any car chases? Why no explosions? Because it's Plater. The explosions are all in the words.
The importance of the series to me is immense. Looking back, I see it has coloured my attitudes to life much more than I realised at the time. I have read and reread Plater's books, and they are part of my personal literary Bible alongside The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, War with the Newts.... (Do all my favourite books have long and/or ridiculous titles? Probably.) Beiderbecke caught me at the impressionable age. Its mixture of the forward-looking and the backward-looking makes it doubly important in retrospect. It looks back at old-fashioned socialism and pre-electric jazz; it looks forward towards ecological concern and the crisis of capitalism.
I was a ridiculous young Tory when I first came to Alan Plater. I had a soft spot for John Major, and even Maggie Thatcher was not totally evil in my eyes: when she said there was no such thing as society, I sighed with relief, because at that time I was tormented with the idea that I had to conform to the expectations of a "society" that I could not see and that was seemingly separate from the people who formed it. Maggie Thatcher gave me the freedom to be myself. It's only unfortunate that at the same time she destroyed the manufacturing base of our economy. It is probably down to Alan Plater that I'm not a Tory now.
His work is often rough, sometimes self-indulgent. But I have no hesitation in saying he was a genius. He gave us a view of the world, and he changed people's opinions without seeming to do so. And he gave us some cracking good jokes as well.
Who is Gordon Coppinger?
To quote the words of....
19 November 2012
I see that most of these blog entries have been portentously self-important and doom-laden. So here's another one.... Oh, but I can't be bothered with that today. So here's something very trivial instead: starting with a quotation.
"Losers visualize the penalties of failure. Winners visualize the rewards of success." - William S. Gilbert
This has been bouncing round Twitter lately, and is easily found on various quotation websites as well, eg here. Now, if you know anything at all about W.S. Gilbert, you know that he was about the last person on earth who was likely to have said anything like this. A little more searching shows that the quotation has also been attributed to someone called Dr Rob Gilbert. Without wishing to fling reckless accusations about the place, I suggest that he might have been the quotation's true culprit.
(To take the taste of Dr Rob Gilbert's words out of our mouths, here's something WSG really did write: "Virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances." That's better. Now let us proceed.)
Today, the QI Elves tweeted the following quotation:
If everybody thought before they spoke, the silence would be deafening. GEORGE BARZAN
Well, that's a little bit less nauseating than Dr Rob, but my immediate thought is that it's rather reminiscent of this:
"Imagine the silence if people said only what they know!" - Karel Capek, "Fragments", (1933)
And my second most immediate thought is that it's even more reminiscent of this:
"If [humans] don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working." Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
So Barzan is either a genius who anticipated Capek and Adams, or someone who rather feebly echoed what they had already said, depending on when he lived. I wish I could say which; but a Google search shows absolutely no information about him as a person. His name, as far as I can see, appears only on quotation sites. He does not seem to have written any books. There is no indication of what his qualifications or achievements are, or whether he is famous, or what for. I have a tiny mischievous suspicion, which is most probably wrong, that this witty George Barzan might not even really exist. If he does, then I apologise, and I would be very grateful for all information on the subject. It might possibly help to show me how one becomes a quotable person in the internet age (a very valuable gift for a writer).
As Abraham Lincoln said..... (oh, fill in the rest yourself)
Yes, Gilbert Does Matter, Actually
5 August 2012
At a time like this, when the United Kingdom is being ruled by what I can only call smug-faced idiots, when politicians and bankers and similar persons blatantly on the make think they can delude the rest of us by speaking in obfuscatory politiprose, when, what is worse, they appear to be correct, if only because we find their language so revolting that we prefer to leave them to their own devices rather than to attempt to communicate with them; when the whole situation in which we find ourselves is so horribly wrong on almost every level that, in despair, we retire into our selfish mini-worlds and metaphorically draw the blankets over our heads; when, in short, we are starting to acquire levels of self-delusion that rival the Victorians.... at a time like this, what we need is a truth-teller to bring us to our senses. Obviously I am not that person. But maybe Gilbert is.
I don't necessarily mean the Gilbert of the Gilbert and Sullivan years, though maybe he could assist. The distasteful fact is that when G&S became successful Gilbert had been partially broken by the years of vicious critical resistance, and he learned to stifle his most outrageous pronouncements against his own society. In the G&S operas there are many moments when the old Adam comes through, but by and large these are only moments. No, I am thinking more of his real masterwork, his 1877 comedy Engaged.
This was the play in which he put everything he felt about English society of the time. He depicted its brutal selfishness which hides in civilised language, the money-grubbing, the sentimental obsession with love which is only a cover for lust or money-madness. He showed a world in which gentility is a frail disguise for dog-eat-dog brutality, a world of delusion and nonsensicality.
Engaged should be produced today. It needs to be produced today. It is the most modern, up-to-the-minute play I can think of. Gilbert never went away--he was only damned by the praise of his admirers--but now, more than ever, he speaks to us. I don't mean that he says what we want to hear--though some of the G&S operas are so apparently escapist that they might soothe us as we say we want to be soothed in times of crisis--but he does say what we need to hear. In Engaged he says it loud and clear, so loud and clear that no one could mistake it.
He says it in G&S also. In The Pirates of Penzance, the Pirate King says: "I don't think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest." In The Mikado, it is assumed that all official personages are corrupt and interested only in preserving their skin. In HMS Pinafore, the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter knows nothing about ships, and the contempt in which Gilbert holds him oozes through everything. Sir Joseph's hypocrisy, easy sloganeering, and complete all-through falseness are depicted with an aplomb that shows not only that Gilbert knew what politicians are, but also that they have not really changed.
I have written two books about Gilbert explaining how false is the impression we have of his works, and attempting to correct that impression. So I won't go into that whole issue again here. But I want to express as fiercely and earnestly as I can what I feel, which is that we are living through a time of delusion that can only be addressed with the level of intellectual clarity and capacity for cleansing mockery that Gilbert possessed. Revive Engaged. Do it now. I don't care if you're not involved in the theatre; do it anyway. I'll even give you a link to the script. Here. Now do it.
On The Offensive
28 July 2012
Right; now's the time. I've just discovered the following statement from Stephen Fry... yes, yes, I know, rather late in the day, since it comes from a debate which took place in 2005... but it is such a perfect encapsulation of the attitude I want to answer that I must quote it.
(And, before I go any further, I'd like to say that I'm a great admirer of Stephen Fry and that, though I disagree with what he's about to say, I won't have a word said against him personally. About fifteen years ago, I rather insanely sent a compilation pamphlet of some of my best writings to a handful of celebrities. Stephen Fry was the only one who replied, in a personal letter saying how much he had enjoyed reading it. That sort of behaviour earns you an awful lot of brownie points.)
Anyway, this is what he said, at a debate on blasphemy at the Hay on Wye Literary Festival in 2005:
"It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that,' as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I'm offended by that.' Well, so fucking what?"
It's a fine, strong statement, and people quote it a lot. The only problem appears to be that it does not set out a reasoned argument: it simply makes a series of assertions. "As if it gives them certain rights" implies that it does not give rights, without saying why. "It is no more than a whine", "It has no meaning," "it has no reason to be respected as a phrase," these are all statements which need to be proved, and which, as far as I understand it, Stephen Fry did not prove.
There is a question to be answered about all this, and it is one that no one thinks to examine. That question is: What does the word "offensive" actually mean?
The way it is commonly used, and the way Stephen Fry refers to it, assumes it to be an active verb masquerading as a passive one. That is, when someone says, "I am offended," it is assumed that this was an action by the speaker, not something that was done to the speaker by someone else. The speaker has chosen to be offended. It must be admitted that imagining someone in the act of "being offended" is not pleasant: the folded arms, the lower lip stuck out, the general air of conscious martyrdom are enough to make a saint laugh.
But we need to look at the word properly. It is not simply passive: it is also, I might say primarily, active. "I offend you." That's not a sentence we hear much, but only because people don't like being so downright about it. When they offend, they usually pretend they do not. Hence the onus of pointing out what has just happened is pushed onto the other party, who is forced to say, "I am offended," with all the paraphernalia of the folded arms and jutting lip and so on. Double-win to the offender there.
"Offend" is the equal and opposite verb to "defend" and it means "attack." That's the point. That's the vital fact to bear in mind. If you take any sentence with "offend" in it and substitute "attack", then the whole issue becomes so much clearer, we lose the connotations of self-immolation and we can actually decide on each case on its merits. Not "I am offended" but "I am attacked." Suddenly it is obvious that the speaker is not talking about something that the speaker has decided to be, but something that another person has done to him/her. Who has attacked you? How? And (vital question, this) was that person right to do so?
"You have attacked me." That is a definite, clear accusation, something that can be answered properly. You can reply by saying it was not intended as an attack (and we can choose to believe you or not), you can say it was an attack but it was justified for this, this and this reason, you can say the attack was simply a joke (and we can decide whether that's a good enough defence). Or, indeed, you can just say, "Yes, I attacked you. In the words of Stephen Fry, so fucking what?"
(Oh, that's another topic, but as it's related to this one, I'll jam it into a parenthesis here. "Fuck", "fucking" and so on are offensive, that is to say attacking, words. They hit the recipient like a blow, which is as it should be, because "fuck" apparently derives from a Germanic word meaning to hit or strike. And about 95% of the time the word is used as an act of aggression, rather than as a description of sex. The phrase "So fucking what?" is very clearly an attacking one.)
Clearly all this does not necessarily mean that the offender/attacker is wrong. Attacking someone verbally can be justified, and it can be the only morally right course. It can also be wrong. If, for instance, you attack the disabled, the disadvantaged, the powerless, then you had better have a pretty dashed good reason for having done so. Sometimes a heavily sarcastic, "Oh, have I offended [ie attacked] you? Oh, deary me, do you want a lollipop?" simply doesn't cut it. Suddenly this kind of thing sounds like the words of a bully.
Right, I think I've more or less said what I want to say now. Just one final point, probably a dying fall, but who cares? Comedy. Not all comedy is "offensive" (attacking); think of Morecambe and Wise or P G Wodehouse. But a lot of it is, especially now. It's an act of aggression. It attacks people, either individually or in a group. "Offensive" comedy does not become so because of the reaction of the people it "offends" (attacks), no matter how jutty the lower lip, but because of the comedian. If you are called Frankie Boyle and you want to attack Jordan, probably because she is a woman, or attack her disabled child, or attack her husband, fine. If you want to use the amusing concept of rape in order to do so, fine. But be damned clear about what you're doing. I think that my basic rule of thumb--"offensive" means "attacking"--is a vital part of the whole process of realising what you, if you're a comedian, are doing. And if I'm wrong, tell me so, and tell me why. Go on. Offend me.
(Ha! How's that for a fine rhetorical finish?)
What though the night may come too soon?
24 July 2012
So here we are again. I wonder if I dare talk about the things that are really on my mind at the moment. Well, why not? What's a blog for if not to give a platform for self-indulgent ravings?
So this is what is usually in my mind as a walk to the station in the morning, as I sit on the train watching the scenery flash by, as I waste my spare moments. I wonder to myself about the world we live in and how many years we have left before it all collapses. Or should I measure that in months? Perhaps that's too morbid. But surely we know the jig is up now. We've all seen "An Inconvenient Truth" or at least we have a pretty good grasp of the facts behind it. We have permanently damaged the world, and the time we have left before the climate changes drastically and horribly is getting shorter and shorter. And we do nothing about it. We look the other way, at nicer things, in the hope that not looking at it means not having to suffer its consequences. Population, I mean world population and not just the population of this tiny insignificant island on the edge of the map, continues to grow exponentially (is that the correct word? I'm afraid it is). But we have our phones and our PCs and our tablets and what-all, and as long as we have these things we can distract ourselves.
And the few people who theoretically could do something to save us from the catastrophe--I allude to politicians--even they prefer to put it safely low down on the agenda. It goes something like this:
about 93) Surviving as a civilisation beyond the next forty years or so.
Can the wave of economic crises sweeping the world have anything to do with the fact that most "first-world" countries have no useful skills and employ their citizens in bureaucratic bean-counting operations? The rich countries are dependent on the desperately poor countries for food and technology and most things that keep us alive. But we have the money and they don't, for reasons which seem to have more to do with precedent than the actual intrinsic facts.
As a civilisation we have deliberately cut ourselves off from reality. Truthfully, we don't deserve to survive.
But... do you want a happy ending? Okay, here's one... but the chances are we will survive, in some form or another, in spite of the fact that we don't deserve to. Yes, there will be a catastrophe. That's inevitable. Millions upon millions will starve and die. There will be a new Dark Age. There's no point even discussing it: it will happen. But we're a hardy lot, after all. Some will survive. In pockets, in isolated vales. Some books will survive. There will be folk memories of the things that were important to us, Shostakovich and the Bonzos and Nora Ephron and so on. We will be flung back to a much earlier stage of technology.... perhaps the level of about 1520, say. But that's not so bad, is it? We survived it before, we can survive it again.
And maybe, just maybe, next time round we'll do it better. It's not likely, but it could happen.
Bram Stoker, Dracula and Gilbert
20 April 2012
Today sees the centenary of the death of Bram Stoker, and naturally there's a good deal of coverage of this event in the media.
Stoker was employed as Henry Irving's business manager at the Lyceum, and he moved in the theatrical circles of the day, so it isn't surprising that he knew Gilbert. In fact the Gilberts were good friends of the Stokers. Throughout the 1890s and 1900s Gilbert kept up a friendly and flirtatious correspondence with Bram's wife Florence, and Bram gave to Gilbert's wife Lucy a signed first edition of Dracula (this copy has been on the market for about a year now, and a bookseller is presently offering it for the knock-down price of £125,000). It's intriguing to wonder what Lucy made of this distinctly peculiar, not to say perverse, novel.
In his later years, Gilbert owned a number of monkeys and lemurs at his country residence, Grim's Dyke. The Stokers seem to have borrowed one of the lemurs, Job, as a pet in their London residence while the Gilberts were out of the country one winter. A story in the Stoker family suggests that Job disgraced himself by swinging from the chandelier and, finally, defecating into a bowl of fruit--after which he was banished from the house.
The Stokers fell out with the Gilberts shortly after this, but the rift was healed when, in December 1902, Florence sent a Christmas card to Job.
In the Gilbert and Sullivan world, the friendship of Gilbert with Mrs Stoker is best known for a letter written just after the premiere of the last Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Grand Duke, in which Gilbert expressed his frustration at the creation of this, which he knew full well was not amongst his best works:
"I have had rather a bad time of it," he wrote on 9 March 1896, "but now that the baby is born I shall soon recover. I pick up very quickly (thank God!) after these little events. I am not at all a proud mother, & I never want to see the ugly misshapen little brat again!"
The Great Topsy-Turvy Vaudeville
3 April 2012
With apologies for the long delay in updating the blog.... I've sometimes thought of topics which would have made good blog entries (my rant on the much misunderstood word "offensive" is still asking to be written) but events and apathy prevented my writing them. No such excuses today, however.
One problem is that I can't write about my current writing projects. Making them public renders them subject to criticism even before they're written, and they wither on the vine. However, I think I can make an exception for one project I'm working on at the moment, because strictly speaking it isn't a creative work at all, but an editing job on existing works.
I've recently been frustrated by the fact that, while certain theatre companies (eg Opera della Luna) are interested in creating shows about Gilbert and Sullivan--exploring aspects of their lives, celebrating their works, or creating "new" Gilbert and Sullivan out of scraps of the real thing--no one has ever considered approaching me to help devise such a show. It seems odd, considering my knowledge of the subject and experience as a dramatist. So I've decided to devise the show myself, without waiting for the theatre companies to ask, and to wait for the offers to pour in. It is a foolproof plan.
The show's working title is The Great Topsy-Turvy Vaudeville. It will consist entirely of scenes, songs and sketches by Gilbert, the silly alongside the satirical and the grimly serious. Half the point lies in the jarring contrasts involved, because Gilbert's works are full of exactly this kind of contrast. You're enjoying a comic monologue when suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a deadly serious dramatic scene, and just as suddenly you're in the realms of farce. Constructed as a series of "turns"--a song followed by a satirical monologue delivered like a sermon from a pulpit followed by a dialogue scene, and so on--and united (possibly) by a series of scenes from Gilbert's crazy play Topseyturveydom, the effect would be of a feast of pleasures, with no longueurs or duff bits. The material would be drawn from the full range of Gilbert's output, 95% of which is almost completely unknown, so the show would not be simply a reminder of familiar pleasures, like most G&S-related shows, but (hopefully) a revelation. I would edit the material to make it as tight and effective as possible. Ruthlessly. Oh, it would be brilliant.
At the moment, it's just an idea and a few jottings in a notebook. Really, I need a company to show serious interest before I go any further.
Need I say more?
28 December 2011
One of the things I am trying to achieve with this website and occasional blog is to project an appealing image of myself as a writer for the delight of agents and suchlike. Unfortunately, I find this extremely difficult, because when I write in my own voice it is usually an expression of frustration or anger, and I know very well that these are not appealing qualities in a stranger.
One solution would be to use the blog simply to record the everyday events of my life. But is that really so interesting? I have a temporary job with a bank, so most days I go to work, then I work, then I come home, then I have dinner, then I go to bed. It's not very fascinating. The details that would make the account interesting are precisely the details that it would be very unwise for me to set down on a public blog.
Christmas has, I suppose, been pretty well exactly what it is for everyone. A few days off, including a day with my parents, eating and drinking and being happy. Presents given and presents received. For me that involved receiving a marvellous collection of the essays of George Orwell (the Everyman edition), also the letters of P G Wodehouse and a CD set of works mostly by Shostakovich. Is that interesting to anyone? It is barely interesting enough for me to write. Mind you, I could say a bit more about the CDs. They're a 10 CD set of works conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and they include Shostakovich's arrangements of British and American folk songs, which are really very charming and ideal listening on Christmas morning. There, that's marginally less tedious. But only marginally.
Well, that's all I have to say here. Perhaps the next blog will return to the usual tone of querulous peevishness. Perhaps that will be a relief.
Credit Equals Merit
20 November 2011
I've been adding bits and pieces to this website, scanning fliers and photos from my plays, and looking back on what I've achieved since I started getting published and performed, back in 2000. And, thinking about all this, the one thing I've written that really makes me proud, not to mention a little amazed that I managed to set it down on paper, is my 2003 play Welcome to Paradise.
This wild, outrageous piece came out of my unhappiness with the society I saw around me at that time. It was a kind of hybrid of 1984 and The Apartment, set in a dystopian future where success and advancement come with drinking, taking drugs, and having promiscuous sex. It was a very personal piece, exposing a lot of my neuroses in a way that I probably woudn't today. It was very carefully thought through, though it was deliberately written as if it was an uncontrolled outpouring of sarcastic rage.
There were two signs displayed on the stage. They read:
CREDIT = MERIT
MERIT = CREDIT
I'm not sure people ever quite got the point of these. The society in Welcome to Paradise is a "meritocracy"--everyone has their place on the ladder determined by individual "merit", which is calculated by their contributions to society in terms of drinking, drug use, and sexual activity. One unit of merit is rewarded with one credit. So the more merit you have, the more credit. And it follows that someone with many credits must have a corresponding amount of merit. Merit equals credit and credit equals merit.
Now the thing is, this is not fantasy. This is the way our society actually works. It is assumed, in spite of all the facts, that if someone has money it is because s/he has earned it and deserves it. The banker deserves the bonus. The down and out deserves poverty. Naturally those in power believe this especially: they have a vested interest in believing that the system works, that money is the reward of merit.
We all know this is not the case. We know that our richest people are by and large rich because they are bastards. They plunder us for our skills and time, and if they are taxed more than they want, they desert their home countries without a thought. But at some level we also believe that if we are poor it is because we deserve to be poor. Credit equals merit. Naturally our present rulers believe this with all their hearts--the sons of privilege, how could it be otherwise? We get the rulers we deserve, unfortunately; no wonder we seem to be turning into a forelock-tugging, kowtowing underclass.
What a depressing conclusion. What a pity it is probably true.
11 November 2011
This website is an attempt to convince people (notably myself) that I am a real writer. Maybe you wouldn't guess it from the tone of some of the other tabs, but I'm actually pretty uncertain about my worth as an author. But if this website is to be worth anything to me as self-advertisement (and let's be frank, that's what it is) then I have to try to do the Bernard Shaw act and shout out from the rooftops how great I am. As I'm not very comfortable doing that, I've taken refuge in the third person for certain statements, e.g. "Andrew is widely acknowledged as the authority on the life and works of Victorian writer and humorist W.S. Gilbert." It happens to be factually true, but it would feel weird to write it as if I were talking about myself. I'm not sure what that says about me.
In my "real life" at the moment, I have a temporary job working for a well-known bank, a job which as a rule leaves me more or less brain-dead at the end of the day. I'm trying to go back to writing plays, after a gap of about two years during which I wrote Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan (see the relevant tab if you want to know some self-aggrandising facts about it). The book has been pretty damn successful, bearing in mind that there don't seem to have been any reviews in the print journals (except the W.S. Gilbert Society Journal, which doesn't count, because I'm the Society's Secretary). It seems to be selling largely as a result of word of mouth.
I'm finding the transition back to play writing incredibly difficult. It is a completely different kind of writing to the putting together of something like a biography: it uses different mental muscles.
Writing factual material is a matter of consciously exercising your skills to articulate yourself in words; and you have tacit permission to use the full range of your vocabulary. But writing drama is about using the words and rhythms of real speech. Vocabulary is often there not to be used. Inarticulacy becomes a source of drama in itself.
Most frightening of all is the fact that creative writing of this sort only really starts to work when you relax conscious control of what you are writing, and you enter a state in which a deeper level of your mind, full of contradictions and strange voices, begins to take over. It always sounds rather mystical when it's talked about, and probably ruddy pretentious as well. But every writer knows this state of being. And at the moment, after so long writing reasonably skilful conscious-level prose, I feel as if I have forgotten how to reach it.
Never mind, keep trying....