By Carolyn Williams
New York: Columbia University Press, 2010
454 pages, including illustrations and index
W. S. Gilbert doesn’t rate highly in academic literary criticism. The English universities hardly credit him at all. Gilbert’s standing is better in American academia, but never before to the extent of a book-length study. That’s what we have here, a book of impressive depth by Carolyn Williams, professor of English at Rutgers University. Her specialties there is Victorian literature, theater, and culture.
I don’t want to suggest that studies of Gilbert by non-academics have failed to make a useful contribution to the field. But most of those studies are by G&S specialists, whose broader knowledge of Victorian culture is, like Gilbert’s Utopia, limited. As the theatrical precursors on which Gilbert was reared — burlesques, pantomimes, and extravaganzas — have disappeared from the modern stage, it takes real effort to hunt them down. This is what Williams has done.
After “discovering” G&S in graduate school, she spent ten years researching Victorian theater, to try to understand precisely what W. S. Gilbert was parodying. Williams puts Gilbert’s libretti in the context of the theatrical genres he lampooned. As she points out, a successful parody depends on the listener being able to recognize the prototype that is being imitated. It also extends the life of its model: thus, Gilbert’s Patience, for example, is practically the only artifact of aestheticism that has survived on the modern stage. If it wasn’t for Gilbert, we might not know of it at all.
Posterity remembers Gilbert because his works remain funny even if you don’t recognize the models they are based on. The universality of his libretti is what separates them from the mine run of burlesques that were a dime a dozen on the Victorian stage. Thus, audiences can and do laugh at Patience even if they have never encountered aestheticism.
Williams goes farther than anyone to find Gilbert’s antecedents. That F. C. Burnand wrote an aesthetic play, The Colonel, at around the time of Patience, is well known. Less known is the source both of them relied on, Morris Barnett’s three-act comedy The Serious Family (1849), or Barnett’s source, Jean-François Bayard’s Le mari à la campagne (The Husband in the Country, 1844).
While the Patience chapter is especially good (she devotes one to each opera), every one is full of fresh insights and a deep understanding of the theatrical and cultural currency that Gilbert had inherited.
Gender, along with Genre and Parody, is the third prong of Williams’s argument. It is also the weakest. Her thesis is that Gilbert’s characters “perform” their genders, and that while Gilbert seems to affirm traditional gender roles, he also subjects them to critique. She falls very much in the camp that Gilbert’s old ladies are parodies of the traditional pantomime dame, and thus they should not be seen as evidence of misogyny.
As the proverb tells, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Gender is Prof. Williams’s hammer, and some of her arguments are force-fit. She plainly concedes that Yeomen is less useful to her, because it is “less centrally dedicated to gender issues,” and this leads her to underrate the work. She appears to overrate The Grand Duke because it happens to be congenial to her agenda.
She is a bit over-fond of the word “meditation,” as in, “Barataria is well cast as the setting for a farcical meditation on republicanism”; or, “marriage comes into this meditation on corporate entities formed from the hypothetical union of individuals”; or, “this opening scene of marriage [can be] recognized as part of the opera’s meditation on identity.” I never realized Gilbert was meditating so much. (He “meditates” in other chapters too, but in The Gondoliers chapter he does it three times within five pages.)
Notwithstanding this verbal tic, the book is fully accessible to a non-academic. It is written in an approachable style that any educated reader can easily grasp. Williams rigorously cites her sources, as any academic should. She is fully up-to-date on recent G&S scholarship, and has consulted every previous book I’m aware of that is at all relevant. The endnotes alone take up 50 pages. I would have preferred that those with substantive content (as opposed to mere source citations) had appeared as footnotes. It becomes tedious (and I finally gave up) checking each note, to see if she was actually adding to her argument, or just giving credit.
The book is reasonably free of factual error. I encountered a slip or two, but nothing serious. Contrast this with Gayden Wren, who despite a lifetime in G&S performing and directing, wrote a similar (but less sophisticated) book with errors by the bucketful.
The book is lavishly illustrated, with 21 color plates and dozens more in black & white. Consider it essential.