Absurdity in Gilbert & Sullivan

2 Aug

I fell in love with the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan while I was creating one of the narrators for my novel Eleanor’s Wars—Nat is a musical young adult who adores H.M.S. Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance. He may not understand all the political references to life in England during the late 1800s, but he is tickled by the absurdity of these tales. Gilbert & Sullivan put their characters into impossible situations which they then animate with gorgeous music and funny lyrics.

In Pinafore, for example, it’s hard to imagine how Little Buttercup could have fostered and then mixed up two babies, one of whom (Ralph) is 20 years old when the story opens, the other of whom (Captain Corcoran, who has a grown daughter) must be over 40. Little Buttercup goes on to marry Captain Corcoran but she must be at least 60—however, she says she has “gypsy blood” and dissembles well.

Or how about the Pirates of Penzance, where Frederic is apprenticed to pirates because his nursemaid Ruth misunderstood her instructions to apprentice him to a “pilot”? Frederic is a slave to his duty as an apprentice pirate but he loathes what the pirates do. His fellow pirates are preposterous too: they won’t rob any ship carrying orphans because they are all orphans. The word gets out and the only ships they encounter are filled with orphans!

I suspect that the absurdity in Gilbert & Sullivan tickles the fancy of most aficionados of G & S. It’s so very British—that uniquely British brand of humour which is silly, outrageous, and clever as hell.