> A Most Ingenious Paradox - Gilbert and Sullivan [RW]: Book Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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WILLIAM S. GILBERT (1838-1910) and ARTHUR S. SULLIVAN (1842-1900):

A MOST INGENIOUS PARADOX - The Art of Gilbert & Sullivan

by Gayden Wren

Oxford University Press: ISBN 0-19-514514-3 pp396 £25


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The 1980s saw a flourish of G&S books. Things have been fairly quiet since then until the arrival of this volume. Previous books, many of the coffee table variety, have attempted to present a new slant on existing information with few new facts gleaned from a trawl through numerous museum documents. G&S is strong today with a Gilbert & Sullivan and Sir Arthur Sullivan Society flourishing in 2002, not to mention two professional theatre companies in the UK and numerous amateur productions taking place world-wide. So you thought you knew all about G & S? – Not so!

Until now few writers have attempted a detailed assessment of the secret behind the success of the G&S tradition. Gayden Wren reveals these secrets by exploring and assessing works in an intriguing way. What we have in A Most Ingenious Paradox is a radically different treatment, which analyses in depth the structure of each opera, both in words and music – their thematic structure, interaction of characters, plot strengths and weaknesses, and the evolution of a style. As a stage director, Wren clearly knows his G&S from back to front and top to bottom, yet additionally he shows an extraordinary eye for detail that is impressive. He is perceptive in matching plot/character similarities, Gilbert’s evolution of rhyming patterns, and has a good memory for seeking parallels in the operas. Consequently, Wren succeeds in holding our attention throughout. It is amazing how much detail can be overlooked when exposed to G&S from an early age. I thought I knew plot structure and thematic similarities, but this book makes one aware of unusual patterns and contradictions that have been staring audiences in the face and of which they are rarely aware. Readers will view G&S with fresh eyes.

For instance, we find that the writing structure for The Sorcerer is found by Wren to be generally discarded in HMS Pinafore, while much of the character painting in Pinafore is again thrown aside in The Pirates of Penzance as the writers fine-tune a formula for the continued success of later operas. Wren goes into considerable detail to justify this, and his justification from the examples given makes good sense. Some ideas are revolutionary and unexpected. It is well documented that after the Iolanthe and Mikado Sullivan kept pushing Gilbert for more realistic situations to his plots and characters to portray real emotions. It requires someone as alert as Wren to make the connection that he had been given all this in The Pirates. Discussion of the early operas includes the relative weightings of solo/duet/trio/quartet/chorus numbers to illustrate how their formula is being perfected. He injects some startling revelations– Gilbert breaks new ground with Pinafore and Pirates structure since The Sorcerer’s solo numbers, mainly about love, can be swapped between operas as they do not develop the plot. Also, flowers provide the theme running through Ruddigore, while Rose and Margaret are the antithesis of each other - both engaged in charitable acts they swap roles between the Acts. The Rose-Margaret dialogue is necessary to develop Margaret’s character though it does not add to the plot.

In places Wren gets carried away with an idea. I cannot take seriously his observation of Gilbert’s ‘land agent and ladybird’ remark (Ruddigore), ‘I shall rend you asunder’ being associated with ‘rents’ and ‘sundry items’. (I notice he steers clear of comment about ‘a cook’s brainpan like an overwound clock’, Yeomen.) A few facts like an incorrect performance run of Thespis [80], disputed by Rees, and picture of a Fifth Avenue first night programme captioned ‘poster’ were noticed, but it is hardly fair to dwell on such matters since the real purpose of the book is to survey the operas themselves.

Although perhaps the book is short of good illustrative material, this 350 page volume contains extras. Appendices of opera synopses and revisions to Ruddigore are provided with a detailed list that includes the titles of all songs discussed within the chapters. Footnotes are good and extensive, and an excellent bibliography provides a critical assessment (with which I would agree) of some G&S books published in America. This is an American OUP publication so expect ‘theater’ and ‘gotten’, etc. but do the Americans really spell ‘ambience’ as ‘ambiance’? (A better gilt-tooled hardback cover would have been appreciated.)

Wren is a gifted writer and gives his honest views with confidence, providing clear style of presentation, clarity of description and much to get one thinking.

Raymond J Walker


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