One of the great pleasures of my east coast trip was seeing a small production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. I’ve always loved G&S but it’s been years since I’ve seen one of their operettas and I’d forgotten how incredibly good they are. What really startled me was how much modern humor is derived from them. Picture the Monty Python crew dressed as British sailors singing the following and you’ll see what I mean:
“We sail the ocean blue,
And our saucy ship’s a beauty;
We’re sober men and true,
And attentive to our duty.
When the balls whistle free
O’er the bright blue sea,
We stand to our guns all day;
When at anchor we ride
On the Portsmouth tide,
We have plenty of time for play.”
Simply by turning a bunch of what would’ve been rough, foul-mouthed, womanizing British tars into delicate gentlemen shocked by the use of the “big, big D” word, G&S created satire and silliness so sharp it reminded me of that scene in The Court Jester where Danny Kaye passes his sword through the candle so fast it remains standing even though he’s cut it to pieces. Contemporary audiences must’ve fallen out of their seats laughing when they heard:
Welcome ladies so politely.”
It’s amazingly bawdy humor without even a whiff of foul language.
Likewise, the triumphant line of praise, “In spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, he remains an Englishman!” slices through British jingoism while leaving British patriotism completely intact.
And of course there’s the Obama-like Lord of the Admiralty who rises to great power without a moment’s useful experience: “Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of the Queen’s navee!”
I once had a conversation with Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, about whether comedy dated badly compared to drama. I quoted the critic William Hazlitt’s famous comment that Shakespeare’s tragedies were better than his comedies only because tragedy is better than comedy. To which Douglas snapped back, “Shakespeare’s tragedies were better than his comedies because Shakespeare wasn’t funny!”
When I see how perfectly and completely the hilarity of Gilbert And Sullivan remains intact, I wonder if he wasn’t right.