Tag Archive | Iolanthe

The Sentry’s Song: Politics are Crazy!

Gilbert’s drawing of a singing soldier – probably Private Willis

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 hit Iolanthe, a troupe of flighty, gauzy fairies go toe-to-toe with Britain’s venerable House of Lords. Guess who wins?

(Spoiler alert: They both do.)

Act II of this charming opera begins with a quiet interlude as Private Willis stands on sentry duty. He is dressed as a soldier (although it seems  that is an inaccuracy, for the Houses of Parliament are actually guarded by police officers and not the army).

We meet him as he’s standing at the door in Palace Yard, at the eastern (or Whitehall) end of Sir Charles Barry’s great neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament – which was only completed five years before Iolanthe was written.  He sings:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

 

So the poor fellow, while on his solitary sentry duty, has nothing to do but think – and he assures us that he does have a brain to think with:

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

 

Although the best education may be reserved for the children of the wealthy, that doesn’t prevent a person from developing actual wisdom. So here are the fruits of Private Willis’ mental labors:

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!

 

Gilbert, with his love of wordplay, indulges himself “a little” here – using little in the sense of “small,” and also in the sense of “slightly.” This makes me happy.

When Gilbert wrote these lyrics circa 1882, the British parliament had a strong two-party system—Liberals and Conservatives. Nowadays, the Labour Party occupies the liberal end of the spectrum. Annotator Ian Bradley, in The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, commented that “[s]ubstitution of ‘a little Socialist’ for ‘a little Liberal’ would have provided a more accurate description of the prevailing political climate for most of the twentieth century, although in our present era of mould-breaking goodness knows what a modern Private Willis should sing. Perhaps it is best, after all, to leave him in those happy days when there were just Liberals and Conservatives.’

However, this has not been the case in some productions of Iolanthe – for example, this performance in Southampton Operatic Society’s 2005 production of Iolanthe changes the word “liberal” to “Labourite.”  From the comments, you can observe that some people objected to this change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B55YgD1gr0c

However, he continues:

When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

 

This is a practice that many Americans may not be familiar with: the Division of the Assembly. Here’s an explanation from the UK Parliament’s official website :

Members of both Houses register their vote for or against issues by physically going into two different areas either side of their debating chambers. This is known as ‘dividing the House’, while the areas concerned are ‘division lobbies’. Therefore, a vote is called a ‘division’.

 

According to Wikipedia,  this is  a more accurate way of counting a vote than a voice vote. Typically, a division is taken when the result of a voice vote is challenged or when a two-thirds vote is required. Moving on:

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

 

This passage above is a cynical Gilbertian comment – although it’s bad that Members of Parliament should be required to stop thinking and vote as their party leaders tell them to, it would be much worse to let all those mentally dull MPs think for themselves! Nobody could face such an alarming prospect with equanimity (i.e., calmly).

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!

Therefore, it’s a good thing that the system is the way it is, because it works out for the best in the end.

 

What do you think? Should our elected representatives follow their leaders or follow their consciences? It certainly does sound like a choice between order and chaos.

 

W.S. Gilbert’s Political Snarkiness

"Iolanthe" American music cover from Gilbertandsullivanarchive.org

“Iolanthe” American music cover from Gilbertandsullivanarchive.org

W.S. Gilbert lampooned Victorian politics in Iolanthe, a topsy-turvy tale in which a troupe of fairies take over Parliament after their Fairy Queen is insulted by the Lord Chancellor. He mistook her for the Headmistress of a Ladies’ Seminary, and in revenge the fairies use their powers to pass all the laws the House of Peers can’t stand to see on the books.

All the political “hot potato” issues of the day are blithely passed into law — from Marriage to Deceased Wife’s Sister to making a Dukedom attainable by Competitive Examination, the fairies ruthlessly suppress all objections from the peers. How can the legislators rescue themselves and the nation from this quandary?

The premise gave Gilbert the chance to satirize Victorian notions of status, privilege, the two-party system, and the laws and lawmakers of the day (I’m feeling very political these days, so it pleases me to share with you the master’s snarkiness, even if it doesn’t apply directly to our own government).

In Iolanthe, the Peers of the House of Lords enter singing,

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,

Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,

Tantantara! Tzing, boom!

 

Later on, the Chorus of Peers try to woo the beautiful Arcadian shepherdess Phyllis by singing,

High rank involves no shame —

We boast an equal claim

With him of humble name

To be respected!

 

One of the most famous politically-minded songs from the opera is Private Willis’ song, in which the lonely guard offers his philosophical musings on politics, including the idea that every child is born “a little liberal or a little conservative.” (As a side note, I was thrilled when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted that lyric in a recent interview. Awesome!)

Private Willis also adds, if I’m reading the lyrics right, that it’s probably a good thing that politicians have to vote as their parties tell ‘em to, because it would be too frightening if they all started thinking for themselves. Read the song’s lyrics and decide for yourself:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!

 

When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!

 

Isaac Asimov, in his The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, called the bombastic “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” one of Gilbert’s most patriotic songs, but I think the lyrics sound ironic.

Asimov added this fun little story: “In 1909, some of the Liberals campaigning against the House of Lords’ power of veto after its rejection of Lloyd George’s radical budget of that year asked Gilbert for permission to quote this verse:

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

 

Isaac Asimov continues: “He [Gilbert] replied rather pepperily: “I cannot permit the verses of Iolanthe to be used for electioneering purposes. They do not at all express my own view. They are supposed to be the views of the wrong-headed donkey who sings them.”

Asimov also reported that “with or without the help of Iolanthe however, the Liberal reformers achieved their aims and in 1911 the Parliament Act was passed, curtailing the House of Lords’ power to veto legislation already passed by the Commons. Since them noble statemen have largely withheld their legislative hand and contented themselves with moving amendments to Bills sent up from the Lower House.”

Here is the complete text of the song:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

 

Chorus.

Yes Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

 

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

 

Chorus.

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

 

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

 

Chorus.

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

 

And so the political pendulum swings back and forth. Satirists throughout the years have found plenty to mock in a nation’s leaders, but W.S. Gilbert managed to poke fun at the House of Lords and still have them laughing at themselves.

As Gilbert wrote in Yeomen of the Guard, “he who’d make his fellow … creatures wise/ should always gild the philosophic pill.”

"Bab" drawing of a king in the stocks, frm Gilbertandsullivanarchive.org

“Bab” drawing of a king in the stocks, frm Gilbertandsullivanarchive.org