Introduction to A.H. Godwin's Gilbert & Sullivan: A Critical Appreciation of the Savoy Operas

by G.K. Chesterton

The best work of the Victorian age, perhaps the most Victorian work of the Victorian age, was its satire upon itself. It would be well if this were remembered more often by those who talk of nothing but its pomposity and conventionality. There was, indeed, a strain in it not only of pomposity but of hypocrisy; but like everything English, it was rather subtle. In so far as it existed it should be called rather humbug than hypocrisy, for hypocrisy implies intellectual clarity, and humbug suggests rather that convenient possession, a confused mind. The exclamation that a thing is all damned humbug is of the same sort as the exclamation that it is all damned nonsense. English humbug has had at least the comforting quality of nonsense, and something of that quality belongs even to the nonsense which made fun of the nonsense. And it will be found, I think, in the long run that this Victorian nonsense will prove more valuable than all that was considered the solid Victorian sense.

It is idle to prophesy about tastes and fashion; but to speak of the failure of the practical compromise of our great unwritten Constitution, for instance, is not to prophesy. It is merely to record. All that side of the British pomposity of the time has obviously collapsed in our time. The political balance and repose of the Victorians, the serious satisfaction of their social arrangements, is already a thing of the past; and perhaps this unbalanced absurdity may prove far more permanent in the future. But it is not only true of practical politics, which have become so exceedingly unpractical. It is true even of pure literature, which in one sense can always remain ideal. The Gilbert and Sullivan Operas can still be revived, and revived with complete popular success. I think it very doubtful whether "The Idylls of the King," if they were published now, would produce the same sort of effect as when they were published then. I doubt whether Long fellow would immediately obtain his large crowd or Browning his small one. It is not a question of the merits of the poetry or even of the truth of the criticism. People who talk thus about the appeal to posterity often seem to forget that posterity may be wrong--especially about the books that it has not read. Browning's work will always be worthy of study, just as Donne's work will always be worthy of study, but it would be rash to infer that it is always studied. Tennyson will always present certain triumphs of diction for those who are acquainted with the English language. But when Anglo-Saxon is talked all over the world, those acquainted with the English language may he comparatively few. There may be a very general neglect of the Victorian achievements, and as this will be merely an effect of time, it may be merely temporary. But as things stand, the Victorian monument which best supports and survives the change of fashion, is not the Laureate ode and office any more than the Albert Memorial: it is all that remains of the Savoy Opera.

But anyone who understands what was really to he said for and against the Victorian interlude or compromise will note with interest that the Victorian satirist did lash the age, in the old phrase; and if in a sense he lashed lightly he also lashed with precision; he touched the spot. He was an inquisitor, as waggish as his own Inquisitor in "The Gondoliers," but he did really persecute the rather hazy heresies of the hour. He did really persecute in the exact sense of pursue; he tracked an untrue or unreasonable idea back to its first principle. Gilbert's gayest songs and most farcical rhymes are full of examples which a philosopher or a logician will value as real ideas or criticisms of ideas. And it was always the criticism really demanded by the half-formed ideas of the Victorians, those half-warmed fish which the Spooners of the age had in their hearts, but not very clearly in their heads. Any number of examples of this sort of thing could be given. For instance, nothing was more subtly false in the Victorians' conception of success than a certain conception of the elect who were above temptation.

There was a queer sort of cheery Calvinism in it; a sort of jovial predestination. Certain social types, the good sportsman, the English lady, the frank and fearless English school boy (provided, of course, he were a public school boy), were regarded, not as heroes who had overcome the baser passions, but as gods who could never have been touched by them. The phraseology of the time testified to the notion again and again. Such people were not innocent of a crime; they were "incapable" of it. Political corruption (which was increasing by leaps and bounds) was calmly ignored on the assumption of it being simply "impossible" in what was generally described as "a man of that position." Men who really preserved their honour under trials had no reward or recognition of their real merit, if they were of the sort in whom such things were supposed to be inconceivable. Everyone who has read the novels and newspapers of that time will recognise this formless impression, but not everybody could have put it into logical form. Yet it is pricked or stabbed with deadly precision in five or six absurd lines of a light refrain in "The Mikado":

   "We know him well,
   He cannot tell
   Untrue or groundless tales -
   He always tries
   To utter lies
   And every time he fails."

It is the same with the heresy that haunted the great Victorian virtue of patriotism. What was the matter with it was that it was a sort of unconscious shuffling of an unselfish into a selfish emotion. It was not so much that a man was proud of England, as that he was proud of being an Englishman, which is quite a different thing. Being proud of your country is only like being proud of your father or your friend; it is not, in the spiritual and evil sense, really pride at all. But being proud of yourself for being a citizen of that country is really using something else as an excuse for being proud of yourself. Now, the logical or illogical point of that process is in the matter of merit, and the satirist really hits it with the exactitude of a subtle theologian. It is a question of how much there is implied some moral superiority such as ought to be founded on the individual will, and it could not be better exposed than in the few words of that old familiar and even rowdy song:

   "But in spite of all temptations
   To belong to other nations
   He remains an Englishman."

The rapier of Voltaire could not have ran a thing more straight through the heart. Now the work of Gilbert, especially in his operas, but very notably also in his Bab Ballads, is full of triumphs of that intellectual and even theoretical sort. There was even something about him personally not altogether unlike the tone of the theologian and inquisitor; his wit was staccato and sometimes harsh, and he was not happy in his own age and atmosphere. It did not provide him with any positive philosophy for which to fight, but that was not his fault. He did fight for what he conceived to be common sense, and he found plenty of things that wanted fighting.

And then the odd thing happened that was like a lucky coincidence in a farce or a magic gift in a fairy tale. As it stood, his satire was really much too intelligent to be intelligible. It is doubtful whether by itself it would ever have been completely popular. Something came to his aid which is much more popular than the love of satire: the profound and popular love of song. A genius in another school of art crossed his path and co-operated in his work; giving wings to his words, and sending them soaring into the sky. Perhaps no other musician except Sullivan would have done it in exactly the right way; would have been in exactly the right degree frivolous and exactly the right degree fastidious. A certain fine unreality had to hang over all the fantasies; there was nothing rowdy, there was nothing in the special sense even rousing about such song, as there is in a serious, patriotic, or revolutionary song, or even drinking song. Everything must be seen in a magic mirror, a little more delicately distorted than the mirror of Shalott; there must be no looking out directly upon passing events. The satiric figures were typical but not topical. All that precise degree of levity and distance from reality seemed to be expressed, as nothing else could express it, in the very notes of the music; almost, one might say, in the note of the laughter that followed it. And it may be that in the remote future that laughter will still be heard, when all the voices of that age are silent.


[home] Up to G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web.
Last modified: 3rd December, 2013
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.