November 15, 2007
Gilbert & Sullivan's Radical ChicJohn Stoehr
It's no doubt very uncool of me to talk about Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. It's probably equally uncool (or worse -- take a deep breath here -- unhip) to say that I enjoyed watching the production, presented by the Charleston Concert Association, at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday. And it might be downright corporate (the most charged and disparaging of all alt-culture calumnies!) for me to say the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (America's conservators of English light opera) did a good job.
All of which would reveal that I have spent way more time that is called for as the arts editor of City Paper thinking about Tuesday's performance and far less time than what is alt-culture proper thinking about the alt-culturally appropriate subjects of art-making, and about the radical, subversive, underground art forms, like graffiti "performances" art or street-dancing "events."
As the so-called voice of the radical chic, urban hipster underground, pop avant-garde, liberal watchdog community, I'm supposed to speak for Charleston's arcane pop-culture obsessed bourgeois bohemians. I am, as David Brooks might say, the Defender of the Bobos.
Well, maybe not. But here's another thing and stay with me here: In pointing out the irony of the being an editor at Chucktown's Rock 'n' Roll Rag and being one who enjoyed himself when the Captain of the Pinafore was scolded for his pottie-mouth (at one point he said "damme" -- gasp!), I'm reminded of something Gary Giddens, the long-time jazz critic for the Village Voice, was once asked by a reputed English jazz historian, who was inexorably ensconced among the old guard of music writers in the 1960s.
Giddens recounts this experience in his terrific book of vignettes, essays, and profiles called Visions of Jazz . The critic in question pointedly demanded to know what kind of jazz he liked. Giddens' response: "Anything good."
Apparently, this sage historian heaved a harrumph "worthy of a Dickens or Austen dramatization." He said that he, on the other hand, knew what he liked. His taste, in other words, was unlike his guest's. While Giddens expressed a sensibility of relative taste -- that is, what he liked depended on . . . -- the historian's sensibility was buoyed by the supreme confidence of certainty. What was his favorite jazz: "The '20s," he said, which indicated "culture by the decade," Giddens wrote.
This scenario should be familiar to anyone who's been at a party where they've met new people. In the interest of feeling each other out, people tend to ask about taste: in movies, music, books, and whatever. These tastes, especially when you're young and still trying to figure out who you are, are hugely important, because they define you, at least you think they define you. They don't, of course, but such wisdom comes with time. Usually. As Giddens' jazz historian exemplifies, a sensibility of absolutes starts in adolescence and carries on into the twilight one's old bugger years.
Back to Pinafore. If I were more like Anthony Lane, one of the film critics for The New Yorker, I'd pan anything that didn't live up to my personal hierarchy of taste. Movies that don't count are movies that have been popular, successful, or that have been around a while. Gilbert and Sullivan have endured since the late 19th century. Their operettas, like Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, are perennial favorites. They are goofy, cheeky, and the humor, though not outdated, is a bit quaint. But they continue to please, as the large crowd at the Gaillard attests. So if I were more like Giddens' old fart jazzbo or like Mr. Lane, I'd lambaste Pinafore on principle alone. The problem with that approach is that it's criticism based on politics and ideology, not taste and the individual's experience with the art.
In other words, the terms of interaction (between the art and the person experiencing the art) are dictated by that person. I don't think art should dictate the terms either, but there needs to be a balance between the two. Art has to be taken on its own terms, not my terms. I didn't create it; someone else did. As a critic, it's my obligation to experience the art independent of my own ego -- a chore that's sometimes difficult to do. It's my job to assume it's possible to get beyond my ego, that there is an external reality beyond my own making.
Pinafore's terms are simple: A sailor falls in love with the captain's daughter. The conflict arises when we learn that, according to the social values of the musical, it's total taboo for a "lowly" sailor to hook up with a woman born of a "higher station." The taboo comes from all that twinky English caste-system crap, which is totally discredited by Enlightened democratic idealism, but still, these are the terms of Pinafore, so I have to deal with it.
The resolution to the conflict comes when Little Buttercup (who, it turns out, was the wet-nurse of both the captain and Ralph, the starry-eyed sailor) reveals that the two boys were switched somehow in infancy and they grew up in the wrong stations. In short, they were living a fallacy, existing in the wrong part of an already determined class hierarchy.
It's an absurd premise, but fun to watch unfold -- especially with Sir Joseph, the boor and clown. (There's a long sequence involving ever-larger bells; it's funny in the world of G&S). The plot becomes even more nonsensical when you realize that the captain ends up marrying Little Buttercup and in effect marrying his mother-figure.
Ah, but Freudian psycho-analysis and the paradigm-changing three-headed notion of human consciousness (Id, Ego, Superego) hadn't yet seized popular imagination (his Interpretation of Dreams came out in 1899; Pinafore in 1878), so such dark implications of Oedipal constructs like a man marrying his mother-figure didn't mean as much to Gilbert and Sullivan's contemporary audiences. Even so, why bother with Freud? All's well that ends well. There's a triple wedding at the end. Even Sir Joseph gets hitched (to his cousin whose name is Hebe!?).
But I have to wonder: Maybe Pinafore subverts the status quo instead of reaffirming it. Perhaps by resolving the class conflict with such an absurd notion (a kind of deus ex machina) that Ralph and the captain were switch in infancy only illustrates how arbitrary the whole English caste-system was. Class was not just economic in English history, but almost genetic. The kind of person you were was determined by your place in society.
If Ralph is really "high born" but doesn't know it, class becomes merely about appearances, not about substance, a notion that may have struck people in Victorian England, though perhaps only unconsciously, as an act of socio-political radicalism. If that's the case, then my enjoying the operetta as the art editor of City Paper might not be so uncool after all. Who knew taking Pinafore on its own aesthetic terms would boost my alt-culture street-cred? Who knew I could like sweet Little Buttercup's sweet little aria and still be the Defender of the Bobos?
Cross-posted on Unscripted.
Posted by John Stoehr at November 15, 2007 8:39 PM