Magazine article The Spectator

The Very Model of a ... Critic

Magazine article The Spectator

The Very Model of a ... Critic

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The very model of a ... critic Rupert Christiansen A MOST INGENIOUS PARADOX by Gayden Wren OUP, 25, pp. 396, ISBN 0195145143

Thirty years ago, Gilbert and Sullivan could safely be categorised as an embarrassing relic of our Victorian past. Gilbert's humour seemed irredeemably suburban in its primness and smugness, Sullivan's music mere facile pastiche of the real thing produced by Donizetti, Johann Strauss and Offenbach. The D'Oyly Carte was so mediocre that the Arts Council refused to subsidise its activities and no serious singer or conductor would go anywhere near it. G and S, it could have safely been prophesied, were doomed to die a natural death alongside branch lines and the Sunday roast.

How wrong we were. Gilbert and Sullivan have proved amazingly resilient, and their stock has not only survived but flourished. Jane W. Stedman, Arthur Jacobs and Ian Bradley have produced first-class textual and biographical explorations of the pair and their work. Joe Papp's production of The Pirates of Penzance wowed Broadway and the West End, Jonathan Miller's (Groucho) Marxist vision of The Mikado became a huge favourite in opera houses here and in the USA, Mike Leigh's superb backstage movie Topsy-Turvy won Oscars and great acclaim. The D'Oyly Carte is currently back at the Savoy Theatre, still unsubsidised but probably no worse than it has ever been and in certain respects somewhat better.

Amateurs continue to perform G and S every week of the year, and for teenagers, participation in a school production can still provide exhilarating pleasure, as well as a unique stepping-stone into the more rarefied temple of grand opera. Gilbertian phrases must be more quoted and familiar than Miltonic ones, and Sullivan's tunes must get as much air time as Purcell's, Elgar's or Britten's. G and S may not be chic or cool, but it has decisively weathered some acid test of its quality.

Our new confidence in dealing with the Victorian has helped - the battles against its supposed morality have all been won now, and we don't have to bridle at primness and smugness. We also have a more generously pluralistic attitude to what constitutes excellence than we did. We are no longer slaves to a single hierarchy of discrimination which puts Wagner and Greek tragedy at the top, pop and telly at the bottom. And we are more ready to acknowledge the merits of something which succeeds within its own terms: we can enjoy Gilbert as a master of light verse, Sullivan as a masterly craftsman and fertile melodist without appearing to have sold out to middle-class values and blimpishness. …

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