(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Smollett was an ‘especial favourite’ author of Gilbert, who knew a Byng well, too! D’ye see?

I posted a link to my initial post about Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in one of the Facebook groups dedicated to G&S, and I received some wonderful replies, to which I now respond here:

IAN BOND:  “to quote the Mikado, "All this is very interesting". However, I would like to make some comments and I apologise profusely for their extreme length.”

Ian, quite the contrary, I thank you for your taking the time and effort to respond in such detail and so politely as you’ve expressed your skepticism about my interpretation. I will extend you the same courtesies, I was hoping to receive a good “stress test” for my reading, and you’ve provided it – now let’s see if I can save the “patient”!  😉

IAN: “Firstly let us be quite clear that the practice of using stylized pseudo-Chinese/Japanese names had been common practice on the stage for some time, notably in pantomime and burlesque, and even more prominently on the French operatic stage. [you then gave numerous examples]”

Ian, I made it very clear that it was not merely a general parallel usage of such stylized pseudo-Japanese names by both Smollett and Gilbert that I found so convincing. It was the very close correspondence of four of those names, which I’ll repeat again here, and analyze each letter sequences, to be even clearer:

Gilbert turned “Nin-Kom-Poo-Po” into “Nanki-Poo”;  (each name contains N-n-K-P-o-o in order)
Gilbert turned “Cuboy” into “Pooh-Bah”;   (each name has 2 syllables, with “oo” then “b” that “oy/ah”)
Gilbert turned “Fika-kaka” into “Ko-Ko”; (Ka-Ka becomes Ko-Ko”)
Gilbert turned “Pish” into “Pish-Tush”.   (Obviously “Pish” is identical in both)

It’s all about this very close degree of echoing. Unless you can show me any of the multitude of other works you cited which have a comparable cluster of 4 such closely echoing names – names, I might add, which, ALL apply to parodies of Japanese governmental officials -- then I continue to assert that this is in and of itself a prima facie case. It is Gilbert’s giant hint to any of his readers who actually knew Smollett’s writing well (as he did – see below) that they should (as I did) look to see if there might be thematic meaning behind his 4-name cluster.

And as the rest of my lengthy first post showed (which neither Ian nor anyone else has yet addressed, other than Ian’s dismissal of the least significant of them, “Atom”), there are numerous significant thematic parallels which perfectly complement the specific name mirroring. Again, unless you can also show me any of those other works with stylized Japanese names which have even half as many of the thematic parallels I listed and explained, then, again, I believe your critique falls short.

And, by the way, thank you, Ian and others, for detailing that long operatic tradition of using fake Asian names, which I had not been aware of –it tells me that Gilbert chose a nice cover story for his deeper riddle about Smollett/Byng, one that would satisfy those who would take it at face value and not feel the need to dig deeper.

IAN: “In the case of The Mikado we have to consider the following – Gilbert was annoyed and upset in 1884 by Sullivan’s refusal to set his latest libretto – the so-called ‘lozenge’ plot – on which Gilbert had expended a lot of time and energy – and it looked very much as if the partnership could have ended at that point in time. Sometime in the Spring of 1884, Gilbert together with Kitty visited the Japanese Exhibition in Knightsbridge where they would doubtless have seen Kabuki Theatre (which often includes beheadings or the threat thereof), Samurai martial arts, Japanese arts and crafts (“On many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan”) – possibly the art of Geisha make-up? (“Braid the raven hair”?). Legend has it that a Japanese Samurai sword that Gilbert had bought and hung on his study wall, fell to the floor, giving him the inspiration to write Mikado. How true or not that may be we will probably never know. The fact is that Gilbert saw a fantastic way of satirising current British political corruption, the “jobs-worth” mentality, moral corruption et al., by disguising it in a fictional Japanese setting.”

I of course also knew about that Samurai sword bubba meises that Gilbert pulled out of his posterior and fed to his hungry public that yearned for an origin story of his most famous libretto–he was neither the first, nor the last, celebrity to gently mock that sort of intense interest in how an artist was inspired to create a given work of art –just think of John Lennon or Jane Austen. And anyway, I never suggested that the sole reason Gilbert chose to set his plot in Japan was to allude to Smollett’s Atom, and to the tragedy of Admiral Byng behind it – it was coordinated, surely, with several other deeper meanings…

And, don’t you see, your last sentence is actually a further, huge confirmation of my thesis as to why Gilbert did it. I say that Gilbert knew of the satire by Smollett of British moral and political corruption between 1755 and 1760, which led to Byng’s being scapegoated and executed (and, by the way, Admiral Byng’s death was such a seismic event in the British Navy, that interest in it has remained high among historians from 1757 right up till 2018). In a nutshell, I say Gilbert decided to pay Smollett the sincerest flattery, by repeating Smollett’s satire in Gilbert’s own Victorian era, and you can assist me by giving me details on the Victorian era political satire you see in The Mikado of Gilbert’s “peers” (pun intended) which you yourself say was Gilbert’s primary purpose.

I.e., as far as any of you know, were there real life British Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush, and Pooh-Bah, whose true identity Gilbert’s cognoscenti audience would have recognized? In particular, was there anyone who was scapegoated by powers-that-were in order to deflect political heat from them? If so, that would support my argument even more – it would mean that Gilbert emulated Smollett in that respect as well, since commentators have recognized the real people (Byng, Pitt, Fox, etc) hidden in plain sight in Atom.

IAN: “My problem with your theories around Smollett and Admiral Byng: Firstly you say that “For starters, it’s well known to Gilbert scholars that Smollett was one of Gilbert’s favorite authors. Now, look at how closely Gilbert mirrored Smollett’s names – this is way way beyond being “reminiscent”:” – If you are going to say this, you need to name those scholars. As you point out earlier “As far as I can tell, after diligent online research, no other scholar has ever suggested that W.S. Gilbert, in his 1884 libretto for The Mikado, intentionally alluded to Tobias Smollett’s 1769 novella” – in fact you seem to be contradicting yourself….books about Gilbert and Sullivan, both in partnership and apart have been regularly published at least since 1894, when Percy Fitzgerald published “The Savoy Opera”. None of the 100+ books in my collection make any reference whatsoever to Smollett or, indeed, to Admiral Byng, as far as I can see, and certainly recent books by highly regarded scholars such as Andrew Crowther and the late Jane W Steadman, who concentrate on Gilbert, make absolutely no mention of either”

As Bryan correctly pointed out, Steadman was my primary source, although I confess that in my rush to put out my initial post, I failed to recognize that Steadman was not (as Bryan noted) explicitly stating that the real life Gilbert had Smollett on his home bookshelf. Here’s the detail:

W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre by Jane W. Stedman (1996)
Chapter 4: “Love, Marriage, Farce, and Burlesque”
P41: “Lucy Turner was not, after all, Gilbert’s first choice; he married her after his courtship of Annie Thomas proved unsuccessful…”
P43: “It must have been an especially happy time for Gilbert, since was shortly to fall in love, if he had not already done so, with Annie Hall Thomas, a novelist two years younger than himself…Annie published her first book when she was 24… Eventually she wrote more than a hundred [novels], to say nothing of short stories, articles, and verses…
P44: “A much fuller picture of Gilbert is his first professional decade, however, appears in the hero of Annie’s 1866 novel Played Out [in the character of Roydon or Roy]…When Annie describes Roy as a writer, his identity is even more obvious, for he has ‘the art of wording nonsense epigrammatically’ and his phraseology is happy, tricky, and ear-catching. Although it is unlikely that Miss Thomas visited Mr. Gilbert’s bachelor chambers, her description of them is characteristic enough: bookcases full of standard modern novelists and his favourite Fielding, Smollett, Wycherly, Jonson, Bacon, Addison, and Ingoldsby, among others….
Roydon’s resemblance to Gilbert is most developed in Volume 1 of Played Out … it is clear that Annie Thomas modelled him on a man she knew well, and whom she found physically attractive and intellectually congenial. They must have appealed to each other’s sense of fun. Of course, William read Played Out and drew a teasing sketch, after Millais’ Trust Me, in which he holds out his hand for ‘The Novel’ which Annie is hiding behind her back…”

And now, here is the actual passage from Annie Thomas’s roman a clef about Gilbert, which, to me, is very persuasive, if indirect, evidence of Gilbert’s literary loves:

“…a glance round [Roydon’s] sitting-room will throw a further light on the tastes and pursuits, if not on the character, of my hero. The recesses on either side of the fire-place were occupied with broad shelves, and these were filled with books -- original editions, most of them of the standard modern novelists. An independent oak book-stand, placed within reach of the one arm-chair in the room, might be supposed to contain the more especial favourites of that room’s occupant; and there Fielding and Smollett, Wycherly and Ben Jonson, Spenser and Sidney, Bon Gaultier, Bacon, Addison, Ingoldsby, and a host of other wits, poets, essayists, dramatists, humourists, and scholars stood in amicable array….”

Note that Smollett was the second named “especial favourite” which Roydon/Gilbert kept close at hand!

So far, so good, but now I’ve got another big gun to wheel out. When I wrote my post, I did not only rely only on Thomas’s fictionalized “report” about her erstwhile beloved, Gilbert’s literary tastes. I also had found the following intriguing snippet:

Eileen E. Cottis, “Gilbert and the British Tar” in Gilbert and Sullivan, ed. Helyar, pp. 34-35. (1971)
“…the ‘D’ye see’ of Richard’s first song was a favourite phrase of the nautical characters in Smollett’s novels. Richard uses many stock metaphors- he calls Rose a ‘tight little craft’….”

Of course, you diehard G&S mavens know that “Richard” is Richard Dauntless, that endearing British tar of Ruddigore. Last night, while working on this reply to Ian, I pulled up the Project Gutenberg versions of Smollett’s three famous nautical adventures (Roderick Random, Peregine Pickle, and Sir Launcelot Graves), and verified that Cottis was 1000% correct, because they contain, respectively, nine, thirtyone, and fortyfive such salty usages of “D’ye see”! In other words, Cottis wasn’t just picking up on some peripheral, trivial aspect of Smollett’s nautical fiction – she had correctly identified what amounted to Smollett’s signature or iconic method of quickly identifying one of his characters as an authentic British tar!

Now, here, if anyone here needs it, is the ballad sung by the boastful “war hero” Richard Dauntless to his female admirers, a ballad which contains seven usages of “D’ye see” – and, as with Smollett, these are foregrounded, they are at the center of the rhyming scheme of the entire ballad, they are Richard Dauntless’s verbal tic that instantly identifies him:

I shipped, d’ye see, in a Revenue sloop,
And, off Cape Finistere,
A merchantman we see,
A Frenchman, going free,
So we made for the bold Mounseer,
D’ye see?
We made for the bold Mounseer.
But she proved to be a Frigate – and she up with her ports,
And fires with a thirty-two!
It come uncommon near,
But we answered with a cheer,
Which paralysed the Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
Which paralysed the Parley-voo!
CHORUS. Which paralysed the Parley-voo, etc.
Then our Captain he up and he says, says he,
“That chap we need not fear, –
We can take her, if we like,
She is sartin for to strike,
For she’s only a darned Mounseer,
D’ye see?
She’s only a darned Mounseer!”
“But to fight a French fal-lal –
it’s like hittin’ of a gal –
It’s a lubberly thing for to do;
For we, with all our faults,
Why, we’re sturdy British salts,
While she’s only a Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
While she’s only a poor Parley-voo!”
CHORUS. While she’s only a Parley-voo, etc.
So we up with our helm, and we scuds before the breeze,
As we gives a compassionating cheer;
Froggee answers with a shout
As he sees us go about,
Which was grateful of the poor Mounseer,
D’ye see?
Which was grateful of the poor Mounseer!
And I’ll wager in their joy they kissed each other’s cheek
(Which is what them furriners do),
And they blessed their lucky stars
We were hardy British tars
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo,
D’ye see?
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo!
CHORUS. Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo, etc.

Now, at long last, on to Ian’s final point:

IAN: “Fourthly and lastly, mention of “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” is not evidence of a connection – Gilbert was very fond of using high-flown, pseudo scientific terms for comic effect – take for example “The simple tetrachord of Mercury that knew no diatonic intervals, oOr the elaborate dis diapason (four tetrachords, and one redundant note), eEmbracing in its perfect consonance all simple, double and inverted chords!” from The Palace of Truth, or “Patent Oxy-Hydrogen Love-at-first-sight Philtre” from  The Sorcerer– his writings are full of such things…”

Ian, as I noted at the start, above, the “Atom” allusion was a small wink, and standing alone it would not have been significant! But combined with the numerous other central, thematic parallels which I detailed, and which you’ve completely ignored, it’s Gilbert’s cherry on top of the allusive layer cake of his veiled homage to Smollett’s famous art of political parody and satire.

And, most important of all, I think, I bring in Byng because it is an obvious allusion in Smollett’s Atom, and, again as I said, an “execution” was at the heart of Byng’s own tragic end, one of the few vignettes in Atom, and all of The Mikado! (by the way, in regard to executions, I also mention in passing that I am certain that Gilbert had another, and very famous, literary almost-execution in mind as he wrote The Mikado – of course, I refer to Measure for Measure, by some fellow named Shakespeare (have you heard of him?), in which Claudio is sentenced to die for knocking up Giulietta –do you think that Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are Gilbert’s sly wink at them?

And, in closing, another final avenue of inquiry occurred to me as I was finishing this post. I had a hunch that perhaps Gilbert and/or Sullivan had a personal connection to some member of the Byng family (i.e., one of the Victorian Era, collateral descendants of the childless, executed Admiral), who might, like Thane Byng, the Byng family member who brought Admiral Byng’s tragic story to my attention a month ago, still seeking official vindication.

Well, my hunch turned out to be reality --- read this from The Musical Times (1901) in the aftermath of Sullivan’s death a few months earlier:

“In the many biographical notices of Arthur Sullivan that have recently appeared, comparatively little attention has been paid to the church-musician side of his genius. The mere fact that the gifted composer returned to his first love — church music — in the last completed composition he has left behind him is a sufficient justification for the following remarks….
…The first vicar of St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens, where Sullivan held his second and last organ appointment, was the Rev. and Honble. Francis C. Byng, now Earl of Strafford, who from 1865 to 1889 also held the office of Chaplain to the Speaker and subsequently became Chaplain to the Queen. The Earl of Strafford, in response to our request, has very kindly furnished his recollections of his former organist and attached friend, Arthur Sullivan, in the following words:—
“Arthur Sullivan was all affection, sympathy, and kindness. I enclose you one of his comparatively recent letters to me. It may amuse you — his opinion of my intoning incapacity. I was present, by his invitation, at a dinner party he gave at his house — when Tennyson and Millais were present. Tennyson read 'The Window, or Songs of the Wrens,' Millais gave his notions of the illustrations which would be suitable, Sullivan suggesting the music. A unique an pleasurable privilege. I suggested to A. S. that I represented 'Ignorance' of all three — Poetry, Music, and Art!
Here is the 'intoning' letter to which the Earl of Strafford refers. It will be observed that it was written by Sullivan twenty-seven years after he had held his organistship at St. Peter's:—
Ashbridgewood, Wokingham, Berks, 27 Sept., 1899.
My dear Strafford,
Rumour is not quite right in stating that I am writing a chapter myself for Lawrence's book. [Sir Arthur Sullivan By Arthur Lawrence, 1899] But I have let the author have a 'talk' with me a short time ago, and its matter will be embodied in a supplementary chapter. Your name, of course, had already been introduced in an early part of the book, but not as a great musician. There is, however, still time I think to rectify that. I might graphically describe how, in endeavouring to intone, you led the choir, congregation, and organist an exciting chase over a gamut of about two octaves, we vainly doing our utmost to follow you. You were heroic — we never could run you to earth; that is, pin you down to the same note for two consecutive prayers or collects. I hope you are all well and flourishing. I long to see you all again. I shall be here three weeks longer. It is a small place I took for a couple of months to work in -- hard and quietly.
Even yours sincerely, Arthur Sullivan”
The Tennyson-Millais dinner referred to by the Earl furnished an amusing anecdote which is thus recorded by Mr. Arthur Lawrence in his 'Life' of the composer, and told by Sir Arthur Sullivan in his own words:
'The first time Tennyson came to dine at my house, the door was opened by the parlourmaid who had been with us many years, and was like one of the family. She was fairly staggered by the appearance of the visitor, who, as will be remembered, always wore a deep, broad-brimmed black felt hat, and a black cape or short cloak which made him look exactly like a conspirator in an Italian or Spanish play. Our little part consisted of Tennyson, Millais, Francis Byng (now Earl of Strafford), myself, my mother, and another lady. We met to discuss the proposed work in collaboration…’ 

So, given that Francis Byng was such a close friend and musical colleague of Sullivan over a very long time, is it really a stretch to think that Gilbert knew, and cared about, Admiral Byng’s execution?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: