Gilbert & Sullivan, The Great Stupid, And Me

OK, That’s IT! Now The Great Stupid is messing with me personally.

This is war!

Among my many useless and unprofitable areas of expertise are the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, which I performed in, directed, produced, adapted and lectured on for most of my life. Maybe there is someone who has as much experience in the genre as I have, but I doubt it, frankly.

Recently I was engaged to prepare a program on my exploits with the great Victorian musical comedy team for a private club in Washington, D.C. I assembled a capable cast of experienced Savoyards to assist me, including in the planned program numbers from 12 of the 14 performable operettas. I will be emphasizing how many of the songs make still valid satirical observations on current societal foolishness; that number above is included in the program and is from “Princess Ida,” in which Gilbert pokes fun at early feminism. The song is sung at a women’s college where the faculty and students have forsworn male contact and regard the opposite sex as inferior in all respects. Here are Gilbert’s lyrics:

A Lady fair, of lineage high,
Was loved by an Ape, in the days gone by.
The Maid was radiant as the sun,
The Ape was a most unsightly one,
The Ape was a most unsightly one
So it would not do
His scheme fell through,
For the Maid, when his love took formal shape,
Express’d such terror
At his monstrous error,
That he stammer’d an apology and made his ‘scape,
The picture of a disconcerted Ape!

With a view to rise in the social scale,
He shaved his bristles and he docked his tail,
He grew mustachios, and he took his tub,
And he paid a guinea to a toilet club,
He paid a guinea to a toilet club
But it would not do,
The scheme fell through
For the Maid was Beauty’s fairest Queen,
With golden tresses,
Like a real princess’s,
While the Ape, despite his razor keen,
Was the apiest Ape that ever was seen!

He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,
He crammed his feet into bright tight boots
And to start in life on a brand new plan,
He christen’d himself Darwinian Man!
He christen’d himself Darwinian Man!

But it would not do,
The scheme fell through!

But it would not do,
The scheme fell through!
For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey crav’d, 
Was a radiant Being, With a brain farseeing
While Darwinian Man, though well-behav’d,
At best is only a monkey shav’d!

Gilbert is, obviously, showing the contempt the revolutionary women have for men, regarding them as little better than apes. Darwin’s “Descent of Man” (1871) was just 13 years old when “Princess Ida” premiered and was already a source of controversy, so Gilbert got to wing two satirical targets in one song.

Tonight I learned that the pianist I had engaged for the gig refused to accompany “A Lady Fair”. Why, you well may ask? She told me the song is “racist.”

I explained that the song has nothing to do with race, and having used it periodically in revues for decades, nobody ever suggested such a thing. The message the singer is conveying is that she believes men are just dressed-up apes, a position that frequently seems reasonable to this day. The context of the song doesn’t suggest race; the lyrics don’t suggest race, and I know that race was the last thing on W.S. Gilbert’s mind when he wrote them.

The pianist wouldn’t listen to reason. She was ignorant of the song’s history or meaning, but that didn’t matter. Her mind was made up; the song was offensive, and she wouldn’t be a party to it.

We’re doing the song, of course. She’s fired. But the mystery remains: how does someone get like that?

Well, I know how: she’s bombarded with woke virtue-signaling from progressive pals who hear racist dog-whistles in every gust of wind rustling through the trees, and see white supremacy personified in every bit of art not authored by Ray Charles or his equivalent in skin shading. They are primed to detect racism everywhere, and to demonstrate their power and importance by making others grovel to meet their deranged standards of social acceptability.

10 thoughts on “Gilbert & Sullivan, The Great Stupid, And Me

  1. At first, I was thinking, “Ooh, this is going to be a FEMINIST complaint!” Didn’t see the racist angle coming at all.

      • Yeah. I saw that and thought there was a 50/50 chance that that’s exactly where it was going.

        I’m going to defer to Jack on this one, because he actually talked to the pianist, but if I were having that discussion I would be thinking, in order:

        1) Are they just trying to get out of the gig?
        2) Do they think that “ape” is a loaded enough term that there’s an unacceptable risk to participation?
        3) Do they actually think this?

        None of which are mutually exclusive, I suppose. 2 assumes that someone will think that “ape” in that context (or any context) is a racially loaded term. Frankly, because there are people out there, walking through life, often explicitly looking for things to be offended at and depending on your risk appetite and profession, it might not be unreasonable. Which is deeply sad.

        • I confess, once she said that if we included the number, she wouldn’t play because it was racist and would not back down, I decided to hell with her. I should have asked: explain to me exactly how you conclude that song about women regarding men as a lesser beings becomes racist when that is clearly inconsistent with the song and its context in the show. The answer would have been illuminating. But I tire of arguing with idiots.

          As is often the case, her replacement is an upgrade.

  2. Very well said. For her to be so mistakenly outraged is itself more than outrageous.

    Your question (mystery) is very pertinent and your ‘Well I know how’ is to my mind quite inadequate. Your ex piano player is clearly suffering from some mental problem and urgently requires help. If allowed out on her own she might hurt herself.

    Surely you can compose some Gilbertian piece for your show based on this woman’s reaction?

    When honest argument fails, satire and ridicule may be the most effective rejoinder. Gilbert would have salivated. Good luck.

    • I don’t think she’s an outlier at all, Andrew. I’m sure she and her friends consider her to be among the wokest of the woke and her thoughts absolutely mainstream. She’s not mentally ill.

  3. One wonders if Black students are exempt from teachings in Science classes on the Theory of Evolution. Surely, it’s racist to suggest that Black descended from Apes, right?

  4. If the first thing you think of when you hear the word “ape” is “black person”, then I think it’s pretty clear that you’re the racist…

  5. “…progressive pals who hear racist dog-whistles in every gust of wind…”

    Was it someone on this blog who recently noted that the ones who always hear dog whistles are ……..
    the dogs?

    And fun factoid, considering the the facts you laid out on the subject of the song: The inventor of the actual dog whistle was Darwin’s half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton, a proponent of “Scientific Racism” as well as Darwinism.

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