Shocking, shocking! that there were amongst all those stuffy, straight-laced, repressive, Victorian prudes, a few wags who knew a thing or two:

The secret of Gilbert’s success can be summed up in the quote on his memorial on the Embankment: “His foe was folly and his weapon wit.” For the Victorian audience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s works were ideal, respectable entertainment. Yet running through Gilbert’s libretti is a suggestion of a something else. In Trial by Jury, where the Plaintiff is suing for breach of promise of marriage, her Counsel sings: “To marry two at once is burglaree”. The legal definition of burglary, as a qualified barrister like Gilbert would have known, is “unlawful entry”. The trio from The Yeomen of the Guard, where the disguised Colonel Fairfax is teaching Jack Point how to woo, includes the lines: “He must learn that the thrill of a touch/ May mean little, or nothing, or much;/ It’s an instrument rare,/ To be handled with care,/ And ought to be treated as such.”

I can’t help feeling that, here and elsewhere, Gilbert knew exactly what he was saying. “Where is Mrs Gilbert?” he once asked at the Savoy Theatre. “She’s round behind,” came the reply. “I know,” said Gilbert, “but where is she?” A member of the audience, seeing him standing in the foyer after one performance, mistook the dramatist for a commissionaire and brusquely ordered him to call him a cab. “Certainly,” said Gilbert, “you’re a four-wheeler.” “What!” exclaimed the man. “Well,” said Gilbert, “I certainly wouldn’t call you hansom.”

Um, I can’t help feeling that there were plenty of audience members who knew exactly what he was saying, too.  Cutting up wasn’t invented in 1968, contrary to the prevailing wisdom.  Prior ages were simply better at being witty and discrete about it.

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