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Carolyn Williams . Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody. New York : Columbia University Press , 2010 . Pp . 480 . $35.00 (cloth), $25,00 (paper) .

Gilbert and Sullivan is a lively resource on the culture-shaping comic operas that delighted vast audiences in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and have been cited, revived, appropriated, and reviled in the years since. A lushly corpulent work, Gilbert and Sullivan devotes an entire chapter to each of the fourteen works known as the Savoy Operas, connecting them with far-ranging cultural productions, from satirical Victorian teapots to Zero Patience, a 1993 musical about HIV, to the work of playwright Tom Stoppard. Just as the operas were the work of two artists, this is a book that understands and relishes the double edge, the double entendre, and the essentially bifocal character of parody. Williams persuasively argues that the inanity was meticulously managed, the silliness was political, and the operas both skewered and sustained the things at which they poked fun. The only question with which Williams—gracefully—leaves us is why no-one has done this work, on this scale, until now. A study of popular culture that is this rich shows up what is truly ridiculous: that academia routinely eschews cultural production that it considers too middlebrow or simply too fun to study.

But as Williams deftly shows, these operas were supremely influential. Queen Victoria tapped her toes in time to a command performance of The Gondoliers. Corset-makers borrowed the image of the Mikado's three little maids for advertising purposes. The contemporary work of Stephen Sondheim, Mike Leigh, and David Henry Hwang cites Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S). They are an institution. And the way they have become part of the bricks and mortar of our cultural memory is embodied in the name by which we refer to these 14 operas, written between 1871 and 1896. They are called the Savoy Operas after the theatre that impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte built, in 1882, especially to stage these furiously popular productions. D’Oyly Carte's investment was built on sound foundations, both W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had established successful careers prior to and independent of their collaborative work. Gilbert was an acclaimed playwright, poet, and comic journalist who had also published under several pseudonyms, and Sullivan was not only “regarded as the foremost English composer of his age” (1) but was also well-known for his incidental music for the theatre.

The English comic operas that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote together blended a vast range of legitimate and “illegitimate” theatrical forms. They enfolded music hall traditions, fairy extravaganza, burlesque, and pantomime into parodies of French opera bouffe, Italian opera buffa, and German supernatural melodrama. They were also influenced by American minstrel shows. These genres were, of course, parodied. But to parody is by no means to dismiss or even overwhelm a form. Williams is most particular: because parody follows on from its model, “succeeding” it, as she puts it, it renovates the model and refreshes its context (9). In this sense, parody is, she writes, “a powerfully modernizing” mode (9). Parody can be used to both conservative and progressive ends, serving neither exclusively, but it does keep alive otherwise ephemeral or illegible forms. Genre parody becomes culturally pedagogical, teaching us how to understand forms “now estranged, invisible, or unrecognizable” (10). Parody also serves another crucial function to those of us looking back at an era: it teaches us about cultural struggle, about the counter-currents to the narratives and forms that became dominant. Gilbert and Sullivan, like the poetic parodists Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, remind us that the Victorian sages were mocked by Victorians themselves, that nationalism and even imperialism was ridiculed, that poets could be made ludicrous, and that—in short—the era questioned how the era itself functioned.

I very much appreciate how carefully Williams shows how freeing it can be to write within genre. Despite the contributions of cultural studies, too often scholars dismiss commercial genre fiction as beneath our notice. Williams, however, argues that the templates and conventions of genre can stir the imagination to greater frenzy, and that manipulation of these conventions can be “hilariously intoxicating” (14). If the Savoy operas were rambunctious blends of genre, this is not to say that they represented generic free-for-all. By no means. In a resonant example of how carefully manufactured their genre-blending was, Williams notes that G&S famously outlawed cross-dressing in their operas after their 1871 production of Thespis. This enabled them to distinguish their operas from extravaganza and pantomime, and—much like Hollywood's Hays Code—their hailing of bourgeois respectability furnished them with a canny marketing tool. On the one hand this was a sanitizing move, but Williams compellingly argues that removing gender-blur allowed G&S to examine convention more closely: “in the Savoy operas, the critical reflection on gender becomes clear only after Gilbert and Sullivan rule out cross-dressing, for only then does their critique of gender as the systemic performance of social function pop clearly into view” (20).

Williams’s study gives generous critical attention to the business of producing the Savoy Operas, and their commercial success. “Genre formation is,” she argues, “not only an aesthetic and historical, but also an economic, process” (5). The Savoy Opera plots themselves explore capitalism and management, which Williams links to the way that G&S understood the term “company” in both its theatrical and capitalist registers (49). Williams matches the thematic concerns of the operas with democratization and corporation with the way that G&S discouraged prima donna behavior on the part of their performers, “in favor of a coherent company style; pay relatively high for performers’ labor, thus stabilizing the company; and [enforcement of] rigorous rehearsal procedures” (53).

G&S even ventured into the business of what might be called simulcast. In 1879 they traveled to New York to “debut”The Pirates of Penzance, which they simultaneously “debuted” in a town near Penzance, Cornwall. Not only was this a marvelous advertising stunt, but it also enabled them to intervene into the trickiness of transatlantic copyright. By immediately launching their own American debut, they sought to establish their company's staging as the authentic US version. They locked their scripts up in a safe every night, ejected any note-takers from their audience, and formed their own touring companies to stage the show among American cities. “Thus they asserted their right to copy,” Williams pithily concludes, “by copying” (125). The theme of their opera was pirates and to read the opera as a “wholesale allusion to theatrical piracy,” as Williams does, is clearly spot-on.

This study is agile enough to ask how these operas might have formed the metrics of the age. “Savoy patter” is, Williams shows, linked to poetic forms such as the idyll and the ballad. The music itself gets best highlighted in the chapter on The Mikado, where Williams analyses the “anthology of English song styles” rehearsed by Nanki-Poo, arguing that he embodies what the Savoy operas’ music did in general: thrived “on stylistic quotation” (260). The only perspective missing from this comprehensive study concerns the productions of the Savoy Operas that turn up in contexts other than the Anglo-American one. Williams shows how autoethnographic the Savoy Operas were—they caricatured Japan to critique Britain—how did this autoethnography fare when performed abroad? Can we take a topsy-turvy view on topsyturvydom?