Utopias Unlimited, Conclusion

Frederic is a decent, if dunder-headed young man, but Gilbert carries the satire further in the person of Dick Dauntless, the young sailor in Ruddigore.  Dick is the foster-brother of Ruthven Murgatroyd who is by right the latest "bad baronet" of Ruddigore, but Ruthven has disguised himself as the farmer Robin Oakapple.  

Too shy to propose to the beautiful Rose Maybud, the flower of the village maidens, “Robin” asks his apparently good-hearted foster-brother Dick to intercede.  He and Robin had sworn an oath that they "Would always act upon our hearts' dictates,” and, when he sees how beautiful Rose is, he proposes to her on his own account.  When Rose learns the truth, she prefers Robin, but Dick has another trick up his sleeve, and he reveals Robin's true identity to his younger brother Despard, who has been reluctantly upholding the family honor by committing a crime a day.  At the wedding, Sir Despard denounces Robin, and when Rose asks "who is the wretch who hat betrayed thee," Dick replies:

          Within this breast there beats a heart

               Whose voice can't be gainsaid.

          It bade me thy true rank impart,

               And I at once obeyed

          I knew 'twould blight thy budding fate--

           I knew 'twould cause thee anguish great--

          But did I therefore hesitate?

               No I at once obeyed.

Gilbert has sometimes been censored for introducing Dick, in Act one, with a rousing patriotic song in which he boasts of English courage against the French.  But the whole point of the song is to reveal Dick as a dishonest blowhard who explains that his sloop did not attack a French frigate, because "to fight a French fa lal, it's like hitting of a gal."  The French were outraged but, like most critics they missed the point.  Dick Dauntless is the very opposite of the ugly but honest Dick Deadeye:  Dauntless is handsome, strong, as sentimental as a greeting card, but essentially selfish and hypocritical.  

The mistaken indenture is only a variation on his "lozenge plot" (the same might be said of Kafka's "Metamorphosis").  In his most effective political satire, however, he asks us to laugh at English customs dressed up in Japanese costumes, to see the absurdity of English republican arguments when they are propounded by Venetian gondoliers, and in his penultimate collaboration with Sullivan, to understand the corruption of English politics by watching a Southsea paradise (whose name is Utopia) as it turns itself into an English limited stock company. 

The plot of Utopia Limited, may well have been too complex for an audience expecting an evening of cheerful tunes and light-hearted absurdity, but the libretto is one of Gilbert's best.  Paramount, the anglomaniac king of Utopia, is a despot in name, but he lives under the shadow of the public exploder, who is empowered to blow up the king with dynamite at the first sign of misbehavior.  In the Gondoliers, Gilbert had played with a monarchy  "that's tempered with republican equality," but in Utopia's "despotism tempered with dynamite," the king is forced to write and publish libels about his own entirely fictitious vices and follies.  But, as the king is fond of saying, "It's a quaint world."

His daughter, who has been educated in England, returns to Utopia, bringing with her "the flowers of progess" (the opera's subtitle): a military man, a lawyer, a Lord High Chamberlain (to censor morals), a county councilor, Captain Corcoran (straight out of the Pinafore), and Mr. Goldbury, a "compnay promoter."  The promoter explains the limited liability company as means of investing the least money at the least risk for the greatest profit.  And if the company goes belly up, well, that is too bad for the investors but not for the promters:

Though a Rothschild you may be

In your own capacity,

As a Company you've come to utter sorrow--              

But the liquidators say,              

"Never mind--you needn't pay"         

So you start another company tomorrow.

     At first the king is dubious about turning his entire kingdom into a limited liability company.  "I do understand you," he asks Goldbury, "that Great Britain/ Upon this Joint Stock principle is governed?"  The promoter answers, "We haven't come to that yet, but--/ We're tending rapidly in that direction."  

Goldbury is given the go-ahead and applies the limited liability principle to every individual in the realm, and before long, "there is not a christened baby in Utopia who has not already issued his little prospectus."  (This sounds like Washington, D.C.,  where every policy geek and political gopher has his own think-tank or Institute.)   The king's first cabinet meeting is conducted as a minstrel show, complete with banjo and bones--a satiric touch that we may find disquieting for more than one reason. 

The flowers of progress turn out to be weeds, unfortunately, and all the little pleasures of utopian life are ruined:  Utopia swamped by dull prosperity demands that these detested Flowers of Progress be sent about their business.

The situation appears hopeless until the English-educated princess advises the king to introduces one last British-style reform, namely "government by party," which will bring progress to a halt: "No political measures will endure because one Party will assuredly undo all that the other Party has done; and while grouse is to be shot and foxes worried to death, the legislative action of the country will be at a standstill."   Half a genuine loaf, Gilbert seems to be saying, is beter than an entire pastry-shop filled with imaginary delights that can only be enjoyed in some future state.  

Utopia Limited opened in 1893, and had a limited success.  The partners were long since tired of each other's company, and, as the 20th century loomed nearer, Gilbert's humor seemed increasingly dated.   He was to go on to write other plays, but his greatest successes were behind him, and when he died in 1910, he was already an institution of the previous reign.  By then, Wells had already written  The Time Machine, and the science fiction industry was on its way to being established on the broken dreams of the American Century.   The Savoy operas have been kept alive, partly for the brightness of Gilbert's wit and the beauty of Sullivan's music, but they have also suffered from a deadening nostalgia for times gone by.       

Gilbert was himself, a man of no particular party.  He was as suspicious of progressive levelers as he was contemptuous of the conservative defenders of entrenched interests.  Between the improbable glories of past golden ages and the impossible beauties of the paradise that awaits us, just around the corner, once the public exploders have done their job--there was little to choose.  Like Sir Thomas More, he knew that the real purpose of Utopias was satiric, that such fantasies are of no positive use in planning a society.  If Plato thought otherwise, then Plato was wrong.   Like Trollope, W.S. Gilbert is the wholesome Victorian antidote to the poisonous fantasies of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and taken in regular doses, his works will reform the manners, as well as the meters, of our degenerate times.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    I am sure that many of us here can empathize with Gilbert’s predicament, detesting almost equally both of the established parties, their ideological prisons and venal predispositions.

    We have watched the 1939 Mikado. It is quite entertaining, but we could see the weaknesses in at least one performance. Apparently curtailed in its U.S. release by one number which, even then, was deemed off-“color” (so to speak), Criterion is to be commended for having included the naughty number in the special features, with all of the, now deemed essential, sensitivity warnings, of course. We were also treated to excerpts of the “Hot Mikado” and the “Swing Mikado” which had all-black casts; silly, but decidedly more wholesome than all of what is offered by pop culture these days. Importantly, though, for living in (marital) harmony, the wife is hooked, so we shall continue, probably with Trial By Jury as previously suggested.

    The above article was entertaining and informative. I can’t think to what your staff of yore was objecting.