Utopias Unlimited, III: Slaves of Duty

Like Alice Brown and the baronets of Ruddigore, many of Gilbert's characters are trapped in an allegiance to something essentially absurd or wrong. The Mikado of Japan does not actually wish to execute Ko Ko, Poo Bah, and Pitti Sing by boiling them in oil, but they have unknowingly executed the heir to the throne, who has been traveling in disguise as a wandering minstrel. The Mikado quite understands, thinks perhaps his son got what he deserved, but, unfortunately, the law in question says nothing about a mistake. Cheer up, he tells them, “I'll have it altered next session. Now let's see about your execution—will after luncheon suit you?"   The baronets of Ruddigore do not enjoy committing a crime a day, but what are they to do? It is a family tradition, or rather curse.

This message of affable cynicism is often conveyed by a worldly wise older man who is variously the Pirate King, the Mikado, and the Grand Inquisitor in The Gondoliers.  In The Pinafore, the cynical baritone is poor Dick Deadeye who sums up Gilbert's view of life with his, "It's a queer world."  Dick ought to know.  Cursed with an ugly name and a still uglier face, he cannot say, "Nice day," without incurring quite literally a chorus of disapproval.  When Dick repeats the Boatswain's warning that the captain's daughter will never marry a simple sailor like Ralph Rackstraw, the boatswain tells him "Them sentiments of yourn are a disgrace to our common natur."  

In The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (Oxford), Ian Bradley describes Dick as "the nearest that Gilbert comes...to creating the archetypal stage villain of Victorian melodrama," but Dick is more of a Cassandra than a villain.  He is resigned to being hated for his looks, and he knows that on his lips "the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination" (a charge the critics often leveled against Gilbert's cruel brand of humor).  Dick's paradoxical nature illustrates the central point of the Pinafore, whose plot turns on the distinction between a man's true nature and the position he holds in society--the simple sailor turns out to be the captain and vice versa.  

Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, is convinced that, "Love levels all ranks," and when he explains his doctrine of equality to the crew, they naturally assume that he is putting them on his own level.  Only Dick understands reality: "He means well, but he don't know.  When people have to obey other people's orders, equality is out of the question."  But in Gilbert's upside-down world, Sir Joseph--the "monarch of the sea" who knows nothing of the navy--is applauded, while Dick is excoriated.  In the end, when Buttercup reveals the truth, Ralph and the Captain exchange places, and in most productions the Captain begins speaking in a Cockney accent.  His duty is not to anything in his real life, e.g., his daughter or his crew, but to the social position he has inherited. 

It is not that Gilbert is either a leveler or a defender of hierarchy, an apostle or an opponent of duty.  He is fundamentally a satirist who finds humor in all forms of extremism, especially when the principles being taken to the extreme have a sound basis.  There is nothing wrong with duty, but, under the sinister influence of Immanuel Kant, the public morality of the 19th century was dangerously deontological, that is, duty-bound.  

Schopenhauer pointed out the absurdity of Kant's insistence upon a universal duty owed by all human beings, regardless of circumstances, and Gilbert put the dilemma on the stage in the person of young Frederic, "the slave of duty" in the Pirates of Penzance.  As a boy, Frederic was mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate band (they wanted him to be a pilot, but his nurse was hard of hearing.) The young man hates piracy, and he is not persuaded by the Pirate King's declaration that

    Many a king on a first-class throne,          If he wants to call his crown his own,          Must manage somehow to get through          More dirty work than ever I do.

But out of a sense of duty, he will not abandon the pirates until he has reached the age of 21, when the term of his indenture will have expired.  On the day of his liberation he meets and affiances the daughter of Major General Stanley, which makes it his duty to lead a squad of timid policemen against the friends of his youth.  There is, however, a wrinkle, or rather a paradox.  It seems that Frederic was born in Leap Year, on February 29, and as the King explains: "Though you have lived 21 years, yet if we go by birthdays, you are only five and a little bit over."  

Frederic's duty is plain, at least to himself: He must delay his marriage to Mable (who promises to wait until 1940, while complaining, "It seems so long") and rejoin the pirates who are planning to murder his future father-in-law, who had secured the release of his daughters from the marriage-mad pirates by claiming to be an orphan.  (While the Major General, too, has a conscience, he cannot quite bring himself to confess his sin to the Pirate King.)  When the pirates defeat the police and seize the major general, only a deus ex machina can save the day.  In this case the deus (or rather dea) is Queen Victoria in whose name the pirates are commanded to surrender.  

“Yes, yes,” they sing, “With all our faults we love our Queen.”

But even the pirates are not beyond redemption.  "They are no men of the common throng.  They are all noblemen who have gone wrong."  The major general, declaring that Englishmen, for all their faults, love their House of Peers, pardons the pirates and gives them his daughters. 

These irreverent digs at royalty and peerage are not casual bits of fun.  Victorian rigorism was embedded in a social system that equated worth with status.  Gilbert was no leveler, but he was convinced that many criminals are victims of circumstance.  Rich people do not steal from shops, because they do not need to, and if they do go wrong--like the pirates or Michael Millken or Jared Kushner’s father--there will never lack for apologists.  

In his ballad "Mister William,” the hero— an otherwise good man who forges a will "as an experiment”—assuages his conscience by reflecting that, "The greater the temptation to go wrong, the less the sin."  Suffering from the unaccustomed harshness of prison life, his gaolers take pity on him, arguing "He ain't been brought up common, like the likes of me and you."  Eventually Mr. William is released with an apology from the Secretary. 

     With the exception of the cowardly police, everyone in the Pirates has a strict sense of right and wrong.  With a thrill in her voice, Mabel tells the policemen to march off to "glory and the grave;" the pirates' merciful creed forbids them to harm orphans, and once the word got out, all of their victims claim to be orphans; Ruth, the nurse-maid, when she realizes her mistake, resolves to stick with her master, becoming "a piratical maid of all work."  

Piling absurdity upon paradox, Gilbert has managed to satirize moral rigorism by revealing its vicious consequences.  In the name of duty, a good man is willing to betray and murder his childhood friends and the father of the woman he loves, although, as he says, "It breaks my heart to betray the honored father of the girl I adore." 

In an earlier version of the same plot, Our Island Home (1870), a similarly indentured pirate captain comes upon a group of castaways and informs them that it is his duty, unpleasant thought it be, to murder them all.  He persists in his resolution even after realizing that two of his victims are his long-lost parents.  As his father explains: "I wouldn't have him break his articles of apprenticeship on my account.  I always taught him a scrupulous adherence to his engagements, and I am glad--very glad....[shaking the pirate's hand] to see that you have not forgotten my precepts." 

There is more, here, than poking gentle fun at the expense of Victorian morality whose emphasis on duty had made heroes of the soldiers sacrificed at Balaclava (Gilbert was an armchair expert on the Crimean War) and would slaughter untold thousands in the Great War, for nothing.  Frederic has made a religion out of obedience, and while his fanaticism owes much to the pieties so vigrously promoted by his beloved Queen, his lofty devotion to duty is only one aspect of the liberal tradition of ethics going back to Kant, to Locke, and to Descartes.  Gilbert's idiotic hero gets himself in trouble for embracing precisely the sort of universalist ethics that Englishmen had been taught for two centuries, and the situation could only be resolved (and the murder avoided) by an old-fashioned appeal to the love and loyalty that even bad men may feel for their country and their sovereign.  Yes, Gilbert can play it both ways.  The pirates are absurdly tender-hearted, when it comes to Queens and orphans, but their misplaced loyalty and ridiculous sentimentalism are far more human than Frederic's cult of duty or the Major General's prickly conscience.

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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