The Social and Political Satire of Gilbert and Sullivan: Bernard Lockett

 

Bernard Lockett: The Social and Political satire of W.S. Gilbert – our July 2022 talk.

Bernard Lockett describes Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as “marmite”. Many of us who love G. and S. musical theatre will likely do so because of the musical charm, first and foremost. Bernard Lockett’s talk opened our eyes and ears to W.S. Gilbert’s powerful though good-natured satirical attacks on the English Legal System, the British Police Force and the British Political Establishment. Satire often dates, of course, but, in his thoroughly engaging talk, Mr Lockett was able to demonstrate that Gilbert’s writing is essentially relevant to our own age. As one audience member put it: “Gilbert and Sullivan is Private Eye with music”.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert’s family enjoyed wealth and privilege. As a writer, however, he was fundamentally concerned with the ‘have and have nots’ in English society and the monstrous corruption he witnessed within the Victorian British Establishment. Gilbert became a friend of Charles Dickens and shared Dickens’ interest in social commentary in an age when ninety percent of the British population lived in poverty.

Between 1871 and 1896, G. and S. collaborated on fourteen comic operas. Mr Lockett refers to this partnership as the “Abba of its day”. Music from these popular operettas could be heard everywhere in Victorian society: at home, in the streets, in parks, as well as in the theatres and music halls. Many twentieth and twenty-first century composers of musical theatre have demonstrated the influence of G. and S. in their own musical compositions, including Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe.

To illustrate Gilbert’s satire, Mr Lockett used video clips of arias from five of these operattas: “Trial by Jury” (corruption within the English Legal System), “Pirates of Penzance” (police misconduct and ineptitude), “Iolanthe”, “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore” (political dishonesty and elitism). The malfeasance and ineptitude exposed in these songs illustrates how critical Gilbert’s satire is of the British establishment, whilst always managing to evade censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. This talk demonstrated superbly how relevant this satire is to our own contemporary society, reflected in the adaptability of modern productions and the enduring appeal of G. and S. musical theatre.

 

Roger Jones