Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Don't go messing with Gilbert and Sullivan!

We like our Gilbert and Sullivan. We don't always get all the jokes, but that's okay. You'd kind of have to have 'been there' to catch all the nuances. The music, the dance, the banter, the improbable situations all make for a wonderful evening of entertainment on the whole. For this, Hal was understandably excited at finding the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Society. The play that they chose for this semester is "Princess Ida-" one that neither of us had seen. Wonderful! Something new! Something different from the usual "Pirates" or "Mikado!"

Princess Ida is an amalgam of themes from their earlier play "Iolanthe" and the poem cycle "The Princess" by Tennyson. The music, though still characteristically G & S, has more of a romantic, almost Wagnerian feel to it - really beautiful.

In all, the HRGSS perfomance was a real treat: nobody missed any lines as far as I could tell, the choreography was showy but not too complicated, the leads were all strong. It was a wonderful evening that passed way too quickly.

Except for one thing:

"...The original intent of the play falls flat because the satire of Tennyson's women's college turns into a full mockery of women's education. While it is unclear to what extent Gilbert intended his treatment of the poem to be anit-feminist, I felt that the misogynistic undertones weakened the piece and suggested a message that I found offensive. Princess Ida's controversial theme also seemed inappropriate given the current climate at Harvard and the venue for this production - Radcliffe's Agassiz Theatre. In order to reframe the operetta's meaning so that the cast, audience and I could embrace it, I turned to the original poem and to Gilbert's original play.

In reading Tennysons' poem, I was struck by the beauty of its conclusion, which eloquently describes natural love. I reworked the ending of this production to include some of Tennyson's lines; the ensuing love scene unties and completes Ida and Hilarion's separate journeys through the story, justifies their love, reveals the orignal intent of the poem, and puts Gilbert's "perversion" into context. I also added some lines from the original play to heighten the comedy and clarify the ending. My ultimate goal in adapting the operetta was to maintain its integrity while adding organic emotional and intellectual depth - and a bit more comedy. I particularly focused on the interplay between the traditional Gilbert and Sullivan world, fueled by the two kings, and the ardent reality of Ida's women's college. The result is a satire of both sexes and a genuine love story..."

Yes, the director found cause to be offended, so he changed the ending. Essentially what he did was the following:

-changed the outcome of the battle between Hilarion, Cyril and Florian and Ida's brothers so that the brothers would win and had Ida speak these lines over Hilarion's body:

"Ask me no more: what answer should I give?
I love not hollow cheek or faded eye:
Yet, O my friend, I will not have thee die!
Ask me no more, lest I should bid thee live;
Ask me no more.

Ask me no more: thy fate and mine are seal'd.
I strove against the stream and all in vain:
Let the great river take me to the main:
No more, dear love, for at a touch I yield;
Ask me no more."

-"The Princess," VIII

At that point, Hilarion (though gravely wounded I thought) gets up, we have the wrapup - save for Ida's final lines and the finale.

It really wouldn't have been all that bad, except that you could pretty clearly tell what was and wasn't G & S's language even if you weren't familiar with Tennyson's poem. The cause for offense - well, it's Harvard. You don't poke fun at women, you don't question women, you don't try to make a distinction between theory and practice or hard reality.

For the record, I've read the original play, and I found nothing offensive at all about it. From what I've read of G & S, I've no cause to believe that either was a misogynist - far from in, in fact. If there were any cause for me to be offended, it would be because some kid on a crusade thought he could improve upon a couple old masters' work instead of just letting be. Of course, given my penchant for the wrong opinions for a Cantabrigian, I'm probably not an "authentic female voice" by any stretch, so take my pronouncements on this subject as you will.

"Princess Ida" has one more weekend in its run at the Agassiz Theater, and I do highly recommend it in spite of the bowdlerizing. It's still a fun play and the students put on a good show.

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