Generally Speaking

A grain or two of truth

W.S.Gilbert put a lot of himself into Jack Point, the tragic jester in The Yeomen of the Guard – the nearest thing to serious opera he and Sullivan wrote together.

Yeomen of the Guard 2004 me as Jack Point

I was lucky enough to play Jack Point myself, one of a number of roles I had over the years with our small town’s amateur operatic society. Alton Op & Dram – AODS for short.

Naturally, people see Gilbert first and foremost as a jester – his wit and brilliance with rhyme and meter have rarely if ever been equalled.

But I remember being aware as I played this role that there was another side to Gilbert, that he also wanted to say serious things about human nature, about society, about scandals in high places. Which is exactly what he is saying, through his character Jack Point in this great song that I – a recently retired doctor in the town, no less – had the joy of singing:

Winnow all my folly, folly, folly and you’ll find
a grain or two of truth among the chaff

Gilbert’s librettos were full of truths, surely one of the reasons why so many amateur companies did little but ‘G&S’, and in some cases nothing but G&S, for generations.

Here, for example, is one of my favourites: Private Willis (no relation) is on sentry duty outside the House of Lord’s at the opening of Act II of Iolanthe, and he tells us:

I am an intellectual chap and think of things that will astonish you“.

Like this one:

That every boy and every gal That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal Or else a little Conservative !“.

Surely that is an enduring, and rather depressing, truth. That people seem to be born pre-stamped with an indelible political polarisation. Just as true today as it was at end of the 19th Century – it’s hard to think of a better response than Sgt. Willis’s baleful “Fal, lal, la !“.

It is well known that Gilbert’s ‘grains of truth’, aimed at the highest places in society, made him unpopular with the establishment. Thus we have his splendidly-named Lord Mountararat in Iolanthe, recounting without apparent irony the glories of British history:

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte, As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war, Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well.

That is supposed to be why, in spite of his peerless verse being at least as important as Sullivan’s music in the phenomenal success of their collaboration, Gilbert was never knighted.

You may say that he asked for it. Time and again he depicted his highly-placed characters as figures of ridicule. The Major General in The Pirates of Penzance is so ‘modern’ and educated that, although he can ‘write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform‘ he actually has no idea ‘what progress has been made in modern gunnery‘, and no more of ‘tactics than a novice in a nunnery‘.

In HMS Pinafore Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, advises anyone wishing to follow him and become ‘ruler of the Queen’s Navee‘, to “stick close to your desks, and never go to sea“, just as he had done. This was a jibe at the notoriously land-lubber Admiral of The Fleet of the day. But as today we see political cronies devoid of appropriate experience being appointed to senior defence and intelligence positions on both sides of the Atlantic, Gilbert’s jesting once again speaks of something timeless about the human situation.

Iolanthe 1998 – Lord Chancellor

One final example: the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, another part I once played (Think Nightmare Song – I cherish the memory of managing the dress rehearsal and all six performances without a single slip), sings a long list of naughty things that (other) judges get up to, which he has promised himself he will never, ever do. For example:

My learned profession I’ll never disgrace
By taking a fee with a grin on my face
When I haven’t been there to attend to the case
(Said I to myself – said I !)

But it wasn’t just senior figures he lampooned, he also directed his barbs at contemporary trends. The whole of The Mikado is a spoof on the then prevailing fashion to admire all things Japanese. The comic names of the characters – Pooh Bah, Pish Tush (noble lords) and Yum Yum, Nanki Pooh (the love-lorn central couple) – were among many aspects which would today be regarded as diplomatically suspect, to put it mildly.

Another hot topic at the time was Darwin’s Origin of Species. So Gilbert had his go at the explosive new suggestion that mankind had descended from the apes. In Princess Ida he gives Lady Psyche a song in which she tells the tale of an ape’s attempt to win the love of a certain ‘Lady fair, of lineage high‘. The courtship was not a success:

He bought white ties, and he bought dress suits,
And he crammed his feet into bright tight boots –
And to start in life on a brand-new plan,
He christened himself Darwinian Man !
But it would not do,
The scheme fell through –
For the Maiden fair, whom the monkey craved,
Was a radiant being,
With a brain far-seeing –
While Darwinian Man, though well-behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved !

Another contemporary trend was aestheticism, and specifically the cult of Oscar Wilde. In a scarcely disguised parody, he has Bunthorne in Patience – revealing in confidence to the audience – ‘am I alone, and unobserved? – I am‘ – the shocking truth that his professed æstheticism is merely ‘affectation, born of a morbid love of admiration‘:

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high æsthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediæval hand.

And every one will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
“If he’s content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!”

I will finish with my own last G&S role – The Pirate King in AODS’ 2009 production of The Pirates of Penzance.

Pirates of Penzance 2009 Pirate King

Here we have Gilbert once again pointing out the essential amorality of establishment norms.

Frederick the apprentice pirate has reached his age of maturity and is about to return to the respectable world, where he will feel obliged to seek the extermination of his beloved former companions. He urges the King – me in this case – to render such unpleasantness unnecessary by accompanying him back to civilisation.

No, Frederick,” I reply, ” it cannot be. I don’t think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability ‘banking for that matter’ (topical ad lib this – for early 2009) it is comparatively honest

The second verse carries on in the same vein:

When I sally forth to seek my prey
I help myself in a royal way.
I sink a few more ships, it’s true,
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do;
But 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,

Here we have another ‘grain or two of truth among the chaff.’. The idea that people in low places – even actual pirates – are more honest than people on high has powerful resonances today. Knowing life in this small town as well as I do after my career here as a family doctor, I see absolute honour amongst small people almost every day.

Gilbert the tragic jester puts this advice into the mouth of his alter ago Jack Point:

He who’d make his fellow, fellow, fellow creatures wise,
Should always gild the philosophic pill.

There was so much more than mere comedy in this verse, and in these extraordinary roles. Which is what makes Gilbert great, and for me what made it such a privilege to perform them.

‘2071’ by Duncan Macmillan and Professor Chris Rapley, CBE

This is an extraordinary production. And, the Royal Court run being completely sold out, we were lucky to see it yesterday.

It is extraordinary because it is not presented by any sort of actor but by a top international scientist, and one who obviously believes that doing this – presenting climate science as clearly as he can to two London theatre audiences a day – is the most important thing he has to do at the moment. And as we read from the free handout that one of his many professional roles is Chairman of the Science Policy Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency, we could well imagine, on what was the day of maximum tension after their triumphant comet landing, Professor Rapley would rather have been much closer to the action .

But onto the stage he walked, without the slightest showmanship, sat down, and talked quietly for 70 minutes about the situation that faces the world.

Behind him, and perfectly synchronised with his words, were steadily-evolving images, graphs and diagrams on a huge, kaleidoscopic back-drop.

2071 - Chris Rapley

The fact that these graphics were almost entirely monochrome made the occasional use of red extremely striking. The sound track was equally subtle; gently supporting the narrative and punctuating it with hanging silences while he took a sip from his water glass. In all it was a deceptively sophisticated telling of a story which is, of course, far too dramatic to require theatricality. To my mind it was perfectly judged, and absolutely convincing.

Professor Rapley had been Director of the British Antarctic Survey and was particularly authoritative about the collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves; now happening far more rapidly than ever expected. And as past Director of the Science Museum and Chairman of University College London’s Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science he presented a masterly overview of all aspects of his subject. He described this year’s report from the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, with its unequivocal call for action, as the most audited document in history. One easily-understood implication of this report being that three quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of a more than 2°C rise in global temperature over pre-industrial levels. We have already had 0.8°C of that.

There were lots of young people in the audience, as well as older folks like us. But deniers were not at all in evidence. One day such people must realise that they have grandchildren too (Professor Rapley’s oldest will be the age he is now in 2071 – hence the title). Unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, that is going to be too late.

The Tempest – growth towards freedom

Three weeks tonight we open Shakespeare’s Tempest at the Alton Maltings Centre.

Me (Prospero) ‘giving’ Miranda to Ferdinand

We took some publicity pics at yesterday’s rehearsal – some for the local paper, and some for our website.

What an incredible privilege to be getting to know and performing these fabulous words. Five of us drove up to Shakespeare’s Globe on Sunday evening, parked free in the street nearby and stood right in front of the stage as ‘groundlings’ for what is still that amazing £5.00. Which must be one of the best entertainment deals anywhere in the world. We were transfixed by the superb performance, and me especially by Roger Allam‘s quite wonderful Prospero. We came back bursting with enthusiasm and inspiration for our own, so much humbler, but nonetheless valid in its own way, effort.

I am of course immersed in the play. I go through my entire part every day. I am getting quicker because I don’t have to check for accuracy so often now, but it still took me an hour and ten minutes this morning. I walk round and round the lawn in what has been, at long last, glorious sunshine. And I never tire of the beautiful words with their endlessly emerging layers of meaning.

One thing that is fascinating me is the way the language Propero uses in addressing his two servants evolves during the play; his symbolically contrasting, light and dark ‘slaves’, Ariel and Caliban. It seems to me that this aspect, which I haven’t found much commented on, is really important. He begins by treating both of them with a chilling autocracy, and sometimes with real cruelty. “Thou liest, malignant thing” he says to an abject Ariel in Act 1 Scene 2. “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam” to Caliban in the same scene.

His language to Ariel gradually softens as she (famously gender-neutral, but played by the wonderful Barbara Rayner in our production) delivers everything he asks:
Later in the long A1 S2 “Spirit, fine spirit, I’ll set thee free for this
Then in A4 When Ariel says: “Do you love me, master? No?” He replies: “Dearly, my delicate Ariel
And then at the final parting, at the very end of A5, the last words of the play apart from the Epilogue: “My Ariel, chick […] then to the elements be free, and fare thou well“.  I hope we can make this the touching moment it deserves to be.

Prospero intervenes between Caliban and Miranda, Ariel watching

What was much less obvious, at least to me, but which they brought out beautifully at The Globe on Sunday, was the final softening to Caliban. Only a page before the parting with Ariel, comes this parting with Caliban. And for the first time Prospero addresses him, not as ‘slave’, but like this:
Go, sirrah, to my cell; take with you your companions; as you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely.
He is now a person, a ‘sirrah’. Caliban responds with a contrite determination to be wise henceforth, and all Prospero says in parting is: “Go to; away!“. It could be peremptory, unforgiving. But at the Globe, Roger Allam said this very slowly, and momentarily touched Caliban. That made all the difference, and that is how I am doing it now.

So we have this theme of growth towards freedom, culminating, of course, as its third element, in the famous Epilogue, in which Shakespeare seems to be saying his own farewell to the theatre. Freeing himself of that burden, as burden it must have been. Building on the wonderful ‘cloud capped towers’ speech A4 which makes my spine tingle to think about, let alone to actually perform. And again, very near the end, “...thence I will retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave”.

That’s enough of me thorts for another few days. But even if nobody ever reads this, I wanted to write this down.

The surprising payoff while learning a big part for a play

I am nine weeks out from playing the part of Prospero in Alton Fringe Theatre‘s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And I want to write about the surprising fact that learning a part like this is far from being the miserable slog that most people expect it to be. And, even more surprising, that it is possible for someone like me, who was particularly bad at memorizing almost anything at school, to do it at all !

Years ago Edward de Bono, he who coined the expression lateral thinking, pointed out that surprise is a sure sign that you have spotted something which conflicts with your existing picture of how the world is. And – assuming your observation is correct, as I have no doubt in this case it is – it must mean there is something in your understanding of the world that you need to change. So here we go:

Of course these are beautiful words, and supremely worth studying and getting to know.  But I keep getting the feeling that there is more to it than that. There is this positive pleasure you get when you run through, preferably out loud, something that you have got established, perfectly, in your mind. The buzz of knowing it is right, and exactly right, is just as real as the buzz that keeps you solving crossword clues (or trying to) or getting a game of patience to come out. It is as though we are hard-wired with a reward mechanism for accurate recall of surprisingly long texts. And the only reason this fact is surprising is that, in our modern, literate culture, this is an ability we hardly ever use, except when some of us are mad enough to land ourselves with a big part in a play.

But in an ancestral, pre-literate culture, such as prevailed during all but the last, infinitesimal proportion of humanity’s evolution, the accurate memorizing of lore of all kinds – stories, poems, ballads, not to mention travel routes – must have been a vital part of our intellectual equipment. So it is not really surprising that we find we are good at this sort of thing when we allow ourselves to try. Or that we get a physical reward for doing it well. Because it stands to reason that until the modern era this was a human need which was  just as vital for our success as a species as others for which nature has bequeathed us the built-in payoffs we know so well.

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
and ye that on the sands with printless foot
do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
when he comes back…

That was from memory, I promise.  And I did get the wonderful payoff as I typed those words. I promise that as well. Three and a half of my 600 lines.  I’ve just checked the passage, from Act 5 Scene 1 in our script, and I did get it exactly right, punctuation and all.   I don’t know about you, but I still find that surprising.

PS  If you like this sort of thinking about thinking there’s lots of it in my first book, The Paradox of Progress

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