Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



DIANA BURLEIGH: When I was about 10 years old, I saw a production of Iolanthe which had a mighty impression on me. In fact it was done by a secondary school with an all-girls cast, but it is still possible that it was as wonderful as I thought at the time. It encouraged me to take the libretti out of the library and read straight through them. I thought Mikado sounded rather a bore, but was very taken with The Grand Duke for some reason now forgotten.

I had the chance to see Grand Duke at the higher end of my teens, by which time I had become a regular aficionado. I again loved the work, though I was able to see some weaknesses in it. The D'Oyly Carte concert version was also wonderful as others have recorded. It wasn't until 1981 when the Victorian G&S Society decided to do the work and invited me to direct that I became closely involved.

Finding a way to put over a production is very different from appreciating the work and after some debate internal I decided the opera was about people being other than what they seem. (This worked for me, I don't claim it as the only way to do the piece or even the best way). Obviously actors are people who take on roles professionally and in their plans to overthrow The Grand Duke, they intend to continue with their company's structure (according to professional position). The Grand Duke himself appears a tyrant and an iron-willed ruler but in fact is a scared little man, and so on. I set this up by placing the theatre in a corner of the town square with the stage door evident and a skip on the portico. This was used as a prop and the Troilus costumes pulled out of it at the end of the act.

We based the Duke on Kaiser Wilhelm. He had certain physical problems dating from his birth which he was always at pains to hide. We decided that Rudolph was a timid and ineffectual man who had been told by his mother "be a king, be a ruler" and tried to hide his natural demeanor. He was dressed in Germanic military uniform with a by helmet surmounted by a golden eagle (dubbed by the company "the pregnant chicken"). A convention was established that when he wore the helmet he was on duty as the absolute monarch and could bully his servants and everyone else unmercifully. When he took it off, he was the little man scared of assassination and every strange noise. From this a lot of business was developed which was extremely funny (I was lucky to have an excellent cast).

All this was carried through to the second act which took place on what was an obvious theatrical set resembling a Greek temple, and the props were also obviously stage props. Julia had indicated when the Troilus costumes were produced that she didn't like them and in defiance of Ludwig's decree made a grand entry dressed as Madame Pompadour. The chorus dropped their assumed courtier role to show they thought this was just the sort of thing Julia would do! Lisa stormed off and returned later in her own favourite and totally anachronistic costume.

The Monte Carlos added to this. They had attired themselves with the help of the costumer in the whatever the last work performed by the theatre Monaco had done. (OK it matched the rest of the theme but our Prince of MC was rather large and difficult to costume and had just done some Russian musical, so he and his retinue were attired like Cossacks).

It was not necessary for the audience to follow exactly what was in our minds, but this gave us the basis for coherent action and allowed us to develop a great deal of humour which was in keeping with the work as a whole. It also helped the cast develop strong characterisations in a work none had ever done before. For us and our audience it worked, which is the bottom line.

PHILIP STERNENBERG: Some pre-production versions of Grand Duke give the title character the name "Wilhelm."

RONALD ORENSTEIN: I understood that Rudolph was based on quite another Wilhelm, the genuinely penny-pinching Grand Duke Wilhelm of Hesse-Cassel (who was apparently nicknamed "halbpfennig" for his stingy ways - the original draft even calls the Duchy "Hesse-Halbpfennig").

J. DERRICK McCLURE: I really enjoyed Diana's on The Grand Duke: her identification of the central theme of the opera, that people are not what they seem to be, hits the nail on the head; and her account of the way this idea was built into the production makes for a description of what must have been a brilliant performance! Interesting analogy of Rudolph with Kaiser William, whose complex and fascinating character was certainly shaped to quite an extent by his birth-damaged arm - remember that Gilbert's original idea was to call the Duke Wilhelm! Could there also be something of Nicholas II in him, exhorted by his wife to "Be Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible", as if you could tell a pussy-cat to be a sabre-toothed tiger?

DIANA BURLEIGH: Incidentally, we couldn't find any evidence of a previous production and claimed ours as an Australian premiere.

PAUL McSHANE: Sorry (but not very) to scotch this claim, but I played Ludwig in a Sydney performance by Proscenia Theatre in 1965. Interestingly enough, the Notary was played by Richard Divall (a gentleman well known to Diana), who went on to become an Australian Musical Personage as conductor of the Victorian State Opera.

RONALD ORENSTEIN: In 1973 or thereabouts a group in Sydney, whose name escapes me, performed a truly unique (though not terribly successful) program consisting of a double bill of one-act condensations of Sorcerer and Grand Duke!

DAVID CRAVEN: I played the title role in a production in 1984, and at this time, we thought it was the Australian premier, but had no evidence for this.

The production was unfortunate in that the MD/Director omitted the Roulette Song, which I think is the highlight of the show.

DIANA BURLEIGH: Thanks to Paul and Ronald for giving me details of earlier GD's in Oz.


ANDREW CROWTHER: Just some things which occurred to me, listening to the DOC recording of The Grand Duke this evening. Gilbert's often accused of being "cynical", most of the time unjustly I think - there's usually a saving affection for the people he mocks. But there are parts of The Grand Duke which do seem to me cynical in the worst sense. The Ernest/Julia relationship, with Julia's insistence that all her displays of love to Ernest are simply testimony to her tremendous acting skills, and Ernest's enthusiastic willingness to accept this arrangement ("I'm the happiest fellow alive!") without bothering his head about ensuring her happiness - this is very distasteful. Julia's song "How would I play this part", elaborating this, is frankly a non-love song - it all boils down to "I don't love you" - and in at least the following stanza I think Gilbert steps over the line separating the amusing from the disturbing:

"And should there come to me,
Some summers hence,
In all the childish glee
Of innocence,
Fair babes, aglow with beauty vernal,
My heart would bound with joy diurnal!
This sweet display of sympathy maternal,
Well, that would also be
A mere pretense!"
Sullivan's setting of this verse, with its lapse into a bitter minor key at the start, seems to pick up on this atmosphere. (Something I'm not sure about: are we supposed to believe Julia's insistence that all this is acting? Perhaps she really does love Ernest, but is perversely unable to say so straight out? Gilbert doesn't make this clear, and I don't know what answer we're supposed to reach about that.)

The Ludwig/Lisa marriage seems equally doomed to failure. We are consistently told throughout that Ludwig is an arrogant, selfish man with no conception of life beyond the satisfying of his own appetites ("He's one of those exalted natures which/Will only yield to kindness!"). Will Lisa really be happy loving him blindly, dumbly, deafly (as opposed to madly, truly, deeply)? I must doubt that. The only couple clearly destined for each other are Rudolph and the Baroness - but in the libretto as Gilbert wrote it Rudolph seems to end up at the final curtain with the Princess of Monte Carlo. One might make a strong case for saying that there are no "happy endings" at the final curtain at all.

I think the main problem with the libretto, over and above the flabbiness of the writing and the over-complexity of the plot, is that it's an attempt to return to the old topsy-turvy style which Gilbert now seems frankly tired with. It's an attempt at rollicking entertainment, which has gone somehow sour in the barrel.

In fact, I was reminded of a review of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World written by J.B. Priestley, and which I read recently. Noting that the film was "not really funny at all, but violent and cruel", Priestley suggests that the film-makers, attempting to emulate the innocent old silent comedies, were unable to revive the old style, but in the attempt to do so "began dredging up out of the dark of their minds more and more disgust and contempt and hatred". They tried to make "an explosive celluloid of belly laughs", but because their hearts were not really in the attainment of such an innocent goal, they ended up with "a savage satire of the kind of society, really a sort of Hell, we are striving so hard to maintain".

It occurred to me that perhaps something like this happened with The Grand Duke. Gilbert was clearly trying to write a purely entertaining opera, in the old style, but there was a lot of bitterness trying to find an outlet, and he was no longer comfortable with the old style. My evidence for saying this is the libretto itself. If he was not bitter, why is there so much bitterness in the libretto? I don't think he put it there deliberately: he didn't sit down to write a savage indictment of selfish, immoral, unfeeling behaviour - he didn't set out to write a flop. It just worked its way out of Gilbert's mind and onto the page. In its own way, the comedy is much more cruel even than his great satire on selfishness, Engaged. It portrays a cold, brutal world where no one seems inclined even to pretend to like each other any more.

There are good things in The Grand Duke - chiefly, I must admit, the music. But I am not at all surprised that it failed. The technical weaknesses of the libretto don't matter so much - there have been worse librettos in that sense which have succeeded brilliantly in the theatre. But the opera leaves the audience feeling slightly sour and not at all happy with itself. A Sondheim audience might be able to cope with that, but not, I suggest, the usual G&S audience.

MICHAEL WALTERS: In The Grand Duke, Gilbert is holding up to ridicule the 19th century prima donna actress who sees everything in life in terms of theatrical convention, and who must, by reason of the fact that she is the leading actress, play the leading part in every production, however unsuited she may be to it. I don't think one is meant to look at the personal relationships realistically. The point is that in a stage production one may be required to make passionate and convincing love to someone whom off-stage, you can't bear. That you succeed is a tribute to your acting skills. Gilbert's joke is the absurdity of applying this to "real" life.

DIANA BURLEIGH: I don't agree that it is not a good work but I think there is something in the theory that Gilbert was trying to return to his old style (having deliberately broken the mold with Utopia) and some of the over complexity is a result of trying to force his humour. I also think he omitted to go through his usual polishing stage and what we have is rather raw. All the stuff about the binoculars and drains can be cut without any loss.

Michael Walters, with whom I have disagreed in letters for at least 20 years, may be surprised to know that I absolutely agree with his comments about Julia and love. But then it fits with my previously posted notion of the whole opera being about acting and seeming.

SAM L. CLAPP: Always one for putting in my oar, I must bring up my own notion of The Grand Duke, now somewhat influenced by some of your recent enlightening posts . . .

What if The Grand Duke is Gilbert's commentary on the personal constructs around him? It can scarcely be denied that Ludwig's unending sicknesses (if you will) and the Roulette Song could refer to Sullivan . . . the company which has certain people play certain parts because those actors demanded it could refer to the D'Oyly Carte! Gilbert - ever the c.y.a. expert - buries this satire among others, just as he has done in all the other Savoy Operas. . . Or is this overly topsy-turvy opera a parody of topsyturveydom itself?

My thesis is that in Grand Duke, it gets personal . . . .

ANDREW CROWTHER: Diana's view of The Grand Duke is, in my opinion. Role-playing in one form or another is surely the big uniting theme of the opera. In fact, I think this is one of the reasons why I don't like the opera very much. It all seems rather self-regarding and self-indulgent - in keeping with the "decadent" mood of the 1890s, perhaps, but as far as I'm concerned not very interesting of itself.

Looking at the song "Were I a king in very truth", with its allusions to actors who won't rehearse properly and actresses who insist on wearing revealing tights, it occurred to me - could Gilbert have been thinking all the way back to Thespis in 1871? The cast was certainly under-rehearsed, and Nellie Farren played Mercury in a costume which drew great attention to her legs, in accordance with the preoccupations of the day.

Page created 22 March 1998