Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



ANDREW CROWTHER: After Utopia Limited, D'Oyly Carte said, "There is no doubt in my mind that what the public want now is simply 'fun' and little else." It seems clear to me that Gilbert made a deliberate effort to provide exactly that in The Grand Duke - the full Gilbertian bag of tricks. But he was tiring of the old style now, and it all sounds a little jaded and secondhand.

The troupe of actors is from Thespis. The idea of legal death is from Tom Cobb. (One of Rudolph's speeches is suspiciously close to one of Tom Cobb's.) The idea of arranged marriage in the nobility (with money problems involved) is from The Brigands.

Gilbert was 60 in 1896, the year of The Grand Duke. In 1897 he "retired" to Grim's Dyke, and though he continued to write sporadically, his career was effectively over. He had, I think, more or less written himself out.

Of course, he could still write effectively, and there are many good things in The Grand Duke. But the spark of brilliance, the indefinable note of genius . . . Is it there? I can't see it.

DOUGLAS WHALEY: I think it is interesting that both Gilbert and Sullivan realized that the libretto was the major problem with The Grand Duke. Sullivan wrote a friend five days after the premiere "Why reproach me? I didn't write the book. Another week's rehearsal with W.S.G. and I should have gone raving mad. I had already ordered some straw for my hair." Two days after the opening, Gilbert wrote to a friend: "I am not a proud Mother, and I never want to see the ugly misshapen little brat again."

Gilbert's librettos get worse as he gets older and recycles more and more material. Sullivan, on the other hand, was good until the end, with no obvious lessening of his wonderful ability to express a lyric in perfectly matching music.

ROBERT JONES: I like the plot very much, but I do think it's far too complicated. How much does an audience understand after witnessing a performance?

JUDITH S. WEIS: I think that most of the audience doesn't realize that two statutory duels have taken place, rather than one, and are confused as to how Ludwig has managed to become the Grand Duke.

ROBERT JONES: Not least because Ernest vanishes so early in the piece and doesn't reappear until much later. Many people, having totally forgotten him, must be very confused by his duet with Julia. At least Rudolph is well established before his disappearance. I never had a problem with this. But you do have to listen carefully during the finale.

KELSEY THORNTON: I saw this show for the first time in Buxton last year, along with three friends. None of us had any difficulty in following the plot, whether there were one or two duels, just how many people were promised in marriage to Rudolph, and when, etc. . . .I just found some parts of the show dragged immensely.

ROBERT JONES: I actually enjoy the idiocy of the plot, though it could come out puerile if not handled well. As for the duel . . . yes, it is rather lame, but perhaps it would work if the entire cast plays total morons. Come to think of it, Ernest is the only one who shows signs of intellect, and he's the first one to be caught out. The Baroness doesn't seem too stupid, but she must be to marry Rudolph (or the Prince, or any of them, really). Julia may appear intelligent, but that's just a language barrier.

PAUL McSHANE: In my view, only three characters really come to life - Rudolph, Ludwig and Julia. Rudolph has a lot in common with King Gama, but is more snobbish, less assertive and less misanthropic. His niggardliness gives him a unique place in the list of Gilbertian characters.

Ludwig is overexposed in the opera (like Frederick in Pirates), but is a cheerful, likable and personable individual, with plenty of ideas and views of his own.

Julia has more passion and fire than any other Gilbertian female apart from Katisha, and is possibly the best dramatic soprano creation in the G&S repertoire.

That makes three first-class characters, but I feel that the rest are relatively uninspiring, and fail to sparkle in the libretto.

Ernest is a fairly average tenor part (although he has some good moments in the First Act, and is not nearly as insipid as Alexis, for instance). The Baroness puffs and blows like a typical Gilbertian contralto, but her character is forgettable. Lisa is the most miserable leading lady in G&S. Others, led by the Notary, have some good dialogue, but their personalities do not impress themselves on us.

Compare this with other operas in the canon, and you'll see that one of Gilbert's (relative) failings in The Grand Duke is the lack of memorable Dramatis Personae.

BRUCE WALTON: I think of the book of The Grand Duke as a good idea, poorly executed. The potential humour of Ludwig's multiple wives problem is considerable and Statutory duels are a very funny idea, but I have never seen or performed in any production where this good material has really worked. Here are three reasons why (related to Gilbert's material, not to performance practice).

Firstly, as others have mentioned, the Monte Carlos' are not properly explained - one easily-missed reference in lib in Act I and then nothing till they suddenly show up near the end, throwing the audience into confusion. Other similar "time bomb" plot devices in other Savoy operas are much more clearly introduced (eg "Long years ago" when Patience sets up the Grosvenor love interest, '"I stole the prince" when Don Alhambra sets up for Inez). Was WSG getting a bit sloppy in his old age?

Also, the "According to professional position" excuse for why Ludwig's got to marry Julia seems pretty unconvincing to me. Maybe this rang more true to a Victorian audience, when this kind of "pecking order" thing was more common practice in theatrical companies.

Lastly, the fact that the company are doing Troilus And Cressida, and then Ludwig's decree that everybody's going to wear the costumes from it, are both thrown away rather by WSG, and consequently are easily missed. The average audience member could be forgiven for being completely bemused by the opening of Act II, unless they've read the programme notes carefully. Besides which, I don't think it's funny.

DR. CLIVE WOODS: My contact with The Grand Duke is limited to reading the script once, playing through the score once or twice only, hearing one or two of the famous numbers in concerts, and attending one complete performance (at Otley, near Bradford, last year). I think the sausage rolls device is plausible - it's no sillier than some of the "identification" routines that secret agents set up in the more humorous spy novels, and of course it is meant to be ridiculous. The Statutory Duels I find harder to accept, both because of the concept itself (which as far as I know is unique) and because I think it's unlikely anyone would get as far as actually taking part in one without finding out the precise regulations beforehand.

The plot I understood at first reading. I'm not saying I spotted every little nuance, nor am I saying it is worth a Nobel Prize, but it was no harder than an average short story. Of course, in reading a script, one has the luxury of going back to check things that happened earlier, which one doesn't have in a live performance, but I didn't have to do that much. The plot was also clear in the Otley production, but they had done an intelligent editing job, adding a "music-hall" type MC to summarise at crucial points.

ANDREW CROWTHER: Max Keith Sutton noted in his article "The Significance of The Grand Duke" that its plot has strange similarities with ancient "fertility ritual": "The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring . . . Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel - the moment of ritual sacrifice - and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule."

I usually find these anthropological/mythological interpretations pretty unconvincing, but in this case the similarity seems surprisingly clear. Rudolph is the Old King - ill, wornout, universally despised - and he is replaced by Ludwig, a figure of comic extravagance - suspiciously like the Fool's Bishop of the medieval Feast of Fools, who is given the trappings of power for the duration of the feast. The Feast of Fools is usually described in terms of the normal rules of society being turned upside-down - a very Gilbertian concept. But when the Feast is over, the old authorities return, and, the licensed rebellion having released everyone's aggression, they remain nicely docile for the rest of the year. So in The Grand Duke, Rudolph is restored to his position of power, and we hear nothing more about revolution or nasty things of that sort.

I wonder if Gilbert could possibly have been dipping a little into Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the first volumes of which appeared in 1890? Fertility rituals like the above were the meat and drink of The Golden Bough.

THEODORE C. RICE: I hadn't thought about a connection between Rudolph and the Fool's Bishop tradition, but once pointed out, it seems entirely clear. It could, of course be the old rite, in which the now useless king is killed by the incoming king, but the killing would be anathema to Gilbert.

I went over the book and D'OC CD together a couple of days ago, and I can't say anything bad about The Grand Duke. The music is new, fresh, bouncy, and sparkling. The dialogue, if not all the above, is certainly no worse than any of the others; the plot is certainly no more inane than, say, Princess Ida.

ARTHUR ROBINSON: The plot of The Grand Duke seems straightforward to me (and I've had trouble figuring out other authors' plots). My theory (which some of you may disprove) is that anyone who pays attention in reading or watching The Grand Duke will find the plot simple, but that because much of the dialogue is dull, readers will skip ahead and miss important plot points (if they miss the brief reference to the Princess of Monte Carlo in Act I, the last half of the second act will make no sense), then claim the plot is too complicated. (I have known readers of tightly-plotted detective stories to skip to the end, not understand the solution because they missed the setup, and complain that the plot makes no sense.) On the 1994 Savoy Company tape of The Grand Duke, I believe the adjudicator said he had read the play three times and not understood the plot, but it came across clearly in the production. I wonder how carefully he read it. (The production made some judicious cuts, which helped - though they also left out a few of my favourite lines.)

My opinion, the libretto is uneven, with a lot of terrible dialogue and a few bad lyrics (I voted "The die is cast" as the worst in G&S; also the forced rhyme "diskiver" is atrocious - at least "ghoest," though desperate, is amusing). But there are a lot of excellent lyrics and plenty of funny lines, and though the plot takes a while to get going, I like the four-wives payoff; so if the libretto is carefully pruned, the show will hold modern audiences.

Page created 22 March 1998