Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



David Craven: As most people know, I don't hold Iolanthe in as high a regard as others. I, personally, find that it has a number of flaws. Rather than post all of the flaws in one large message, I am going to post a couple of shorter messages detailing what I view as flaws. Naturally, I expect that people will disagree, but I feel that an alternate viewpoint is better than an "Iolanthe Love Fest".

One major problem that I have with Iolanthe is the lack of a villain. To me a theatrical work works best when there is some degree of conflict. In my view, this is best helped by someone who, for want of a better word, is a "villain". In most of the G&S shows there is a clear and obvious villain. Yet in Iolanthe there is no real villain? Is it the usual suspect - the tenor? No, not really. For what has Tolloller done that is evil. Unlike Nanki-Poo, for instance, his love is not of a forbidden fruit and he is not avoiding legal obligations. Unlike Alexis, he is not placing himself above everyone else. The most that one can say about Tolloller and his Doppleganger (Mountararat) is that they are not too bright. In fact, rather than cause harm to each other, they both give up the girl.

In a similar fashion, no one else exhibits villainous traits. In fact, the Law Breakers, unlike Nanki Poo, are willing to face up to the consequences of their action, even if the law is not fair. To me, this lack of a villain makes all of the plot movements too artificial, and in turn, makes the work, in my view, uninteresting. Maybe I am missing something.... but I certainly don't see a villain, and in every other G&S show, I can see at least one villain...

Bill McCann: Initial thoughts. Surely The LC with his insistence that Phyllis shall not marry Strephon etc is the villain of the piece. Gilbert is having great fun here casting a law-maker as a villain I would have thought. And there is plenty of conflict in Iolanthe's own predicament.

Bill McCann: Second thought. I would not have thought that you needed an identified "villain" in order to introduce conflict into the plot anyway. Adverse situations can do that quite effectively if not quite melodramatically (I hesitate to use the word dramatically in this context, but you'll get my meaning).

Mary Ellen Kelly: In a way, isn't the "villain" of "Iolanthe" simply the dangerous absurdity of carrying out laws, decrees, social conventions, and other sundry strictures and "duties" of society to their extremes--making the piece, in effect, a sort of companion piece to "Pirates"?

Tom Shepard: I'm not sure I see a villain in PIRATES; a few paper tigers, perhaps, but not an independently-motivated villain because everyone is simply doing his or her duty.

I haven't really given this any thought, so I am probably about to be proved dead wrong. Yet I agree that there is no villain in IOLANTHE, and I guess I really like it that way.

Judith Weis: No villain in Iolanthe?? There's a whole chorus of them "You break our laws, you are our foe...You very wicked peers" There are your villains!

Bruce I. Miller: Wrong. Actually, there are two "villains" in Iolanthe, although of a more subtle variety than, for example, Katisha.

Villain #1 is the Lord Chancellor, abetted by Lords Tolloller and Mountararat, who wants to keep Phyllis for himself and away from the most suitable lover, Strephon. The audience, of course, is rooting for Strephon the whole time. Now, the LC doesn't walk around twirling a moustache, but he is nevertheless the equivalent of the Pirate King and the House of Peers the equivalent of the Pirates of Penzance, as far as plot necessities go.

Villain #2 is the Fairy Queen, who is forced to do not nice things to Iolanthe, a la Wagner.

Both the Lord Chancellor and Fairy Queen have their benign and benevolent moments, but in the story they function as villains.

As to Nanki-Poo, let's at least concede that the views expressed in David's post are distinctly a minority perspective here and, no doubt, elsewhere in Savoydom. Simply restating them doesn't make them more valid or accepted.

John Shea: In response to David Craven, I think that if there is a villain in Iolanthe it is not any person, but the law: the English law, and the fairy law. Law in general, really, insofar as it comes between human beings and their happiness.

One of my reasons for rating Iolanthe so highly in the poll was that I think it has a special flavor none of the other operas has. It is the most tender--I think that is the word I want. It is not the funniest: I think Mikado is that; it may not be the most tuneful: Gondoliers or Pinafore might be that. But Iolanthe gives me no sense of lacking either wit, humor, or melody. It has in addition some of the sharpest satire on British institutions. But it is exceptionally good-humored, the one exception I can think of being "Fold Your Flapping Wings," which is omitted from most performances for the reason that it doesn't seem consonant with the tone of the whole.

And Iolanthe is the single most sympathetic character Gilbert ever wrote, loving and self-sacrificing, without a single satiric moment. She represents for me the strength of love that Gilbert saw as the powerful counterforce to the rigidity of law. (The other instance of this theme that comes to mind, though I do not find it as moving, is the end of Ida.)

I know that some have found Iolanthe sentimental because of this. I find it a great gamble by the collaborators that succeeded because they obviously both believed in it: for me, Iolanthe is a more serious opera deep down than Yeomen, which gets a bit selfconscious and bombastic at times (give me a minute to enter my bombshelter).

Tom Drucker is right about moments that give us goosebumps: chacun a son gout. But Iolanthe's reprieve near the beginning of the show does it for me every time.

Sarah Mankowski: Bill McCann wrote: "Second thought. I would not have thought that you needed an identified "villain" in order to introduce conflict into the plot anyway. "

Mary Ellen Kelly wrote: "In a way, isn't the "villain" of "Iolanthe" simply the dangerous absurdity of carrying out laws, decrees, social conventions, and other sundry strictures and "duties" of society to their extremes."

I agree with you both. A villain doesn't have to be human; it could be a force of nature, for example. Think of all the recent disaster movies in which tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes and the like have been the villains; although Hollywood can't resist tossing in a few superfluous human villains, which, in my opinion, tend to weaken the plot. In last summer's Twister, one would have thought that chasing and avoiding killer tornadoes would be quite enough. But, nooo! They had to include a team of "bad-guy" tornado chasers. Adding villains, for the sake of adding villains, wasn't necessary. In Iolanthe, the contrasts between fairies and peers add conflict enough.

I think that of all the G&S works, Iolanthe builds to the greatest sense of anticipation at the end of Act 1. Strephon, half fairy-half man, is about to enter the House Of Peers. When I first encountered Iolanthe, I couldn't wait for Act 2! What will Gilbert do with such a delicious scenario? The very idea of placing Strephon among the peers, on their own turf, made me realize I was in for a delightful time.

But there is one thing I've never understood: How was Iolanthe able to give Strephon all that wonderful mothering from the bottom of a stream? Her exile predates his birth.

Marc Shepherd: The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Lord Chancellor is the "villain" of IOLANTHE. I put "villain" in quotes because Gilbert & Sullivan don't treat him like a villain. They don't give him villainous dialogue or a villainous musical treatment.

However, he is morally the villain, because he opposes Phyllis's marriage to the suitor she clearly wants. More pointedly, late in the opera he decides to take her for himself, introducing a conflict-of-interest that he is obviously aware of but chooses to ignore.

But, why must we insist on our operas having villains, anyway? Any number of the Savoy Operas lack a clear villain. Who is the villain of PATIENCE? Who is the villain of RUDDIGORE? Of THE GONDOLIERS?

Aaron Hunt: To the discussion of a potential "villain" in Iolanthe, I _do_ agree that the most self-serving individual, next to Phyllis, perhaps, but who will want to entertain the thought of the soprano as villain, _is_ in fact the Lord Chancellor.

Personally, I find him the far less amusing than most of the other patter roles, and there seems to be less to play in terms of character. It is so much more interesting for me to play two strong points against each other, and I find the old LC pretty one-dimensional.

Bill Snyder: Oh, my. Aaron, we have to talk!
There's been this thread about tearful spots in G&S. For me it's not so much "My Lord, a suppliant" as when the LC says "Iolanthe, thou livest!" Gilbert loves to pull the rug out from under the audience (e.g. Ur-nasty Katisha coming out w/ "Hearts do not ache") and here you have a man who has found refuge in, yes, one-dimensionally, suddenly finding that the life-partner in whom he had invested his entire soul is really alive, and .... Excuse me, I'm all verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. The subject: Lord Chancellor, neither a bad guy nor a good guy.

Now who was it -- assist me, all of you! -- who said that the key to portraying a villain was not to act the evil, but to act the hurt the person has suffered that made him/her evil?

Aaron Hunt: I think that Mr. Sales may agree that Lord Tolloller is one of the most enjoyable tenor roles to play in the cannon. Much can be said for Sullivan's genius in the writing of the vocal line for this character.

If LT is included in the Entrance of the Peers, as is so often the case, but not called for in the score, then LT has ample opportunity for removal of all "goo" before "Of all the young ladies I know...".
If not, this little "song" is beautifully placed in the tenor voice, easing LT into his evening. Tom Shepard: One of the books I have read calls attention to the rather oriental modality of this melody, something little used by Sullivan, except perhaps in Rebecca's aria from IVANHOE, I think it is "Lord of our chosen race."
If the LT of the evening does not give in to the temptation to sit on ends of those long phrases in "Blue Blood", (and why not sing the b-flat, and resolve to the a-flat at the end, eh?), then the rest of the evening is simply a frolic.

The tenor line in "If You Go In" is so lilting that the high notes are in the air before the waltz with LM really gets going, and what in all of fairydom is more fun that the line "We were boys at school together...well, at least _I_ was"?

The reason that I find LT and LM more interesting as characters than LC is that their genuine affection for each other plays against their personal agendas. Who is old LC fond of?

Nick Sales: Couldn't possibly have put it any better, Aaron me boy.

So I won't.

Suffice it to say that ahead of playing Tolloller, I didn't think I should enjoy it nearly as much as I did. It's only when you get into the mechanics of the thing that you can really begin to appreciate that it's not an underwritten tenor role (for that, see PATIENCE and GRAND DUKE in the dictionary), but nothing short of a gem, and one I hope to repeat in next year's C.A.O.S. production (12-16th May 1998), casting committee and God willing.

Barri Soreil: Dear Aaron,

It is perfectly clear (at least to me) that the LC is fond not only of Phyllis, (and to quite an extent "where they are rapidly undermining his constitution!") but his old love for Iolanthe has never died. When her hidden identity is revealed, his breathless voicing of her name never leaves me without an overwhelming feeling of tenderness and amazement. Do you not feel this to be true?

Barri Soreil: Iolanthe is definitely my favorite G&S...despite the so-called "missing villain" theory bouncing about. The villain in my eyes is the compouding problems keeping the two lovers apart. I do not feel that the LC is a villain, nor the Fairy Queen a villainess. Each is trying valiantly (The Nightmare Song), (Oh Foolish Fey) to do what they feel is right. Circumstance is the villain and the only one that is needed. I also, always have a definite lightness and airiness of spirit after a production of Iolanthe...and I have definitely seen the good, the bad, and the ugly!

Updated 28 November 1997