Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Characters (concluded)

2.6 - Gama
2.6.1 - Gama and Blanche

2.6 - Gama

John Shea: I'll add my voice to those who have enjoyed playing King Gama. A key to making him effective, I think, is to play his first song as straight as possible, not with an air of "Isn't this clever of me?" but with genuine bewilderment that his good intentions should always end up being misinterpreted. (And isn't this generally true of Gilbert's comedy - that it comes from the characters saying everything they say with utter seriousness?

King Gama

Bob Richards: I certainly had a great deal of fun with Gama, basing the characterisation more on Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh rather than Laurence Olivier as Richard III.

Paul McShane: Does anyone else think that Gama would have made a good King of Id?

Philip Sternenberg: Of course, since he didn't seem to be affected by an Ego!

Robert Jones: Gama is a very unpleasant person. He is used to getting away with being a very unpleasant person. But now he's been imprisoned and he's being tortured in a most deliberately apposite way. The punishment is fitting the crime. The poor wretch has nothing to complain about, which is a major complaint.

I see him in Act I as a powerful, if unlovely, potentate. I see him in Act II as a powerful, still unlovely, impotent potentate. He's a strong character in Act I. Why should not people remember him later and continue to enjoy his unloveliness? He is integral to the plot, because, after all, it's all his fault.

Aaron Hunt: Does anyone other than myself feel that Gama fits "oddly" into the Princess Ida package?

Gama seems a uniquely Gilbertian invention, while the other characters could easily have belonged to almost any writer of any period. In researching Gama for auditions, and I should add here that I've yet to play it, so perhaps I went astray, Gama "shakes up" the action, not only directly, but indirectly as well, seeming to my ears to be begging for a caricature portrait, rather than the "realer" characters that I find otherwise in the piece.

Certainly there is only one dynamic in Gama's dialogue. He is continually acerbic and judgmental in all matters, indeed with all characters, including his daughter, Ida. Is the only way to play this, then, to walk with crooked legs, carry about a nasty leer, and glare at everyone from under furrowed brow?

My confusion is further compounded by the vocal writing for Gama, which, in it's range is similar to Wells, and seems to me to be better delivered by a "Green" voice than a "Reed" voice. However, singing it this way is definitely a dichotomy against the dialogue . . . is that, then, where some of the humor is to be found? Has Sullivan "rounded" him out for us, allowing us to hear a human side in the voice that the spoken word seems to decry?

Michael Nash: The second time I played Gama, for Woodhouses OS two years ago, his physical appearance was totally traditional - I had an enormous hump strapped to my back, and I wore one built-up boot and one normal one, which forced me to walk crookedly. I was also made up about thirty years older! As for his voice, I spoke and sang in a sharp (in tone, not in pitch) but clear voice, obeying the musical values of the tunes to the letter (or rather, to the crotchet). When I came to the line, "I'm sure I'm no ascetic, I'm as pleasant as can be," in the third verse of "If you give me your attention", I (at the suggestion of my singing teacher) burst into the richest baritone voice I could muster, then returned to the sharp-but-clear voice for "with a crushing repartee". After all, G&S is comic OPERA, and the characters sing - even the "nasty" ones.

As for the blank verse, I found it actually helped me remember my lines, as they flowed in a natural rhythm. (I had far more trouble remembering all my lines as Ko-Ko.) Perhaps for other characters who only chip in a single line and then someone else responds, the blank verse may be more of a problem, but certainly for Gama whose dialogue is mostly a few long monologues (if that's not a contradiction in terms), it made it easier. For me, anyway.

For the record, I love Princess Ida for all the reasons others have already mentioned - terrific music, witty lyrics, a different "blueprint" from the other operas; and Gama is such fun to play, even if he's only on for a short time.

Michael Walters: Gama seems a uniquely Gilbertian invention, All the other characters were taken over, more or less as they were, from Tennyson. Gama is a total transformation by Gilbert, of the original. Tennyson describes him thus:

His name was Gama, cracked and small his voice,
But bland the smile that like a winter wind on glassy water
Drove his cheek in lines.
A little dry old man, without a star.

Charles Schlotter: That, I suspect, explains why Princess Ida, despite many good tunes and clever lyrics, has never been a great favorite. Gilbert's perversion of Tennyson is too respectful. He does breathe a bit of life into the poet's characters but stands only one of them on his head.

Plenty of topsy, not enough turvy.

Michael Walters: I have played him three times and he is my favourite character to play (in all theatre, not merely in G&S. Now that may say something about my character - I leave it to others to say!). I think the key lies in the last line of each verse of his first song, "I can't think why". In other words, while he is behaving abominably, he really believes he's a charming person and can't understand why nobody likes him. Read The Palace of Truth in which the words everybody speaks are exactly the opposite of what each person thinks they are saying.

I may add that of all Reed's roles, his Gama was the one I hated most! It struck me an object lesson in how not to play it. Sorry if that sounds pompous.

Gerry Howe: Interestingly, Lytton's interpretation was much closer to Reed: very acidulated and peevish in tone.

Ed Glazier: I've played Gama twice for the Stanford Savoyards and had a wonderful time. His intrinsic nastiness is quite a change from the rest of the patter baritones and I gleefully delivered all my venom with a smile.

Following each Savoyard performance, at the end of the curtain calls, one of the leads gives a curtain speech, thanking the audience and inviting them to meet the company in the rehearsal hall beneath the stage. Since it is not intuitively obvious how to get there, some directions must be given as well. Since the patter baritone is usually the one called upon to give this speech, I have done it quite frequently, although when I played Jack Point, I declined to do it.

It was only when I played Gama that I actually enjoyed giving this speech. I remained in character as Gama and said something like this:

I am very unhappy. You have been a wonderful audience and I have nothing to grumble at. Please meet the cast in the torture chamber - uh, rehearsal hall - downstairs. Oh, and the next time you come to see a Savoyard show, bring a friend - if you have one!

Andrew Crowther: Gilbert said (somewhere) that Gama was supposed to be a self-portrait, as others saw him. I.e. he thought his reputation as a bad-tempered man ill-deserved. This is a bit complex, because irony brings in a lot of ambiguities: one can imagine Gilbert saying in real life: "Everybody says I am a disagreeable man, and I can't think why!" In fact, I believe he did say things with this meaning more than once, and without irony. But obviously the old Gilbertian irony is in operation when Gama says it. And Gilbert quoted the line in a speech he made near the end of his life - with perfect seriousness of expression which must have been a "dead-pan". In other words, Gama was partly suggested by Gilbert's public reputation; but I believe Gilbert also realised - sometimes - that this portrait was partly true.

Alex Feldman: I'll just throw this out for comment . . . a friend of mine has a rather detailed argument that Gama is supposed to represent Richard III. He has a lot of supporting evidence, like the fact that the third letter of the Greek alphabet (usually transliterated "gamma") is what would be used to denote the third of the line by the Greeks, as the Roman numeral III is now used in English. There was a whole bunch of other stuff . . . of course, Richard never had kids, etc., etc., and I'm not going to defend the thesis - but I thought I'd mention it.

Louis Wernick: The noted operatic composer Richard Wagner made a very successful and dignified career of hanging ideas of his personal creation on characters whose names have easily traceable references in literature, as Parsifal and Fricka. When the audience comes to the theater today to hear Wagner operas, they are essentially watching familiar characters sing lines created by Wagner to support his own ideas. WS Gilbert may have, in fact, done much the same thing, giving characters he set up so they would be recognizable to those with interest in literature, but onstage giving them perfectly delightful and enjoyable lines representing WSG's OWN point of view!

Ronald Orenstein: I have often thought that Gama was the G&S role Groucho Marx should have played, instead of Ko-Ko . . . .

Kenton L Chambers: In the production in which I played King Gama, he was not made a cripple and his voice was not a scratchy, cracking "Reed" voice, and the characterization was therefore somewhat different from Gilbert's intent. Some lines were rewritten, to refer to Gama's character rather than his physical appearance. He retained his cranky, spiteful, thoroughly unpleasant personality, of course. Gama's two songs and his Act I dialogue are quite sufficient for the audience to appreciate his attributes, although he's missing-in-action for much of the show. G&S cognoscente will appreciate how unique Gama's personality is among all Gilbert's patter-men; even the "highly spiced" Bunthorne doesn't criticize other peoples faults the way Gama does.

I think you are RIGHT ON in saying Sullivan's music humanizes Gama and is playfully at odds with the grim aspects of his character. Sullivan's tune for "Oh, don't the days seem lank and long" could just as well accompany a group of happy children skipping hand in hand across a village green. Gama is a characature (perhaps of WSG himself, as I think has been noted by certain commentators), but so are his sons - at least, in our production, they were as close as you could get to The Three Stooges. Given that most of the other characters are more "real," is it not a feature of Ida that it contains a wider range of character-types than any other G&S opera?

Rica Mendes: Personally, I think Gilbert made Gama the patter baritone because he had to have a patter baritone. And I think that it was a big mistake. Gama sticks out like a sore thumb - though he ought not be a pleasant character, musically his numbers don't fit in at all. I think the one song that, of all the canon, does not belong in the opera in which it is put is Gama's complaining song in the last half of the opera <name of said number flies right over my head>. Why would he sing to the girls? Why are the girls listening? Ugh. It makes no sense placement wise and it is musically inconsistent.

Marc Shepherd: Well, this happens throughout the Savoy Operas, doesn't it? Someone sings a song, the chorus listens and echoes what the character has said.

I do agree that Gilbert "had to have a patter baritone," in two senses. The first, in that all the preceding operas had had one, and this was seen as a successful formula worth repeating. And second, in that he had a popular company of "stock" performers, and he needed to find a role for each of them. It is worth noting that there is no character in the Tennyson poem like Gama: he is a pure Gilbert creation.

Gama is one of Gilbert's most inspired creations, and many characters consider the character to be partly autobiographical. The contrast between Gama and Hildebrand in Act I is particularly clever.

You haven't said why Gama's first number doesn't "belong" in the opera. I do partly see your point about the second number. All of the other numbers in the third act are of a serious or mock-heroic character, while Gama's is purely comic. However, a successful drama needs alternating moments of tension and relief, and Gama's 3rd-act song is a moment of relief in an otherwise very dreary and heavy section of the play.

2.6.1 - Gama and Blanche

Ed Glazier: Perhaps I'll take the time here to mention a casting idea floated by the music director of the first of my two Stanford Savoyard Idas: I was cast as Gama and it was the music director's idea that I play Blanche as well. The executive producer swiftly rejected this idea, although I tried to float it again when I played my second Gama a few years later. Admittedly, it would take some creative costuming and a bit of rewriting of the last scene to eliminate Blanche, though her lines might be given to other characters - Melissa could tell us what her mother might have said, etc.

In trying to defend the idea, I suggested that perhaps Blanche and Gama could be brother and sister, and a line added to the Act I dialogue could explain this. It would go a long way to explaining why Lady Blanche, as a woman with a daughter, was at Adamant at all. As it turns out, in Tennyson's The Princess, Blanche and Gama were brother and sister, so the idea is not that far-fetched.

No pretense was made that I could sing the role as well as a woman. My contention was that it was partly a stunt that could be exploited for its publicity value and might increase attendance for the show. I suggested that we do a publicity photo of me made up for both roles. All this was to no avail, however, and the idea was rejected once again.

Page created 12 May 1998