Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Part 7 - Gender Bashing

Harriet Meyer: I had the opportunity to discuss Princess Ida with Professor Jane Stedman after a talk she gave in February. Professor Stedman emphasized to me that how Ida is interpreted is of profound importance. My wish, as an audience member, is that Ida is not neglected but rather is revived in interpretations that are not unidimensionally antifeminist.

Those who have read Stedman's book on Gilbert know her view that Gilbert was not bashing women's higher education in Ida. Victorian society was doing that already without his help (she quotes some published contemporary examples). So, the counterpoint to prevailing custom that typically resulted in Gilbertian topseyturveydom would not be achieved by ridicule of women's higher ed. The result, according to Stedman, was a straighter script that Sullivan appreciated as an opportunity.

I agree that men don't come off well in Ida either. The brothers as well provide ridicule for war. Ida seems to dissect extremism of all sorts, which need not always be identified with the women's college.

Much in the dialogue, however, does seem extremely harsh towards women's aspirations. I find in the recorded Ida - music and no dialogue - a more sympathetic work. Consider the beauty and sympathy in "The world is but a broken toy," "If you'd climb the Helicon," and "I built upon a rock."

Tom Shepard: I believe that Ida has to stay relatively true to its period, whatever that may be - my knowledge of Medieval Hungary being minimal at best - but the point that I feel is important is that whether we like it or not, Gilbert does a fair amount of bashing of woman, and, although he takes Man apart in "The Ape and the Lady" it is so clearly from the point of view of an obsessed intellectual female pedant that we are inclined not to take her too seriously. So Ida, as a Victorian piece, despite some wonderful women, and the founding of Girton, and Tennyson's poem etc. etc. - Ida is fundamentally not kindly to women. But it is funny and is clearly a child of its time.

I feel it is a great mistake to try and wrest some other - perhaps ironical - message out of this libretto. Let it be what it is: Victorian Sexism. Trust the 20th century audience to apply its own more enlightened sensibilities to these antique propositions, but please let's not encourage revisionist directors to place Ida (and her sidekick, Xena) on Ios or The Planet of the Apes, visited by bearded aliens who are then brought to their knees by Amazonian intelligence and super-strength.

Then there is the drag version: Princess Ira. I think I'll skip this one too!

Harriet Meyer: Revisionism was not suggested in the prior message; perhaps you were responding more broadly.

Others have stated they enjoy Ida because of its wonderful satire of feminism in its ridiculous extremes. Conceivably, a production could emphasize the antifeminism at the expense of other satire and themes, such as idealism, growth in personal understanding, and the war between the sexes (ever good box office, it seems).

Tennyson wrote a paean to a professorial warrior princess. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that the interesting but overblown (in my opinion) work still commanded interest a couple of decades later when Gilbert lampooned it in a "respectful perversion." I would not advocate a revival of Gilbert's Princess, but I am all for the endurance of Princess Ida. Ida is not strictly antifeminism or anti-women's education, and it has beautiful music and wonderful moments. I'm simply against an interpretation that would emphasize only the antifeminist element. Stedman thinks the interpretation is important. For "interpretation" read latitude and choice. Is interpretation revisionism? I think not.

A subjective inclination that I don't share. For instance, I don't think Psyche is a pedant and see nothing wrong with an "obsessed intellectual female." (Blanche is pedantry.) Is this (and many other places in Ida) a case of "consider the source" or "the jury will disregard the remark"? Ie, even if we discount the words because of the speaker, don't the words register?

[in the voice of Paul Harvey:] page 95:

Movies like Woman of the Year, which show the heroine up and steer her safely from worldly achievement in the end, are worth watching, not because of the obligatory safe-for-the-time domesticated ending but for the spectacle of a trailblazing heroine, and I think Ida, in dramatizing a woman's college and its fearless leader, can have similar appeal.

Perhaps Ida uncannily can please those of all stripes, and those who thought it was all a joke on feminists can leave happily arm-in-arm with others who feel pleased for entirely different reasons.

Tom Shepard: Yes, I was responding more broadly, but I still disagree about Psyche's "Ape and the Lady." To me, the song is more about the extremism of her belief than it is a legitimate indictment of men. Nevertheless, Harriet, you not only mean well, but you do know. It is a pleasure to read your posts.

Harriet Meyer: "They intend to send a wire to the moon" can be taken, first, as a great set-up of bluestockings, and some will see only that. But the mockery is not exactly flattering to the mockers, and perhaps anyone (of any gender) who has ever had an idea dismissed or an enterprise ridiculed will identify. So, in Ida, indeed, it's not always "a gender thing."

Tom Shepard: And reading Stedman has taught me that, Princess Ida aside, WSG fought rather hard for women's dignity and social equality in his straight plays. I think that perhaps WSG was sufficiently comfortable with his own social liberalism to allow himself to take a few less-than-liberal shots at what he construed as unreasoning or unreasonable feminism.

But, of course, I may be just all wrong.

Gordon Pascoe: Princess Ida is my favourite G&S. Not without flaws, true. But despite these flaws (blank verse dialogue, mainly) it does more for me than any other opera in the canon.

This just might be an example of Modern Sexism, and nothing to do with Victorians. Sexism? How? If by sexism we mean "portraying one sex in a more unkindly light than the other" it is ridiculous.

Human kind (of both sexes) as portrayed in Princess Ida are shown to have all sorts failings. Gama is sooooo narrrsty! Hildebrand is bombastic. The warrior trio are none too bright (though smart enough to take off that clumsy armour). The Heroic Trio are somewhat conceited like several other G&S male or female leads; they are harmlessly pleasant, I think, and full of fun; they are not peas-in-a-pod but have their own character. The very young Ida is misguided (not surprisingly for one who must self-educate herself). Psyche is wonderfully normal and has a teasing and playful wit as shown in The Ape Song (and the men don't cry "sexism" but take it rather good naturedly for the harmless fun it is). Blanche is a scheming, conniving, ambitious person; and, instead of reserving these Sir Joseph Porter characteristics only for men, Gilbert is very even-handed in his treatment. Melissa is both fun and very sensible; and has enough sense to realise the foolishness of war (oh, if only there were more Melissas!), to outmanoever (was this last word sexist, I wonder?) her mother, and charm-wrap a very willing Florian around her little finger.

Gilbert puts the idea of women's education up front and centre. Sadly, an amazing thing in his time and day, although his detractors will complain the actual plot doesn't help "the cause." Yet, I repeat, the idea was UP FRONT and CENTRE - not swept under a carpet. This was the man, who perhaps more than any other in his generation, made it acceptable for "respectable" women to go on the stage. The man who treated women, as far as I can gather, as equals - if they deserved it. (I often think of Gilbert when Shaw's line for Professor Higgins about treating everybody equally well or badly without regard to class etc etc is spoken in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady).

I know that there are those who will not agree with me in this, or who will impugn Gilbert's motives, but this is how I feel about the greatest DIRECTOR of his age.

Robert Jones: I heard once of a '70s or '80s pro-feminist production that interpolated songs such as "I am Woman" but left the opera otherwise intact. To my mind, they totally missed the point, whether that point is outright anti-feminism or Victorian feminist tolerance. Or whatever.

Is the opera misogynistic? It seems to ridicule equally female education, male dominance, war-mongering, male romanticism, stereotypical female "weaknesses", and no doubt others. Perhaps the ridicule of female education is one that is difficult to accept in the late 20th century, though no doubt it was just as worthy a butt of humour a hundred years ago.

The outward anti-feminism of Ida has always bothered me and I sometimes find it hard to justify, not necessarily its creation and production, but its acceptance as a modern performance.

Steve Sullivan: I would like to put forth the argument that WSG bashes Women and Men equally in Princess Ida. Gama and his three sons are certainly glorious examples of everything that is wrong/right with being male. And the Monkey Shaved certainly makes some valid points. But what everyone remembers is They Intend to Send a Wire to the Moon.

I say that WSG give criticism equally to men and women in Princess Ida. It is just our modern sensitivity that causes us to react more strongly to the criticism of women.

Deborah E Sager: I agree with what Harriet has written here, and what Steve posted in a previous letter.

I'm going to paraphrase Peter Kline (I think it was in his book I read this) and point out that the brothers also serve the purpose of showing how much smarter Ida is than everyone else in her family. I would include Gama in this also.

Page created 11 May 1998