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Trial by Jury
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TRIAL BY JURY IN PERFORMANCE (Concluded)
LARRY T. GARVIN: Now that we've chewed over Gilbert's faulty reference to the Court of the Exchequer, perhaps we might look at the rhyme. I haven't yet attended or performed in a Trial by Jury in which that line hasn't provoked nervous laughter. Has anyone devised an innocuous substitute? Or should we just follow the dictates of W.S.G. and chance the consequences?
MICHAEL NASH: One thing to bear in mind, is that "pecker" does not have any unfortunate connotation to the British ear, except to those who are sufficiently conversant with American slang. I never realised that the word had a rude meaning until the last time this topic came up on Savoynet, and I don't think I'm the most prudish and naive person in the British Isles (fairly prudish and naive perhaps, but not the most). On this side of the pond, it simply means "mouth". In UK productions of Trial I've never heard any laughter at the line "Be firm, be firm my pecker" the only time I've heard a laugh at that point is during the Festival in Philly.
Consequently I don't believe for a moment that Gilbert had any double entendre in mind when he wrote the line. It's just our 20th Century dirty minds at work. (Another line which I have heard provoke nervous laughter is "A fairy member! That would be delightful.")
KELSEY THORNTON: Am I the only one who doesn't feel embarrassed by this line? The "pecker" is the "Stiff upper lip" that we Brits are supposed to have. It was this in Gilbert's time and still is. Phrases such as "Keep your pecker up" are still (occasionally) used in Britain.
In the Festival Production of Trial in Berkeley, the Defendant was obviously very uncomfortable singing this line, and suggested several alternatives, some better than others, finally plumping for "My name is Edwin Becker."
Unlike use of the "nword" in Mikado and Ida, I really see no need to change this.
Why are you Americans so prudish? :)
NEIL ELLENOFF: Because we have a higher moral tone of course.
ANDREW SOLOVAY: Please explain again why it's obscene to spell Ruddigore with a "Y"...
MICHAEL RICE: I think that the more appropriate question should be why are they such morons? When I directed Trial by Jury, even the cast would let out a snicker at that moment, even during the final dress.
NEIL ELLENOFF: I think that reaction shows exceptional brilliance. The irony of a super Victorian like WSG writing a line that is not only smutty but within the context of Trial By Jury unexpectedly should provoke a reaction. It is exactly the type of amusement that would be funny time after time. Your cast was not moronic, merely attentive and not dead.
MICHAEL RICE: They are not attentive... they are morons. I explained to them at the first rehearsal, even before they read it or heard it sung, what it meant. Yet, they still snickered like little kids who hear a "dirty word". It's fine the first time, but it gets very tiresome after a period of 2 months.
ANDREW SOLOVAY: Which maybe should have convinced you that the line needed changing.
MICHAEL RICE: Whenever we got to that point we would have to stop and do things over again. Even, as I said in my previous message, during the final dress. If that is not moronic, I don't know what is.
NEIL ELLENOFF: It is so unexpected (even if you expect it) that I can understand the snickers. I can understand, however, that it must be incredibly exasperating. I also do agree that it becomes terminal silliness after awhile.
ANDREW SOLOVAY: In America, "Be firm my pecker" is on a par with "The nigger serenader" a line that just doesn't work here, now, however it might have worked for WSG back then. (I don't recall ever hearing "be firm my pecker" sung in the US.)
Mind you, in the Naughty Marietta I was recently in, there were sniggers clear through tech rehearsal when the American captain said "I've got three frigates in the harbor"...
PETER MEASON: Come on now there is no comparison to be made between a word that is offensive and shows irreverence to a particular ethnic group and a word which happens to be slang in a particular idiom of the English Language. Having said that, the time may well come, as a result of our shrinking world, that such slang terms may converge throughout the English speaking nations.
ANDREW SOLOVAY: There is indeed a comparison to be made, and I'm amaking it. Both words have connotations for a modern American audience which they didn't for a Victorian one. Those connotations (racial hatred in one case, phallic excitement in the other) are so strong that the original meaning of the line is drowned out. Yes, an educated audience can stop, think a moment, and say, "Oh, of course, Gilbert didn't mean 'penis', he meant 'upper lip'" but the very fact that the audience has to think about it is proof that the line is distracting.
I'm not especially squeamish on either count. I have no problem with "The negro they'll be bleaching by and by". And I rather wish the "The Irish are the niggers of Europe" speech (in the short story The Commitments) hadn't been cleaned up for the movie (the speech is SUPPOSED to have shock value). Similarly, when WSG actually INTENDS a sexual double entendre (like "She may have as many salutes as she likes" in Gondoliers), by all means, says I, go there. But when a line is written innocently, and (by linguistic accident) changes meaning that drastically, then pull out the scalpel and fix it.
PETER MEASON: Incidentally, I don't recall titles or names involving the word "Fanny" ever being changed in England, even though the slang usage could, I suppose, be construed as being offensive, even though it is a legitimate diminution of the names Francis or Fenella.
FRASER CHARLTON: A friend of mine had reason to wish that such titles were changed when he had to sing a song by Ivor Novello (I think) called "I'm looking for Fanny in the park"...
Apparently the audience loved it...
NEIL ELLENOFF: Harold Rome wrote a whole successful show called "Fanny". The title song uses the name repeatedly. No riots occurred in New York. In Britain I believe the name was changed to Pecker.
SHELDON BROWN: ...two great nations divided by a "common" language...
There is a U.S.made bicycle trailer called a "Bugger" (tm). I have met cyclists who have traveled with these in Britain, and who have received so much grief that they had to cover up the model name with tape to avoid giving offense... so, should I ask why are the British so prudish?
The answer is that these terms, in fact, have different meanings in the different flavors of the mother tongue spoken on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
That said, I'll agree that a great many Americans are, in fact prudish.
JOHN ATKINSON: Sheldon Brown thinks Americans are more prudish. In some ways yes, in other ways no. I look forward to discussions about where Gilbert may have slipped in cockney rhyming slang, however.
TOM SHEPARD: Yes we're prudish and I'm sorry about this. But in the unique case of "Be firm, my pecker" there is no American of our generation who cannot think about the priapic desires of the defendant, and then, perhaps we'll remember that it all only means "stiff upper lip". So, I prefer not changing WSG, but I must reckon with the inevitable misunderstanding that will occur unless we change "pecker" to "ticker" a poor rhyme, but at least closer to the English intention.
I am not advocating this adjustment, and I don't defend our prudishness, but words like "pecker" and "fairy" inevitably produce a normal association in our idiom that we Americans must then put aside in favor of the historical meanings of these words.
A nice dilemma we have here.
IAN HOLLAMBY: So, the reference to a firm pecker gets a laugh in the U.S.? So what? It is supposed to be a comic opera, and a laugh engendered by Gilbert's original libretto can hardly be frowned at. Humorous references to the male generative organ have a long (sorry) provenance, including such Shakespearian gems as, "Pistol's cock is up, and flashing fire shall follow". A laugh produced by this kind of reference, even if unintended by Gilbert, cannot be compared to the "N" word in the list song, which is now merely offensive without containing a grain of humour.
MARYJO KELLEHER: Trial by Jury was one of my rare stage appearances. I believe our Defendant sang:
"Is this the Court of the Exchequer?
LARRY BYLER: Paul Zawilski (the Defendant in the Berkeley production) played the same role in Lyric Theatre's Trial in 1995. In that production, the stage director refused to even consider using "pecker" and came up with the following substitution:
Defendant: Is this the court of failed romances?
BRUCE I. MILLER: So many programs have glossaries explaining obscure references; this seems like an obvious one to include.
MARC SHEPHERD: I have never been particularly fond of the "putitintheprogramnotes" approach, because it is my experience that an overwhelming number of audience members simply do not read such notes.
BRUCE I. MILLER: Another thought. One of the variant texts is "Be firm, my moral pecker". A good actor might be able to do something with the word "moral" so it would be unmistakable to the audience what is intended. They might still laugh at the modern slang meaning of "pecker", but the laugh would be partially due to his skill; and if he really wanted to milk it, he could give them a look (as they laugh) to capitalize on the point (that their minds are in the gutter). There's a pause in the music there, and it might stop the show for a few seconds, but maybe it's worth trying.
JEFF DeMARCO: I had understood (from Martyn Green?) that at least one of the meanings for Pecker is Heart. To this end people have sometimes substituted Ticker. However, the thing I thought worked best was the defendant placing his hand over his heart and flapping it to simulate beating while singing the phrase. This little business made it very clear that we were not in the nether zone...
CHARLES SCHLOTTER: The Problem: The phrase "Be firm, be firm, my pecker" has a double meaning in America.
The Conventional Solution: Rewrite the lyrics for American productions to eliminate the unintended offense.
My Solution: Rewrite the lyrics in England to add a whopping obscenity that will bring a blush to British (to which some add, but others do not, Irish) cheeks.
EDWIN: When Angelina comes, may I harangue her?
EDWIN: Is this is the court whose jurymen are callous?
EDWIN: Is this is the court whose judge bewigged and lean is?
Well, you get the idea.
SAMUEL M. SILVERS: In our 1980 Barnard production, we used:
Defendant: Is this the Court of Common Pleas?
RICA MENDES: This is ridiculous. It's one thing to change the "n" word in the "list" song the "n" word has clearly become a very derogatory and demeaning part of modern vocabulary. But "pecker"? Ugh.
JAMES BECKMAN: Personally, I think the line should be changed. As best I can remember, I've always heard it draw a laugh during performances. The problem is that it's an inappropriate laugh. And it isn't just a prudish reaction to the word itself, but its unfortunate combination with the word "firm".
RICA MENDES: What kind of prudish director actually feels the necessity of changing "pecker"? I can almost accept the argument that, perhaps, if the tenor is of a gentle nature and cannot sing through the line without busting a gut, one should change the line. But, come on. Little old silverhaired grannies (just to illustrate who production types assume will be the most offended by obscenity) will understand what Edwin is singing about.
JAMES BECKMAN: I don't think so. The line comes upon them suddenly, with no preparation, and then with no followup or explanation. Of course it does, since it isn't meant to be funny. The typical audience reaction, and this includes the silverhaired grannies, is "What was that? Why did he say that? I don't understand that at all." And they have lost the flow of the play, which is unfortunate.
So for the sake of the audience, change it.
RICA MENDES: Quite honestly, it's one line. And it's a musical line. It's one thing to include words of "illchoosing" in a patter song, such as the List song, since the focus is on the words, not the music. But Edwin's lines are clearly more focused on music than on words. And the moment does not revolve around this line either. It's an aside. Do people really pay that much attention to it?
MITCHELL SCOTT GILBERT: I have to agree. I kept it in when I directed Trial by Jury, and it never got so much as a titter in performance. It really goes by so fast. And my Tenor would have never understood what he was singing anyway.<WG>
DANIEL KRAVETZ: I am very much in favor of keeping "Be firm, my pecker," unless the audience is known to be likely to react with shrieks of laughter and catcalls. The real problem with that is, since the line occurs so early on, there is nothing to top its impact for the remainder of the opera and a raunchyminded audience could get bored very quickly. Anyway, an even better idea than the heart business might be for Edwin to use his hands to press first on his cheeks, then on his nose and chin while singing the line, then striking a smug expression of affected selfconfidence.
MARC E. KENIG: Oh, heck, this Pecker thread is getting waaaay too serious. But therein lies a thread idea that might be an insipid, juvenile and fun for all in late summer Savoynet... Unintentional Sexual Double Entendres In G&S!!!
Now I don't mean way too obvious ones like "Be firm, my pecker", but innocuous little lines like:
"Ejaculate with wild alarm" (Ida) and "We love you fondly and would make you" (Trial).
Forget what they originally meant and why just that they can be misconstrued. Parts of lines, so long as they make a proper sentence, are allowed, too. Who knows, maybe this fall we could move on to "Change/omit one pronoun and look what happens" ("My how THEY'VE grown, I did not recognize her" (Yeomen)).
Think of how paying attention to this thread will serve to spice up your banter at rehearsals!!
GENE LEONARDI: Here, IMHO, is another one of what Richard Freedman calls the "near miss", the not quite double entendre. And it's from TBJ too!
The Usher's last words:
It seems to me, sir,
One can indulge in quite a bit of unbounded speculation with that, based upon how "unbounded" one considers Angelina to be.
JIM PARR: Since correspondence is growing more Grundyish than Pecksniffian, I'd like to suggest another line in Trial by Jury whose implications must be morally offensive to many who've complained about that stiff upper lip. It's:
Another's lovesick boy."
Should be changed to evening, I'd say!
J. DONALD SMITH: With all the bandwidth being wasted on "The Pecker Problem" of an innocent line which has become less so because of the change in the English language (that is, the American language), I am surprised that no one has pointed out the one overt sexual reference in Trial By Jury. (Hint: the same one occurs, in a slightly different context, in Yeomen of the Guard.)
HENRY A. STEPHENS: Geez. I get absorbed in my job for a few days and come back to all these pecker references in my clean old Savoynet. There are other usenets that would really appreciate this many peckers!
DIANA BURLEIGH: In Australia all references to Dick in Ruddigore have to be carefully treated as that word has the same connotation downunder as I gather pecker does in the States.
ANDREW SOLOVAY: "Dick" means the same thing in the US, but it's nevertheless still a common nickname for "Richard", so Dick Deadeye and Dick Dauntless don't necessarily set the audience snickering. "Pecker", on the other hand, always and inevitably means "penis".
IAN BOND: Isn't it such a pity that such an innocent English word as "pecker" should become the subject of such a debate.
In the UK it has never been applied to any part of the human anatomy and therefore does not raise laughter or sniggers either with Trial by Jury casts during rehearsals or with our audiences. Neither, come to that, does "Dick" in Ruddygore, even though the word does have a sexual meaning under certain circumstances.
After all, these are now period pieces for heaven's sake. Would we go round changing all the double meanings in Shakespeare? Of course not so why should we do so with Gilbert? Do producers and musical directors change the word "Gay" because in modern times it has come to mean homosexual? Certainly not and neither should they!
Gilbert was a very important Victorian writer who, in this day and age is very much underrated but we, of all people, should and do understand the invaluable contribution he made to theatre and literature and should act as the guardians of what he wrote not the editors or rearrangers.
RICA MENDES: I was watching Howard Stern on E! last night when I noticed something... For those of you who don't know or listen to the show, Howard has a writer named Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling who is selling a CD called "Sgt. Pecker".
Now, here's the interesting part... on the radio, when Howard plugs the CD, he says "Sgt Pecker". But, at 11:00 pm on cable, not only do they bleep out "e", making it "Pcker", but they don't even include the "e" in the picture of the CD!
So maybe this is an indication of where the pecker falls...
Page updated 13 November 2004