Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Plot

2.1 - There is no plot

David Duffey, quoting George Bernard Shaw's first night review: "The book has Mr Gilbert's lighter qualities without his faults. ... There is, happily, no plot; and the stage business is fresh and well invented."

Paul McShane: One point that tends to be overlooked in dissecting Utopia Limited is the fact that, compared to the other G&S operas, it is in a special class of its own - just as Yeomen is. What makes it special is the fact that its plot is entirely related to its satire - not much of a plot, perhaps, compared with its siblings, but a plot nonetheless. Several of the songs are devoted entirely to the development of the satire. And the satire is excellent: better, funnier and more to the point than in the other operas (after all, it IS the crux of the plot). What little storyline and characterisation exists is there to advance the satire motif. It would be appropriate to compare Utopia to 'Cats', which has no plot or storyline whatsoever, but nevertheless made a very successful musical. The attributes which modern audiences apply to 'Cats' in deciding whether it is successful or unsuccessul, good or bad, or whatever, can also be applied to Utopia .

Nick Sales: The Plot: yes, it's complicated, rambling, unsatisfactory, disjointed, raggedy - to those who care - but I Don't! I honestly don't give two hoots for the plot. I can't honestly say that I've ever been to the theatre and seen something and come away dissatisfied because of weak plot/development etc. As long as I've enjoyed myself in the experience as a whole, the fact that a particular romance hasn't been resolved doesn't bother me in the least. If that makes me a dimwit, so be it (I am a tenor, after all); but I'd be willing to guess that a fairly large proportion of the theatregoing public attach similar importance (or lack of it) to plot - reference Paul McShane's erudite comment re: "Cats" and its enduring success.

Andrew Crowther: But Shaw has also has been quoted as approving of this lack of plot. Indeed, it can be viewed as an advantage. Look at it this way: Utopia, Limited is really a series of linked satirical scenes on the theme of England and its institutions. In this far-off kingdom English ideas are aped and exaggerated, and shown up as idiotic. (And without an offensive patronising of the native Utopians, which one can imagine most other writers of this era would have fallen into.) English manners, English institutions, English customs are all shown us through this distorting (refining?) lens. Girls behave prudishly, commerce takes over the island, ceremonial is paramount. There is comparatively little need for a connected plot, because it is really beside the point. The point is for Gilbert to tell his audience: "This is what you are."

Arthur Robinson: I agree; it's not Sullivan at his best musically, but it's right dramatically. Thinking over Utopia the last few days, I think it's an opera with a lot of brilliant ideas and terrific parts that don't quite add up--I like it a lot but I wouldn't recommend it to someone new to G&S. I believe it's a play that doesn't really lend itself naturally to music, as most of Gilbert's libretti did.

Tom Shepard: I think that this is remarkably to the point; I never thought of it that way before: I just kept thinking that WSG could have been more loving, more tender, more clever, whatever. But I think I agree with this: the fundamental problem is that the libretto does NOT cry out for musical setting most of the time. This is not to say that Sullivan couldn't have done better---he certainly could have----but I think that much of the time Utopia is not enhanced by being musicalized. Yet for reasons hard to explain, I always enjoy listening to it, perhaps because I know who wrote it and what it represents in their histories. Also, it was so hard to come by when I was a kid. Its unavailability gave it some special cachet, and when I finally heard it (I was about 22 at the time) it was like tasting forbidden fruit.

Neil Ellenhof: I think the plot and satirical thrusts are excellent. Certainly overlong but Gilbert was throwing darts at several targets in British society. I think it is much more interesting than Pinafore, for example.

2.2 - No coming together

Marc Shepherd: In Utopia, most of the plot strands never come together. Threads come out of nowhere (the Goldbury/Dramaleigh/Nekaya/Kalyba scene), while others just disappear (the Zara/Fitzbattleaze/Scaphio/Phantis affair).

I have also pointed out before the dramatic importance of setting up situations in Act I and then exploring them in Act II. We see this in all of Gilbert's successful operas, indeed in successful theater generally. Despite the multiplicity of plot strands in The Gondoliers, Gilbert sets them all up in Act I and then embellishes them in Act II. This is what makes Gondoliers a competent libretto, and Utopia not so.

(Note: The following section, also from Marc Shepherd, is taken from a later Savoynet discussion of The Gondoliers, but is relevant to this section of the Utopia discussion)

Marc Shepherd: Regarding the lack of plot advancement in Act II (of the Gondoliers), I think Bruce Miller answered this best: the act is about what happens when "everyone is somebodee, and no one's anybodee." All things being equal, the opera would have been better if more happened in Act II. But, the piece holds together because of Gilbert's skill at bringing all the pieces together in the end -- something he never manages in Utopia.

2.3 - Problems with the love stories

David Craven:Does Utopia's perceived failure relate to the very weak love story which, in turn, is imperfectly resolved?

Tom Shepard: Somewhat.

Robert Jones: Another of many small weaknesses.

Marc Shepherd: There are at least four love interests in Utopia (depending on how you count), none of which has a proper beginning, middle and end. Even the major conflict in the story -- Scaphio and Phantis vs. the King -- suffers an abrupt change of course. In the first act, the driver of the conflict is Phantis's interest in Princess Zara. In the second act, the conflict takes a left turn, the driver becoming the wise men's need to expel the Flowers of Progress.

Mike Nash: Obviously, Pinafore, Pirates, Ida and Gondoliers (and others) are what may be described as "romantic comedies", but Utopia Ltd. is meant to be a political satire. Romance is irrelevant. Certainly in Utopia's case, all these romantic tangles just slow down the story and blunt the satire. A 90-minute Utopia Ltd., concentrating on the politics with razor-sharp wit, could have been a big hit. Instead we have all this guff between the King and Lady Sophy, and between Princess Zara and Cpt. Fitzbattleaxe - who cares? It isn't as if it was satirizing specific romantic engagements between real people.

Andrew Crowther: There's been a lot of criticism of Utopia's structure - the fizzling out of the Zara/Fitzbattleaxe plot, f'rinstance.

Arthur Robinson: This is a problem. In Gilbert's original version, reprinted in John Wolfson's FINAL CURTAIN, there is a second-act scene and song resolving this (not Gilbert at his best but I thought it funny, especially giving the soprano the chance to act out banging things with a poker etc.).

Paul McShane: The first printing of Utopia's libretto, about 3 months before opening night, survives in the British Library - as you would imagine, it was cut, added to and amended several times before the first performance. In this first layout, the Scaphio/Phantis/Zara love interest was, as Arthur says, COMPLETELY RESOLVED! - Immediately after the 'capital plot' trio, Scaphio and Phantis remain on stage to receive Fitzbattleaxe's half-yearly report on his guardianship of Zara. In a quartet, Fitzbattleaxe reveals that, although Zara is very warm-hearted, she is very high-spirited '..the crockery flies at your ears and your eyes..' and jealous '..she'll use her stiletto if no prussic acid's convenient!' At this, the Wise Men decide '..she's a little too much for a councillor wise. For we are not as young as we used to be..' and are content to leave her with Fitzbattleaxe. Sullivan wasn't happy with this scene at all, and with the partners bending over backwards to accommodate each other's wishes, the dialogue, quartet and solo were all dropped. It really would have tied up the main love interest nicely, be we'll never know if it would have worked, because Sullivan did not set the music.'

Mike Nash: I think there IS a main plot of sorts - the opera is essentially about a paradise (Utopia) being spoiled by British civilization. But there are too many distractions, most especially all the romantic liaisons.

Andrew Crowther: There's a good case for saying this is true, I think.

Mike Nash: Which raises a question: why did Gilbert feel it was necessary to include romance in every G&S opera, even when the basic premise of the story has nothing to do with it? Was it essential for all Victorian writers (or at least, writers of opera librettos) to major on the subject? Or was it just a Gilbertian obsession?

Andrew Crowther: Certainly it is not a specifically Gilbertian obsession. It's a convention of drama, certainly throughout Victorian times. And surely we find the same thing well into this century - think of all those films in which a romantic subplot is brought in, regardless of whether it's at all appropriate. Even today, I'm sure there are very few films in which there is no "love interest" (or love boredom, as in most cases it should be called).

Tom Shepard: Utopia's emphasis on commerce rather than upon the interrelationships of the characters is what tends to make it seem so didactic politically and economically.

2.4 - Abhorrent to stockbrokers?

David Craven: Does Utopia's perceived failure relate to the show's opposition to the abuse of the corporate system and, as today, abuse of the corporate system is not only tolerated, but encouraged, we now find such attacks similar to the burning of a flag?

Tom Shepard: I don't think so.

Robert Jones: No, I think this is incidental. Once again, there's too much said about it (especially in the otherwise fine Act I finale), but I can't see it generating particularly strong feelings, except perhaps amongst stockbrokers or fraudsters (same thing, really!).

Robert Jones: David Craven asked whether pacing or timing of Utopia could be improved by changing the location of the Act break or by dividing it into three acts instead of two, or re-ordering the scenes. My answer is yes, just as it could have been improved if WSG had spent another three months on it. For all its wanderings, the plot is linear and reordering scenes would probably do more harm than good.

Bill Snyder: I have the weird suspicion that one of the attractions of UTO (& GD) that they AREN'T perfect jewels such as Mikado is. You need to play around with them and play on their weaknesses and strengths in relationship to your cast to make it work. You get to write your own Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, starting with pretty good raw material!

Derrick McClure: I think Calynx's first speech is symptomatic of a lot that's wrong with the whole show. First, it's unrelated to what precedes it. The opening chorus is all about the joys of Lazyland - no mention whatever of the King, his daughter, or (come to that) anything

whatever relating to the plot as it's going to develop. Second, it's frantic, almost hysterical, in tone: before the languid strains have the chance to die away, a character comes barging onto the stage yelling "Good news! Great news!", and proceeds with a speech in which the words come tumbling over each other almost incoherently. Third, it's unrelated to what FOLLOWS it: a few sentences about Calynx's great news, and then ANOTHER character comes barging onto the stage yelling "Lalabalele talala!", and a whole new element is introduced into the development of the drama. Finally, it's said by a character who thereafter is never heard of again - being instantly eclipsed by a character who ALSO is never heard of again - well, not for an act and a half. Gilbert was patently not himself when he wrote that opening.

2.5 - Too close to the bone?

Derrick McClure: This may stir up some flames, but I'll post it all the same. Coming from a country which has suffered from the imposition of "English tastes, English institutions, and oh, English fashions", I can't deny that I have a visceral feeling against Utopia - which is TOTALLY UNRELATED to my relatively low critical estimate of its libretto and music! An opera which deals with a colonised people rushing headlong to ape the manners and customs of the colonisers, even when the theme is treated satirically, is just a wee bit too close to the bone. (THE EMERALD ISLE is the opposite case - there I indulge in a visceral shout of HOORAY for a libretto in which the colonised people RESIST the colonial power!)

Andrew Crowther: I agree absolutely with the premise - that no country has the right to impose its customs on another country - but I can't agree with the conclusion that Utopia is offensive on this score. Of course, as Derrick says, the theme is treated satirically: we're left in no doubt that these English ways are no better than the Utopian ones. (Though Gilbert, with pessimistic democracy, implies that they're no worse, either.) To show the Utopians embracing English ways, rather than resisting them, is all part of the Gilbertian ironic method. His style insists that a satirical point should be made through a system of distortions and inversions: the point is never spoken straight out. (Well, hardly ever....) In any case, by treating the matter in this way, rather than as a case of brutal oppressors resisted by plucky islanders, he addresses the rather good point that this kind of cultural takeover can be voluntary. I believe I'm right in saying that many outposts of the British Empire did genuinely embrace British/English customs. (Oh dear, I see my terms are becoming vague. I suppose in this case we are really talking about English customs.) This does not imply that such a takeover is morally right.

Bruce Walton: Derrick McClure pointed out that as victims of English colonialism ourselves, Scots may find UL a bit 'close to the bone'. While taking his point, it doesn't quite catch me that way - after all, one of the things I like so much about the whole canon (including Utopia) is how remorselessly stupid WSG makes the English look!

Andrew Crowther: I ought to add that this kind of cultural takeover is still going on today. It's a cliché, but a fact, that American culture is invading Britain and threatening the British cultures. And I scowl horribly whenever I hear of non-Western cultures being "dragged, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century" - a phrase which really means turning them into clones of Western society. (Note how that phrase implies that non-Western cultures are anachronistic.) It never seems to occur to anyone to wonder whether these people are right to be kicking and screaming while this is going on.

Bruce Walton: The thing which does catch me on the raw is the indiscriminate use of 'England' for 'Britain', which is endemic in Utopia. so I webbed to the search engine and did a survey.

There are 14 uses of 'Britain' with or without 'Great' in the Savoy canon (not counting the chorus repeats in Mountararrat's song), 7 of which are in UL. By way of comparison, there are 37 uses of 'England', no less than 25 of which are in UL. Putting my patriotic prejudice to good work, I examined them to see how many are incorrect or inappropriate.

The criteria I used to judge this were as follows. Anything which refers to England geographically ('She sailed for England 3 months ago') or historically ('I know the Kings of England'), or which relates to England's Legal system ('Sir, you are England's Lord Chancellor'), will pass muster with even the most sensitive Caledonian pedant (In case anybody isn't familiar with the fact, England and Scotland still have completely separate legal systems, even though we share a parliament). In addition, all the references in Yeomen are absolutely correct as Scotland and England were different countries back then.

However, there are also references which clearly refer to Britain and as such are 'Politically Incorrect' ('the bulwark and foundation of England's greatness'). Perhaps the worst example is Dick Dauntless saying 'By the flag of old England' but waving a Union Jack around!

However, on the whole there are fairly few. I found only 12 of the 37 usages of England indefensible, and offensive to my pride (I was born sneering, you know).

Whoever would have thought that WSG would rate so high on political correctness? It's a shame that this concept wasn't around in the nineteenth century - I'm sure he would have done a wonderful satire on it!

Chris Wain: It was of course pretty standard in the 19C, so we mustn't blame WSG personally. Gladstone did it all the time, despite living in Wales, sitting for a Scottish seat, and doing his best to devolve power to Ireland!

2.6 - I've a borough or two.... - the effect of one's political views

David Craven: Do ones political views have any impact on the perception of the libretto?

Robert Jones: Possibly, but you'd have to feel very strongly about commerce to be affected either way.

Tom Shepard: My political leanings don't seem to get in the way.

Ron Orenstein: As most of the criticisms levelled at Utopia relate to things like the "love interest", I don't think political leanings have an effect - I have NEVER heard anyone suggest that Utopia's weakest stuff was the politics. I repeat my criticisms. Utopia is a fine satire, but a very cumbersome operetta.

Marc Shepherd: For one thing, I don't find Utopia as politically extreme as David does. Most of the G&S operas contain biting satire. I don't think Utopia goes that much farther -- if, indeed, it goes farther at all--than many of Gilbert's other efforts.

David Craven: It would seem, based on prior discussion, that individuals of a conservative to libertarian political view are of the (strong) opinion that the libretto is no good, that individuals who don't have strong political views or are in the middle of the road generally have no strong opinions about the libretto and those from the liberal to the progressive end of the political spectrum are of the (strong) opinion that the libretto is pretty darn good.

Andrew Crowther: I don't think I fit into this theory. My opinions waver to and fro, but by and large I'm a red-faced reactionary - Damme, Sir, the country's going to the dogs! (etc.) Yet I enjoy the satire immensely. My reasons for doing so are, I suppose, on the pinko-liberal side: I enjoy Gilbert's satire on the assumptions of colonialisation, that the British are a naturally superior race. At the same time I see, in this, support for my tiresomely-repeated opinions on the Victorian age, that if they had faults, at least they knew about them. It is a good thing that an age as proud of its material progress as that should have its critical voices.

Paul McShane: I am in the same boat as Andrew - as one of conservative bent, who enjoys Utopia and its satire immensely. One of us, perhaps, may have been the exception proving the rule, but with two of us, it tends to dent the theory a little.

Bruce Miller: As one whose political leanings are definitely in the right, as opposed to in the left, direction, I have to say I could not understand the suggestion that one's personal political beliefs would color his or her perception of Utopia, either positively or negatively.

The satire isn't particularly well executed, nor is it really so dominating that it matters so much.

But there's no need to recapitulate analysis which has been so well done by some of the contributors here such as Marc, Ron and Tom. I simply want to put on the record that my problems with Utopia do not include disagreement with the thrust of its political satire, and would not even if it were more successfully carried out.

Page created 20 January 1999