Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Libretto

4.1 - General feelings about the libretto

David Craven: What is it about the Libretto which brings out such strong feelings?

Robert Jones: It contains too many words! And, as I said, the plot meanders. If WSG had looked at it as someone else's work that needed editing, he would have made a fine job of it.

Tom Shepard: Its absence of heart.

Paul McShane: Unlike other respondents, I do not accept that the libretto is poor.

Andrew Crowther: I think most of us are agreed that Gilbert's later style is much too wordy. Even so, I pity the man who plays Calynx in a production of Utopia. He has the first spoken words in the opera, and what are they? The following horrifying rigmarole:

"Good news! Great news! His Majesty's eldest daughter, Princess Zara, who left our shores five years since to go to England - the greatest, the most powerful, the wisest country in the world - has taken a high degree at Girton, and is on her way home again, having achieved a complete mastery over all the elements that have tended to raise that glorious country to her present pre-eminent position among civilized nations!"

Hardly, I think, the terms in which an urgent message is usually expressed. I mean, look at those subordinate clauses! It's the third line before he even gets to the main verb of the sentence, and most of the audience has probably given up trying to understand him by that point. Gilbert has obviously overloaded the sentence with far too much information. He once said that the craft of writing plays was mainly to do with a sense of balance in the construction of plots and sentences - a lesson he seems to have forgotten completely here.

I suppose it's possible to make the meaning of this first speech clear, if the actor gives a lot of forethought to inflexions and making the sentence structure clear to the audience - but what a lot of work Gilbert makes him do, and within a couple of minutes of the curtain going up!

Marc Shepherd: Besides the structural problems in the work, the dialogue is too wordy. As Andrew Crowther has pointed out, taking the very first speech in the opera as an example, Gilbert simply takes too long to make his points. There are plenty of good jokes in the libretto, but the dry spells between them make the book seem tedious.

Andrew Crowther: After Utopia Limited D'Oyly Carte said that "There is no doubt in my mind that what the public want now is simply 'fun' and little else." It seems clear to me that Gilbert made a deliberate effort to provide exactly that in GD - the full Gilbertian bag of tricks. But he was tiring of the old style now, and it all sounds a little jaded and second-hand.

4.2 "The true meaning of "Ulahlica"?

The following irreverent exposition was supplied by Phillip Sternberg:

The Utopian populace eagerly assembled. Lady Sophy watched with pride as her compatriots were about to be introduced.

Princess Zara presented Captain Fitzbattleaxe and promised how he would bring the benefits of the English military to Utopia. The crowd shouted, "Ulahlica! Ulahlica! Ulahlica!" Sophy beamed.

Next Zara presented Sir Bailey Barre, who promised great legal reforms. Once again the crowd shouted, "Ulahlica! Ulahlica! Ulahlica!" Sophy was aglow.

One by one, Zara presented the remaining Flowers of Progress, all of whom promised reforms beyond belief. Each time the crowd shouted, "Ulahlica! Ulahlica! Ulahlica!", and each time Sophy's pride grew accordingly.

Sometime later, Sophy took a walk with her pupils, the Princesses Nekaya and Kalyba. The girls pointed out the birds in ivied towers and the rippling play of waterway to Sophy. As they entered a lush, green field, Nekaya said, "And now we're walking amongst the lowing herds." Kalyba added, "But be careful! Don't step in the ulahlica!"

Page created 18 January 1999