Last week’s post, first in a series on The Mikado, began a discussion of the differences between American and British comedy. We identified and discussed two big factors, namely:
1) Whereas American humor tends to depict people fairly realistically, enabling us to recognize ourselves and laugh in recognition, the British prefer absurdity and nonsense. (My favorite little moment of absurdity in Mikado happens in a page of dialogue between Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah when the latter, who holds all the official governmental positions in Titipu other than Lord High Executioner, mentions being the Archbishop. In Japan.) Also,
2) Americans enjoy honest sentimentality; those moments which produce the lump in the throat or the tear in the eye: the big “AWWWWW!” In contrast, our English cousins bend over backwards to avoid these moments, as if they would result in anaphylatic shock. In British humor in general and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan in particular, honest sentimentality is fodder for satire.
In this post, we’ll consider a third key distinction:
Ah, the ancient British class system: ya gotta love it! You know, I think the key to the affection we Yanks feel for our neighbors in the U.K. lies in their being completely aware of their own eccentricities. There’s nothing more endearing than a friend who can acknowledge his oddness and is willing to make fun of himself. When it's also the case with the entire populace of a nation so much the better! Virtually all British comedies with which you may be familiar - think Are You Being Served?; think Black Adder; think Mr. Bean and Fawlty Towers and Jeeves and Wooster and... (you get the idea) - find the bulk of their humor aimed at their own class system.
We in the States are fascinated with all this because, of course, we have no class system. Oh, we have our “Haves” and “Have-nots”, but in America any “Have-not” can, in theory, aspire through study and hard work to become, one fine day, an authentic “Have”. And we have a play-pretend version of aristocracy; back in the day, we elevated the Kennedy family to the status of American royalty. But that’s over. We fawn over entertainers and athletes as though their blood was blue, but once we tire of some actress or quarterback we’re quick to demote them back to peasanthood.
In Merrie Olde England, however, being born into a particular family can mean that one begins life literally better than other people. In America, we preach that any child, no matter how humble his lineage, may aspire to become president. British children cannot dream of becoming King or Queen: it ain’t happening..
Of course, other European republics also have a tradition of nobility amongst the populace. Perhaps this accounts for the vast number of folk stories and fairy tales involving poor young maidens who improbably marry a handsome prince. Cinderella is a good example. It always involves supernatural or divine intervention in some way; the deus ex machina of a magic wand or potion. The lesson of such tales is clear: this is fantasy. Nice to dream of, but not bloody likely in the absence of magic.
Thus, any British writer of screenplays or teleplays will cheerfully admit that nothing guarantees a good laugh like the Commoner Who Doesn’t Know His Place. Since it’s a cultural given that people of low birth are supposed to be content to remain servants, streetsweepers or whatever their fate, anyone striving to improve his station is thought to be “putting on airs”, and automatically an object of laughter.
The exemplar of this character is familiar to Americans: Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s cockney father in the musical My Fair Lady. Doolittle amuses us, but surely one would have to be British to fully savor the irony of this ne’er-do-well rubbing shoulders and lecturing the refined Professor Henry Higgins.
Now, I’m not saying that W. S. Gilbert invented this element of humor. Actually, British humor has not changed much in centuries; elements of absurdity, anti-sentimentality and the “loveable losers” of the class system have always existed to some degree for as long as British humor can be documented.
However, Gilbert and Sullivan operated in a period of history when all these traits could be sampled around the Western World, including the United States. H. M. S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado were global sensations; in nineteenth-century terms, they went “viral”. Thus, Gilbert appears to us now as the individual who codified this style of humor and, more than any other individual, inspired all the modern films and TV shows that continue to plow the fields of unsentimental, class-based satire.
So who in The Mikado is the great-grandfather of Doolittle? Who is the clown to be laughed at rather than laughed with? That would be the Lord High Executioner himself, Ko-Ko.
Gilbert wastes no time in telegraphing Ko-Ko’s putting on of airs. His entrance is heralded by a starchy enthusiastic chorus of immense (if satiric) dignity: “Defer! Defer to the Lord High Executioner!” It’s a fanfare almost worthy of the Mikado himself. And when Ko-Ko introduces himself, we get this short biographical sketch:
“Taken from the county jail By a set of curious chances; Liberated then on bail, On my own recognizances; Wafted by a favouring gale As one sometimes is in trances, To a height that few can scale, Save by long and weary dances; Surely, never had a male Under such like circumstances So adventurous a tale, Which may rank with most romances. “
Now you and I are in on the joke; Ko-Ko doesn’t really belong here in such an august position: he was obviously a common criminal -probably a thief - and in all likelihood no one else in Titipu wanted the job of executioner. He’s a commoner, a clown, a survivor. It’s okay to laugh at him. We can have fun imagining all sorts of English comedians having a go at playing him: Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese or Eric Idle.
And does Ko-Ko get his come-uppance? Will he be slapped down by the gods for daring to improve his position? Yes, in a minor way. He escapes the death sentence that has been hanging over him throughout the opera, but in the end he cannot find marital bliss with the beautiful Yum-Yum but will make his peace in wedlock with the elderly and “decaying” (her word) old hag Katisha.
And the lesson is learned again: Englishmen of common blood: don’t aspire!
My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online at www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.