13 JUNE 1998, Page 43

The mudslide of heritage-babble

What is the most embarrassing word in current English? Let me single out `heritage' as a promising candidate. Having once meant simply 'something acquired through inheritance' it has now become a symbol of all that is wrong with contempo- rary attitudes towards the past, a mishmash of twaddling sentimentality, vulgar porten- tousness and dismal under-education. The very sound conjures up a vista of gift shops full of synthetic potpourri and laminated aprons or mob-capped wenches sluicing the diners with Merrydown at 'period' ban- quets. A Heritage Lottery Fund is bad enough, with its intrinsically absurd and dangerous suggestion that the fruits of his- torical experience can be reduced to a sim- ple series of winning numbers, but we ought to have spotted the writing on the wall when the dear old Ministry of Works became 'English Heritage', packaging the past as a set of limited-edition, special- offer collectables 'for you to treasure'. Do I sound snobbish? Good, I mean to, especially when the heritage blight gathers too suffocatingly in the more weirdly ethnic corners of our culture. Remember, for instance, what happened some weeks ago when the D'Oyly Carte opera company was threatened by a withdrawal of funding. The best part of an afternoon became devoted to cross-party splutters of outrage, while journalists grew intemperate in praise or trashing of the Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre. Practical issues disappeared as a result under a mudslide of heritage-babble.

Nowadays the tendency as regards the 13 canonical Savoy operas (for Thespis only the ballet music and a single chorus sur- vive) is to praise Sullivan's contribution, albeit in somewhat patronising terms 'charming', 'witty', 'clever' etc — while emphatically wrinkling the critical nostrils at Gilbert's contribution as childish, philis- tine and contrived. Yet their Victorian audiences saw them rather differently, somewhat embarrassed that the Leipzig- schooled, Schubert-inspired talent of Eng- land's premier musical knight should be fooling around among parodies of Verdi and Bellini, while they laughed uproarious- ly at the sly if generally indulgent satire offered by the libretto.

For Gilbert in any case these were not operas but plays with music, and his atti- tude towards them was so firmly that of a literary proprietor that Sullivan began to take umbrage, feeling that his role was merely that of adding vocal and orchestral gilt to substantial slices of comic ginger- bread. The fact was, however, that Gilbert too had a professional reputation to main- tain as a man of the theatre, and that the success, commercial and artistic, of pieces such as Iolanthe and The Gondoliers depended on the obsessive seriousness with which he supervised their rehearsal. It seems extraordinary now to think that a work like The Yeoman of the Guard, with its mock-Tudor dialogue and flimsy denouement pivoted on a moment of implausible melodrama, sprang from months of historical research, or that for The Mikado a tea-girl was specially hired from the Knightsbridge Japanese exhibi- tion to give lessons in geisha deportment to the Savoy chorus (they called her 'Miss Six- pence Please' because all the English she knew was the price of a cuppa).

Take away Sullivan from Gilbert, imag- ine the composer as a Parisian or a Vien- nese, and can the texts survive, as their author evidently believed they ought to, on their own merits? Can we really be both- ered any longer with identifying the allu- sions in the Colonel's 'heavy dragoon' song from Patience to 'Paddington Pollaky' or `the coolness of Paget about to trepan', let alone with the Fairy Queen's jokey refer- ence in Iolanthe to Captain Shaw of the London Fire Brigade quenching her capac- ity for love? Do we honestly find the House of Lords in the latter opera, or rustic, Regency skulduggery in Ruddigore or 'the Queen's Navee' in HMS Pinafore an ade- quate comic resource 100 years onwards?

The answer is generally no, and Gilber- tian satire, despite its undoubted influence on Wilde and Shaw, is besides found too smug and lacking in acerbity. This is miss- ing the point. It isn't, I suggest, only Sulli- van's incomparable elegance and verve, sauced with the roguish precision of his musical mimicry, which has allowed these pieces to survive where the works of Lionel Monckton, Ivor Novello and Julian Slade have grown dusty. Gilbert can still delight us, not through long-dated topical allusion (though that, for anyone with a feeling for the period, has its charm) but through his deftness as a writer and craftsman, skills rubbing off on successive theatrical genera- tions.

In everything from their metrical ingenu- ity to the brilliant preposterousness of the coups-de-theatre achieved in the great first-act finales, the 'plays' are superb essays in dramatic engineering. A piece like Patience for example, with its flawless oscil- lations of mood between the various lyrics and a spoken dialogue whose momentum creates an exuberant rhetoric of absurdity, ranks as one of the few masterpieces of a conspicuously inglorious epoch in British stage history.

Nor is the Gilbertian atmosphere quite as complacently gung-ho as is often sup- posed. There's enough here of le gringant as the French call it, that dash of sardonic bitters adulterating mirth and innocence, to satisfy our modern craving for the kind of comedy which leaves a few ashes in the mouth. Thus the magician John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer achieves a sort of shabby pathos in his Faustian surrender to the Devil, Jack Point the jester falls dead as Elsie claims her Fairfax at the close of The Yeoman of the Guard and poor Reginald Bunthorne is punished for High Art mountebankery with sexual sublimation in the company of poppies and lilies.

Romance, across the surreal, distorted planes of Gilbertian fantasy, seldom dawns unshadowed. In yielding to Hilarion at the end of Princess Ida, the eponymous educa- tionalist heroine has failed as both vision- ary and virago. Love is revealed as a compromise, but Gilbert warned us of that in the bittersweet Act 2 quartet with its cynical envoi, 'We've tried it and we know'.

They've got it wrong, the heritage brigade. It isn't the D'Oyly Carte which needs saving for Gilbert & Sullivan, but the Savoy operas which need rescuing from the D'Oyly Carte. Preservation orders, turning them into folksy theatrical equivalents of the Helston Furry Dance or the Olney Pan- cake Race, will do as much to bury these cunningly wrought artefacts as our idle, petulant demands for relevance and acces- sibility. Their beauty and enchantment lie in their significance for us, in the fact that the sensibilities and self-delusions of Cap- tain Shore, Paddington Pollaky, 'Anthony Trollope and Monsieur Guizot' and their era were so intriguingly different from our own. Set the two Savoyards free then, and leave heritage to its jams, its tea-towels and collectable laminated aprons.

Jonathan Keates