23 DECEMBER 1972, Page 25

Gilbert's 'Aesthetes'

Benny Green

The reappearance in London, if only briefly, of Patience, is a useful reminder that there is no reason why a musical Should not be about something, even though with regard to Patience there is a lingering uncertainty as to exactly what that something is. Two general impressions have survived: that Bunthorne is a Skit on Oscar Wilde, and that the collective victim is something called the Aesthetic Movement; both interpretations may reasonably be described as halftruths. Wilde certainly became involved in the machinery of Patience, although at a stage late enough in the proceedings (advertising it on his American lecture tour) to be seen as an accessory after the

fact as well as before it. Certainly much of the philosophy and most of the postures of Bunthorne are Wildeian, but as both the philosophy and the postures had been appropriated by Wilde from a bewildering variety of sources, the question of who or what was being ridiculed in the figure of Bunthorne remains slightly confused.

As to the more general theory, it is certainly true that a mustering of avantgarde forces had been taking place for a long period by the time Gilbert decided to poke fun at the process. But the riotously fissiparous nature of this cultural conspiracy made it impossible for anyone to expose to ridicule all its component parts, for the most comical of reasons. So bitter was the squabbling inside the ivory tower, that a polemicist attacking one of its inmates was sure to find himself allied, usually to his own embarrassment, with most of the others. It is impossible, for example, to know who Ruskin and Whistler detested more, the bourgeoisie or each other. The term 'Aesthetic Movement' is therefore a misleading one, implying as it does a united front, when a more accurate metaphor would be Revolutionary Rabble.' And so, whether or not he realised it, Gilbert, in deriding the Aesthetes in his irascibly good-natured way, was attempting with one broad sweep of his muscular arm to sweep off the Victorian board not one but several whose fame had become rampant by the end of the 1870s.

However, if the Aesthetes seemed sworn to an unflinching mutual disregard, Ruskin for Whistler, Whistler for Rossetti, Rossetti for Millais, Pater for everybody, there was at least one aspect of the struggle which unified the scattered ranks, and that was a supreme lofty contempt for the tastes of the middle class, the hated bourgeoisie, the detested merchant-moneybags without whose patronage no artist in Britain was likely to find himself enjoying much material comfort. The Aesthetes, although their prescribed cures for the slide into urban sprawl and the divorce of the worker from the artefact were contradictory, all agreed that the process itself was a bad thing. And among the most publicised and therefore the most heartily derided of these prescriptions was a strategic retreat into an idyllic past.

The fact, that this past was purely mythological, had never existed outside the imaginations of a few writers and painters, and, was not only no practicable proposition now but had never been one ever before, was of no interest to those Aesthetes who recommended it, and whose draughty mediaeval halls and chaste turreted castles were not real places at all, but refuges of the spirit. To have pointed out to Tennyson that the plumbing arrangements at Camelot would have done for him within a month would have seemed to him flippant and tactless. And although a retreat into Mediaevalism was by no means a common denominator of Aestheticism — Whistler, for instance, could never credit the preoccupation of his friend Rossetti with painting costume designs for Dante's poetry • — it may nevertheless serve as the symbol of a unifying principle, which was, the rejection of the age. It is interesting that Morris, when he was not solemnly skylarking in a mythical past, was wrestling with the technicalities of an equally mythic future, graduating from the openhearted simplicities of his Icelandic fastnesses to the parallel candours of a socialist utopia, and rejecting the prosaic infelicities of his own age altogether. He and the rest of the Aesthetes may accurately be described as cultural Luddites. whose machine-wrecking armoury consisted of the sonnet, the ode, and the tapestry.

All of them were men born out of their time, but it is doubtful if any of them would have been altogether at ease in anyone else's. Gilbert's scintillating operatic attack on all this is usually referred to as a satire, but because a satirical attack must by definition be mounted from the lofty heights of what the attacker considers a superior position, Gilbert, who seems never to have considered anything to be superior to anything else, can hardly be called a satirist at all, except in the limited sense that he appears always to have believed that the status quo is always more desirable than any attempt to change it. Shaw. whose mastery of dramatic paradox probably owes more to Gilbert than he was prepared to admit, once most perceptively remarked that whereas Samuel Butler was a man of heroic -admirations, "the people whom Gilbert admired have yet to be discovered." Patience, and indeed all the Savoy operas, are rather lampoons, and Gilbert an affectionate joker who would never have agreed with the belief of a Butler that the whole Victorian edifice deserved to be brought crashing down.

Whatever the nature of his strictures — against the Law in Trial By Jury, against the House of Lords in loianthe, against almost everything in that magnificent allconsuming libretto Utopia Limited — Gilbert's comedy was informed by a canny conviction of the imperfectability of man, a conviction which neither the PreRaphaelites at one end of the utopian scale nor the Fabians at the other could ever bring themselves to accept.

At which point we come to the essence of Gilbert's extraordinary durability. His libretti, so far from being detached from the strictly mercantile society which patronised them, are dispatches from inside the camp, a projection of what the age felt about itself. No audiences ever took grave offence at a Gilbert verse, for they perceived that the foil of his wit was buttoned. Indeed, Gilbert loved his era, felt only slightly and only rarely out of sorts with it, and, unlike the utopians, thought not that it was unmanageable but only grossly mismanaged.

The Aesthetes wanted to save the world from the Machine. Gilbert derided them and saw no reason to take theit fears seriously, believing there was nothing that could, not be achieved by bluff English commonsense. As it happened he was wrong, and we have only to glance out of our windows to see exactly how wrong. There are, after all, certain feats which plain-speaking English pragmatism cannot perform, a truism perhaps more apparent to our own age than to Gilbert's. Like the peasants of the Vendee, Gilbert fought magnificently — on the wrong side. It is our good fortune that in the process he created a masterpiece.