Monday, October 26, 2015

From O. Reader (ten points for adapting to American spelling and mostly succeeding.)


Mrs O and I went to the theater in Cardiff this week and sat in the dress circle. I surveyed a sea of shiny bald heads before me. Was I the only old codger who still had his own hair? We were at the matinee performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.
The average age of the audience was - well, shall we say a bit older than me. Struggling to get refreshments in the interval meant mixing it with assorted walking aids that may have served their owners well, but risked Occasional taking a header straight into the bosom of the girl selling ices on the stairs.
I have a soft spot for HMS Pinafore. The daft plot revolves around the old English attitude towards class, and double standards, and patriotism, and cronyism. The “ruler of the Queen’s Navy” (that is Queen Victoria) gets his position through never going to sea. And the plot device - babies switched at birth was sort of reused by W S Gilbert’s scripts rather a lot. If you liked old-fashioned British humor, irony and puns, and knew a bit about late 19th century British society, you would be in your element. And if you didn’t, but just liked silly songs and silly dances - well, you could still enjoy it.
My grandfather used to produce G and S operas at the Alhambra Theater, Bradford, in the 1920s. My grandmother, who was always short and rotund, played most of the comic middle-aged women for him in these operas. Gilbert had a very cruel streak to him when it came to writing about women of “a certain age” - and “Little” Buttercup in Pinafore was one of my grandmother’s favorites. After some bad experiences with people ripping off their stuff - generally featuring America - G and S tied down their domestic productions to the letter of the dialog and stage directions. It was only when the copyright expired 50 years after Gilbert’s death that things could be relaxed. The first “unauthorised” production by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in London was of HMS Pinafore. My grandmother was still short and rotund, but a little old lady by then, and took me as a young lad to see it. She spent the whole performance noting how they’d changed a lyric here, and changed the stage around there, and that bit of “business” - THAT wasn’t in the original.
Now of course G and S can be done every which way. We used to go regularly each year to the festival held in the Spa Town of Buxton, and various companies rang changes with modern dress, modern references in patter songs, and even audience participation. But last year we did America instead. This year we did rather a lot of folk festivals, so this theater trip was our only G and S experience for a while. But we knew the theater company and had seen a number of the cast before. They had ‘done’ the regular festival in the summer and were now taking out three operas in three days on tour.
The age of the audience probably reflected the time of day, as well as the age of the material. But at G and S festivals we have seen audiences full of teenagers laugh at fellow teenagers performing. And very good they were too. We have seen university drama clubs put on the operas - generally very badly. But probably the worst experience was a university production we saw - not at the festival, but at a theater linked to a university on the British South Coast. They put on The Yeoman of the Guard, which is a lot more serious than the rest of the canon. But there was one violin in the orchestra that was out of tune. Only slightly, but with a violin that is more than enough. Every time the orchestra struck up, there was this off-putting sound - off-putting to both the audience and increasingly to the players as they tried unsuccessfully to keep straight faces and stay in tune. A gentle murmur and titter sort of increased each time the offending instrument struck up and totally trashed the pathos of the piece. We thought that at half-time they would do something about it, but maybe the player was a professor’s wife or a director’s girl-friend or something. She stayed. We contemplated leaving. But there are some things in life you can still enjoy for all the wrong reasons.
Perhaps my worst G and S experience was a version of The Pirates of Penzance we saw at an open air theater at the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans. The players were good, the weather was good (always a plus for open air) and we were all set to enjoy the afternoon, when the two seats next to me were finally occupied - about ten minutes after the start of the performance. A gentleman who could probably have made the record books for obesity, came and plonked himself down next to me, and on top of me - so great was the overlap. A very strange grey-haired old lady who may have been his mother, sat on the other side of him. As the singers were getting into their stride with “We Sail the Ocean Blue”, he suddenly started eating his packed lunch. I remember it was a strange kind of salad that would normally feed four, which required a plastic fork, which he promptly lost down the back of the seat in front. His mother downed a bottle of coke - from the bottle - which was incongruous to say the least, and then decided that she needed to go to what Americans quaintly call “the rest room”. I may have remarked before in a long-forgotten piece, but in Britain these are not rooms where you would choose to rest or even linger longer than necessary - certainly not when attached to an open air museum celebrating the joys of the past. Back and forth she came several times. At the interval we thought they had gone and breathed a sigh of relief, but five minutes into the second half, they were back - for more.
What made the experience memorable for all the wrong reasons is that I knew about thirty in the audience. We had very recently visited a congregation for a week’s visit, and they had all seen us in smart suit, smart bag, encouraging smile, that sort of thing. I think they’d obviously organised a sort of group outing, and just seeing us there in casual clothes was a novelty. But when they saw our plight, you could see it made their day. Forget G and S - watching Occasional (although they didn’t know him as such) be swamped and crushed and battered throughout the performance, sort of gave them a spring in their step - even though they were seated. I can still see them all trying to keep straight faces and shove handkerchiefs into mouths, while making continual covert backward glances throughout the performance. I know from later contact that many of them also gleefully remembered that day - and it wasn’t opera that made it.
But what is it they say about humor? It’s nearly always based on someone else’s misfortune.


  1. An occasional reader2:17 PM

    Regarding your chosen title - I have the honor to color my remarks with humor at the theater - even if the spell-check has a hissy-fit.

  2. I never thought about it before now, but I have no idea why we Americans call it a restroom anymore than why, across the pond, you call it a loo. WC is universally the best name.

    I've never sat through a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan and I am sure I am the poorer for it. I have spent a number of 4th of July, Independence celebrations in the park and I always enjoy watching the audience as much as the music and singers. Once, many years ago, we were in Dogwood Dell, an amphitheater in the park. A group of older gentlemen were singing some of the great songs of the Temptations, Four Tops, and others while children danced in front of the stage. There was one particular man who was dancing with wild abandon. His clothes were ragged and he appeared intoxicated, but in the festive air, none of us cared.

    Once the music stopped though it was time for speeches. On this particular Independence day the mayor of Richmond showed up and attempted to offer a welcome to the gathered crowd. The "raggedy man" stood his ground in front of the stage and told the mayor what he thought of him, using words that were both choice and unrepeatable.

    I personally saw this as an excellent example of our first amendment right to the freedom of speech. The rebel in me enjoyed mayor's discomfort. Of course in the end the police led the man away. It was fun while it lasted.

  3. An occasional reader11:00 PM

    I am sure if someone is brave enough there is a whole post to be made out of euphemisms. I always thought that “loo” was a corruption of the French "gardez l'eau" - called out when people emptied chamber pots out of windows. But a Google search has wasted a pleasant half hour showing a variety of possibilities, most dating back to just after the First World War.

    Never mind, I’ll just go and powder my nose instead. And no - that does not mean I am snorting cocaine in the rest room...