A Farewell to Gilbert & Sullivan
I have often, in these virtual pages and elsewhere, had occasion to remark on what dark days these are for the arts of parody and satire. Both require the robust deployment of humor and fearless resort to caricature, leg-pulling, and commonly understood stereotypes. The art world and the world of academia have been great enemies of parody and satire partly because both have descended into self-parody: when (as I noted just a week ago) a normal observer cannot reliably distinguish between art and garbage — I mean real garbage, the stuff you put into plastic bags which are then hauled away by large trucks with open compactors in their sterns — well, when that happens, parody is impossible. The ne plus ultra: where does that line reside? Was it reached in the early years of the last century when Marcel Duchamp exhibited an ordinary urinal, called it “Fountain,” and pretended it was art? Or perhaps it was reached when Duchamp exhibited an ordinary snow shovel, called it “In Advance of a Broken Arm,” and pretended that was art? Or maybe we reach the terminal line in 1961 when Piero Manzoni, er, created “Merda d'artista,” “Artist’s Shit,” which was exactly what Manzoni advertised it as, to wit, 60 tin cans each filled with a few grams of Essence of Manzoni, a single container of which, in 2007, could be yours for (if Sotheby’s is anything to go by) €124,000. (Doubtless the work has appreciated since then: Manzoni died in 1963, age 29, so there will be no more merda from that source and over the years several cans have exploded, rendering the works even more scarce.)
But all this represents only one front in the war against parody and satire: the juggernaut of an absurd reality that outpaces the wildest imaginings of the would-be parodist or satirist. As anyone who has had occasion to peek into the ivy-bowered halls of academia knows, a kindred phenomenon has been at work there. “Beyond parody,” in fact, sounds like a suitable description for institutions that regularly treat the inherited humanistic tradition as fodder for politicized linguistic legerdemain. Over the years, I have devoted hundreds of pages to anatomizing those repellent absurdities, a summa of which can be found in my book Tenured Radicals: How Politics is Corrupting our Higher Education.
Yet as I say, phenomena such as “Merda d'artista” or “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” (to take a once-famous feminist effusion) represent only one side of the war on parody and satire. The other side advances under the banner of political correctness, a clumsy term, rendered inexpressive by overuse, but so far the most convenient shorthand for the speech- and thought-blighting demand for narrow conformity that is lumbering across our cultural landscape. “Trigger warnings,” “micro-aggressions,” “safe spaces” designed to protect coddled sensibilities from anything they might deem offensive or provocative. It’s unclear to me where all this will end. Perhaps in a new form of totalitarian control. In the Soviet era, as readers of Milan Kundera’s The Joke will recall, jokes in a totalitarian society are no laughing matter. “The book,” I noted in an essay on Kundera some years ago,
traces the fortunes and amours of a young student, Ludvik, after his exasperatingly patriotic girlfriend decides to show the authorities a postcard he had written her as a joke: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.” As a result of this whimsy, Ludvik finds himself expelled from the Communist Party and the university, and is eventually conscripted to work in the mines for several years.
The Joke is a novel, right? I.e., fiction, which is to say, not true. But consider this story from the academy just a few days ago: “A group of 20 university professors are hoping the federal government will try to prosecute climate change skeptics. The group sent a letter to the White House earlier this month comparing those who are a bit doubtful regarding man-made global warming to the tobacco industry.”
That was last week. Just yesterday, The New York Times reported on the fate of Gilbert and Sullivan in New York: “A production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 'The Mikado,'” we read, “was canceled after it drew criticism over how its largely non-Asian cast planned to portray the stereotyped Japanese characters and culture that are often seen as central to the work, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players announced on their website.”
Next up: cringe-making forelock-tugging (can I say that?) by the craven apparatchiks at the troupe: We “never intended to give offense” quoth David Wannen, the troupe’s executive director and resident invertebrate. Instead of “The Mikado” — which, incidentally, is more a satire of British than Japanese society — the company plans to mount “The Pirates of Penzance,” which probably is sufficiently innocuous to escape the censors. Although who knows? Members of the religion of peace, i.e. Muslims, are over represented in the ranks of pirates these days, so perhaps some will decide that “Pirates” is covertly Islamophobic.
As the Times reports without irony (it is, after all, an irony-free paper): “The decision was announced as many arts organizations are rethinking how they stage classic works that portray different races and cultures onstage in ways that are now seen as racist or offensive, in an effort to keep the jarring aspects from getting in the way of what makes those works great.”
Right. Bowdlerize ‘em, make it seem like they were written by a committee of politically correct academics, chaps like the pathetic Stephen Davis, the testosterone-free Master of Pierson College at Yale who repudiates the title “master” because it might offend someone, somewhere, sometime. The Victorians used to stage productions of King Lear with a happy ending — Cordelia lived! — because if played straight (can I say that?) that dark tragedy was too much for its delicate sensibilities. Verdi’s “Otello” apparently can no longer feature a tenor in blackface. What’s next? Is “tupping the white ewe” in Othello OK? What would the snowflakes at Columbia Unviersity who are too fragile to read Ovid say about that? Should we excise Mohammad from The Divine Comedy? Dante did not have a high opinion of The Prophet. Isn't it time to do to Dante what a fanatic like Morad Almurd wants to do the German Oktoberfest, shut it down because it contains too many “Un-Islamic acts . . . .[s]uch as alcohol consumption, public nudity etc.”? (Don't you love the “etc.”?)
In the meantime, it is amusing to speculate about what a more robust Mikado would devise for the spineless invertebrates at the New York (non-)Gilbert & Sullivan Players. His “very humane endeavour/ to make to some extent/ each evil liver/ a running river/ of innocent merriment” would certainly produce something amusing — supposing, of course, that Koko didn’t put them down first on his “little list/ Of society offenders who might well be underground,/And who never would be missed.” As master of understatement, that Koko.
One collateral benefit: I need never consider watching a production of that monument to our new anemia, the New York (non-)Gilbert & Sullivan Players. How W.S. Gilbert would have loathed them.