The ensemble is the message in this bravura performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke. There is least distance between supernumerary and principal as the players spread infectious joy through a lyrical pastiche combining improbable plot, Shakespearean confused identities and British Music Hall patter.
Lamplighters, the Bay Area music troupe’s mission is to bring the Victorian era Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre to life. The Grand Duke is the fractious duo’s last work and a decidedly minor one at that, much less well known to Savoyard aficionados than the Pirates of Penzance or Ruddigore. Presented for the first time in the Lamplighters 62-year history, Grand Duke, nevertheless, exemplifies Gilbert and Sullivan’s basic dramatic principle of an inverted world, with customary social principles turned upside down “topsy-turvy,” a term they were want to use in their lyrics.
Grand Duke is a proto-feminist deconstruction of subjection of woman to man in traditional marriage, supported by government authority that the authors also subvert, pulling the rug out from under state support of tradition in anarchist fashion.
Following a sprightly orchestral prelude, the spoof of authority begins. Loose talk among members of a theatrical troupe reveals a plot to overthrow a comic opera regime, a fictional Lichtenstein or Luxembourg. The plotters identities are known to one another, not through a secret word or hidden ring signet but through the device of reciprocating the eating of a sausage roll. The opportunity to confuse an ordinary greasy eater with a plotter is too good to miss and the overthrow plot is revealed to the Grand Duke’s spy, setting the story line in motion.
The Duke and putative rival are brought face to face and agree to a “statutory duel.“ Gilbert and Sullivan take the duel, traditionally fought with weapons like sword or pistol, and transform it into a draw of cards, that itself may be subverted by artifice or cheating by pulling a high or low card out of sleeve as needed. Thus, the Duke’s theatrical anarchist rival comes to power for an agreed upon temporary rule, saving the timid Duke from facing the turmoil of a coup attempt.
With the political world out of order, the social order of marriage is up for grabs as the “Duke’s” fellow theatrical plotter questions the traditional wifely role. Indeed, various fiancés emerge from the Duke’s world and that of the theatrical troupe in convoluted fashion as courtship is intertwined with politics in monarchies and in this instance with tenuous difference between illusion and reality as a theatrical troupe leader temporarily insinuates himself into a political structure, but once holding the levers of power decides to postpone the agreed upon return of the “real” Duke for a century.
In the contemporary era, many still hold that traditional forms of marriage are sacrosanct because they have been so performed for millennia. Gilbert and Sullivan dissolved tradition, showing that conventions are mere artifice that can be changed, if it is so willed. In showing that government’s reinforcement of social convention is ultimately up to us, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Grand Duke is as contemporary as the awaited Supreme Court decision on valid marriage partners.
Social conventions cannot be justified simply because they have always been done that way; there may be a better way and it behooves us to find it. The traditional duel, where a life my be taken through excess of pride as with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, may be replaced with a method of dispute resolution less dangerous to life and limb. Marriage may be reconstructed into an equal institution, one that meets the needs of more than one gender and sexual orientation. This is the take away from The Grand Duke. Indeed, if the Supreme Court chooses to hold to tradition, it will be behind the curve of the Victorian era’s British operetta authors.
Gilbert and Sullivan were more subversive in systematically questioning class and gender mores than their successors: Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Low and the Ziegfeld Follies. The American musical comedy largely celebrated contemporary values, with notable exceptions like South Pacific’s questioning of racial stereotypes.
The British D’Oyly Carte troupe, long disbanded, lives on through its recordings. The Bay area’s Lamplighters perform live as well as in recordings. Long may they light our lamps. Eloia!
Photos: Lucas Buxman
The Lamplighters' Annual Spring Party & Fundraiser
Join the party as we eat, drink, sing and make merry! Mingle with some of your favorite Lamplighter performers, celebrate the successes of our 62nd season and glimpse a preview of some of the 63rd. We'll be featuring a few numbers from last seasons' The Pirates of Penzance, Sherlock Who?, Candide, and our upcoming The Grand Duke, H.M.S. Pinafore, and Ruddygore. Fun is the name of the game! There will also be opportunities to help us get the next season off to a great start, and potentially win some great prizes, by supporting our raffle and auction.
Montclair Women's Cultural Arts Club, Oakland
415-227-4797 · Purchase tickets
Sunday, May 17 • 4PM