“Great Job,” a member of the audience called out, surfing over the rollicking applause for the Lamplighters joyous performance of William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan’s spoof of the British class structure, HMS Pinafore, at Mountain Views Performing Arts Center. The ships name, after a decorative female over garment, mocked the blood-stirring masculinity inscribed in the HMS Victorious, Dauntless, Triumph and the like of the British Royal Navy’s fleet.
Peter Crompton’s ship of the line stage set provided a towering, yet whimsical, backdrop for the Lamplighters un-miked, bell clear rendition, worthy of the original D’Oyly Carte Light Opera Company. The chorus is the star of the show; the principals are also grand! Charles Martin is superb as Dick Dead-eye, the wryly-ironic commentator on the proceedings; Deborah Rosengaus is an awesome Buttercup, purveyor of sundries, and keeper of the fleet’s dark secrets. F Lawrence Ewing is a lubricious Sir Joseph, the former office boy, risen to ruler of the Queen’s Navy via a stint in the legal profession.
He is a faux meritocrat, preaching equality, but only to a certain extent. As Sir Joseph put it, …a British sailor is any man’s equal, excepting mine.” By the time of Pinafore’s premiere in 1878 new men had risen in the British class structure during the 19th century; engineers like Brunel and manufacturers like Wedgwood, lending a simulacrum of authenticity to Sir Joseph’s mobility tale. Women could attain occupational equality only if they were highborn, like Countess Lovelace, who provided a software theoretical frame for Babbage’s mechanical computing machine.
All is made right for individual affection to triumph over class divisions in Pinafore’s world but its rigid class structure remained intact. The ultimate conservative message of this comic opera is that we are rigidified by our class backgrounds. The only leeway to be found is by returning individuals who were mistakenly switched after birth to their original birth ordained social slots. Steve Jobs is the real-life Silicon Valley exemplar of movement from birth parent to a slightly downwardly mobile surrogate upbringing without reinforcing inequality. His spectacular rise within the environment of a fluid mid-Peninsular technical middle class would appear to be genuine meritocratic achievement, far from the class rigidities satirized in Pinafore, while leaving them intact in their wondrous absurdity.
Perhaps a victim of its own success, Silicon Valley is dividing into Unicorn owners and those who have the short end of the sharing economy, without employment rights and benefits. Totally contemporary, Pinafore is a musical Occupy Movement, deflating with humor the one percent at the pinnacle of the class structure. This period piece is thus highly relevant to a society that is discrepant between CEOs who preach diversity while their firms practice uniformity. Would that there were a contemporary Gilbert and Sullivan to provide music and libretto for “Ellen Pao Versus Sand Hill, the Musical.” Until then, we shall have to satisfy with the Lamplighters glorious revival of this late 19th century version.
More information at the Lamplighter website