There is high art, and there is low art. There is the stuff that enriches the mind, elevates the spirit, and transcends human differences. And then there is entertainment for the many: fun, but frivolous, silly and not too serious.
At least, that is what we are used to hearing. It’s an old idea, one that can be traced back to Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and other champions of high culture in Victorian England. These thinkers distinguished between high and low art in order to endorse the art that interested them most—and which tended to encourage the cultural norms they preferred. Modernism’s defenders picked up the argument in the 20th century to promote serious, difficult art, and, in time, the distinction began to seem natural rather than invented. Only the most unconventional paintings, the most challenging music, the most perplexing books are worthwhile.
If the Victorians created this high/low distinction, they also knew how to critique it, and few critiques were as entertaining as a W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) musical. In works like HMS Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885), Gilbert and Sullivan enjoyed messing around with the social rules that kept everyone in their places. It was a delicate balance and they knew just how to do it. Jumping your class position, exploring frowned-upon desires, ignoring your past and reinventing yourself—all of this was dangerous talk in Victorian England (and, depending on who you’re talking to, can get you in hot water today). But if it’s packaged just right—if it’s all in good fun (after all, it’s only a play, right?)—you could have your cake and eat it, too. It was a way of using a low-culture form, musical theatre, to poke fun at the social norms high culture guarded. The result? High-culture enthusiasts usually let their guard down.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s legacy continues to straddle the line between high and low as we tend to regard them as a kind of revered popular entertainment. On the one hand, Gilbert’s librettos appear in high-brow literary anthologies alongside dramatists like Ibsen and Shakespeare. On the other, he liked giving his musicals subtitles like The Nun, the Dun, and the Son of a Gun, and published some of his earliest writings in a magazine called Fun (Victorian England’s equivalent to The Onion). On the one hand, one of London’s most esteemed theatres, the Savoy, was established in 1881 as a place to premier Gilbert and Sullivan shows. On the other, the Savoy lives on as a forum where mainstream works can be elevated to the status of high art. (The Savoy’s 2013-14 season includes a Beatles tribute, a play based on a Hitchcock movie—and some Ibsen and Shakespeare, too.)
That hybrid high-and-low style that became Gilbert and Sullivan’s signature also helped make them two of pop culture’s first hit-makers. HMS Pinafore was their first astonishingly big hit, going into an unheard-of run of over 500 licensed performances (and a good many pirated productions, too). Even as their work has been performed nearly continuously since it premiered, each performance offers something new. Watching the HMS ‘Pinafore’ today is a chance to enjoy the pleasant surprise of how the old can be so timely again. Was it Mitch McConnell, Ben Chandler, or Pinafore’s Sir Joseph Porter who promised “I always voted at my party’s call, / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all”?
You get both: biting critique that shines through light veneer. You can walk away from a Gilbert and Sullivan show having simply been entertained. But laughing with them can also mean thinking about how culture, politics, and art work. Both meanings are sitting (and singing) right there together. We have to sort it out. And doesn’t that make for rewarding art, high or low?
By George Micajah Phillips
Visiting Assistant Professor of English
George M. Phillips joined Centre’s faculty in 2012 as visiting assistant professor of English. Prior to joining Centre, he taught at the University of Kentucky, where he was named an Excellent Instructor in the Writing Program (2006) and winner of the Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor in a Literature or Film Course (2010).
He holds a B.A. in English from Emory University, and M.A. and Ph.D. in English (with certificates in Social Theory and in College Teaching and Learning) from the University of Kentucky. He has also studied at Harlaxton College (Grantham, England) and the Yeats International Summer School (Sligo, Ireland).
Phillips works on 19th- and 20th-century British literature, visual cultures, and critical theory. His research has appeared or is forthcoming in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Hypermedia Joyce Studies, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction.
For more information on H.M.S. Pinafore at the Norton Center, or to order tickets, please visit us online or call the box office at 1-877-HIT-SHOW.