Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bunthorne lives!

Gilbert and Sullivan's 1881 comic opera Patience may not be their greatest work (for me, Iolanthe and The Mikado show the collaborators in peak form) but it may be the funniest to a modern audience. In my experience, Patience, when well acted and sung, gets the most laughs -- not the ritual, obligatory chuckles from G&S buffs who've memorized every word of every Savoy Opera, but genuine laughs from those who never heard the opera before.

For many years it was assumed that the appeal of Patience would be short-lived; the object of Gilbert's satire was thought to be too topical, too much of its time, for future generations to get the joke. Gilbert himself worried about this. Patience pokes fun at the Aesthetic Movement, a literary and artistic craze which had been raging in England for twenty years before Patience's premiere. The plot involves two rival poets, Reginald Bunthorne, "a long-haired Aesthetic," and Archibald Grosvenor, and a company of Dragoon Guards, all vying for the affections of the milkmaid Patience and a chorus of twenty lovesick maidens. Bunthorne loves Patience but his love is unrequited. The Dragoons want to win over the lovesick maidens, who are hopelessly, rapturously, and unanimously infatuated with Bunthorne, the "melancholy literary man." Actually, the maidens were once engaged to the Dragoon Guards, but now hold them in disdain.

LADY ANGELA: The 35th Dragoon Guards!
LADY SAPHIR: They are fleshly men, of full habit!
LADY ELLA: We care nothing for Dragoon Guards!
PATIENCE: But, bless me, you were all engaged to them a year ago!
LADY ANGELA: My poor child, you don't understand these things. A year ago they were very well in our eyes, but since then our tastes have been etherealized, our perceptions exalted.

The maidens' current emotional state is summarized by Lady Saphir:

There is a transcendentality of delirium -- an acute accentuation of supremest ecstasy -- which the earthly might easily mistake for indigestion. But it is not indigestion -- it is aesthetic transfiguration!

Rival poets Bunthorne and Grosvenor.

"Twenty lovesick maidens we." (I count just 18.)

And a chorus of "heavy Dragoons."

The particulars of the Aesthetic Movement, and the plot-twists of the opera, don't really matter. Patience is full of obscure, topical references that would require a heavily annotated libretto to explain. While familiar and hilarious to a London audience of 1881, the excesses of the Aesthetic Movement mean little or nothing to most of us now.

Then why (he asked) is Patience still funny?

Because (he replied) in Bunthorne we see a type we all recognize: the cultural con man.
In Act One, in order to impress Patience, Bunthorne is seen in the agonies of creation, composing a poem:

BUNTHORNE: It is a wild, weird, fleshly thing; yet very tender, very yearning, very precious. It is called "'Oh, Hollow! Hollow! Hollow!"
PATIENCE: Is it a hunting song?
BUNTHORNE: No, it is not a hunting song. It is the wail of the poet's heart on discovering that everything is commonplace. To understand it, cling passionately to one another and think of faint lilies.

Having recited his opaque poem, Bunthorne finds he has wowed the lovesick maidens but left Patience unmoved:

LADY ANGELA: How purely fragrant!
LADY SAPHIR: How earnestly precious!
PATIENCE: Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.
LADY SAPHIR: Nonsense, yes, perhaps -- but oh, what precious nonsense!

Later, Bunthorne is left alone on the stage and his demeanor suddenly changes. In a mock-melodramatic recitative (Sullivan was a skillful, clever parodist of grand opera and oratorio) the poet confidentially reveals all to us:

Am I alone
And unobserved? I am.
Then let me own,
I'm an Aesthetic sham!

This air severe
Is but a mere
This cynic smile
Is but a wile
Of guile.
This costume chaste
Is but good taste

Let me confess:
A languid love for lilies does not blight me;
Lank limbs and haggard cheeks do
not delight me;
I do
not care for dirty greens by any means;
I do
not long for all one sees that's Japanese;
I am not fond of uttering platitudes
In stained-glass attitudes;
In short, my mediævalism's affectation,
Born of a morbid love of admiration!

He follows with a song (two-thirds of which I reproduce here) advising us how to play the Aesthete and impress the Philistines:

If you're anxious for to shine in the high Aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms and plant them ev'rywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind;
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
And ev'ryone will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!"

Then a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion must excite your languid spleen,
An attachment à la Plato for a bashful young potato or a not-too-French French bean!
Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high Aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediæval hand.
And ev'ryone will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
"If he's content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!"

Bunthorne was originally played as a composite spoof of Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne; I've read that the character was originally costumed to resemble the painter Whistler. Knowing full well he was one of its targets, Wilde attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's latest hit at the then-new Savoy Theatre -- flower in hand, of course, for maximum attention and publicity -- and enjoyed it immensely.

Act Two contains a surprising coup de théâtre which never fails to get laughs. Having failed to win the maidens' hearts with their martial bearing and resplendent military uniforms, the Dragoons change costumes and do their best to go all Aesthetic. (They'll do anything to get chicks!)

If this is not exactly right, we hope you won't upbraid;
You can't get high Aesthetic tastes, like trousers, ready-made.
True views on Mediævalism time alone will bring,
But as far as we can judge, it's something like this sort of thing:
You hold yourself like this,
You hold yourself like that,
By hook and crook you try to look both angular and flat.
To cultivate the trim
Rigidity of limb,
You ought to get a marionette and form your style on him!

It's been almost sixty years since I first learned Patience from LPs and performances by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company on tour in New York. Since then I've been reminded of Bunthorne countless times. Whenever I hear an avant-gardist explicating some inexplicable work of art, I think of him. Whenever I see a perfectly ordinary, pleasant, upper-middle-class kid affecting a scary punk uniform of torn jeans, spiked hair, piercings, and tattoos, Bunthorne springs to mind. Bunthornes seem to be everywhere on the music scene, strutting and preening (when not brooding cryptically) on the concert stage, producing their own twenty-first-century brand of "precious nonsense." A hundred and thirty years after Patience's premiere, "affectation born of a morbid love of admiration" is still in ample supply. And there's no shortage of credulous lovesick maidens, both male and female.

This is why Patience remains apt and funny to me, despite the fact that the object of its satire is long gone. Artistic movements come and go, but b.s. is forever.

As far as i'm concerned, Martyn Green, principal D'Oyly Carte comedian from 1934 to 1951, owned Bunthorne's "If you're anxious for to shine..." but I don't have Green's recording handy. In this concert version, Michael Ball does a good job with it. It lacks atmosphere, costume, and context, but it'll give you the flavor of Bunthorne's recitative and song.

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