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The Screw May Twist: English National Opera and Gilbert and Sullivan

I have long felt that if the phrase “English National Opera” means anything, it means Gilbert and Sullivan. Their comic operas are as thoroughly English as anything ever written, and have even arguably had a hand in creating what we now think “Englishness” is – including an attitude of irony and mockery towards the idea of Englishness itself.

It surprises me that only now is the company called English National Opera (ENO) producing the most “operatic” of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, The Yeomen of the Guard. I have not seen their production, so I will not comment on it, though I may mention that as a general rule I prefer Gilbert’s works to be performed as written, unless a change is absolutely necessary (an example of a necessary change is the editing out of the N word from The Mikado, a change which occurred back in the 1940s).

The funding crisis which is engulfing ENO at present and which threatens its existence is scandalous. But it would not have surprised Gilbert too much. He viewed human nature with a critical eye and was clear-sighted and very unsentimental about the attitudes of power towards those below.

This is shown very clearly in The Yeomen of the Guard itself – though the natural human instinct to listen to the music of a song and not its words means that the point is easy to miss. “When our gallant Norman foes”, which is sung by Dame Carruthers, Housekeeper to the Tower of London sometime in the 16th Century, requires close reading. Here it is, along with some necessary dialogue which leads up to it:

PHOEBE…. this wicked Tower, like a cruel giant in a fairy-tale, must be fed with blood, and that blood must be the best and bravest in England, or it’s not good enough for the old Blunderbore.  Ugh!

DAME CARRUTHERS.  Silence, you silly girl; you know not what you say.  I was born in the old keep, and I’ve grown grey in it, and, please God, I shall die and be buried in it; and there’s not a stone in its walls that is not as dear to me as my right hand.

SONG WITH CHORUS – Dame Carruthers and Yeomen

When our gallant Norman foes
Made our merry land their own,
And the Saxons from the Conqueror were flying,
At his bidding it arose,
In its panoply of stone,
A sentinel unliving and undying.
Insensible, I trow,
As a sentinel should be,
Though a queen to save her head should come a-suing,
There’s a legend on its brow
That is eloquent to me,
And it tells of duty done and duty doing.

The screw may twist and the rack may turn,
And men may bleed and men may burn,
O’er London town and its golden hoard
I keep my silent watch and ward!

Within its wall of rock
The flower of the brave
Have perished with a constancy unshaken.
From the dungeon to the block,
From the scaffold to the grave,
Is a journey many gallant hearts have taken.
And the wicked flames may hiss
Round the heroes who have fought
For conscience and for home in all its beauty,
But the grim old fortalice
Takes little heed of aught
That comes not in the measure of its duty.

The screw may twist and the rack may turn,
And men may bleed and men may burn,
O’er London town and its golden hoard
I keep my silent watch and ward!

Dudley Hardy’s poster for an 1897 production of The Yeomen of the Guard.

It’s important to read the lyric in the right way. Dame Carruthers’ response sounds as if it ought to be a rebuttal of Phoebe’s condemnation of the Tower of London (and the power it symbolises) as a bloodthirsty giant devouring its people. But in fact Dame Carruthers is saying something quite different: she says, in essence, that yes, the Tower of London is a cruel beast that cares nothing of humanity. And she adds: that is what I love about it. Gilbert, even here, is being an ironist; and it is important to understand that irony is not always meant to be funny.

In Dame Carruthers’ song, the Tower of London symbolises the “duty” of patriotism to safeguard “London town and its golden hoard”: not the people of London, who may burn at the stake for the sake of “conscience” and “home” for all it cares, but the place itself, and especially the loot of gold that it has acquired by fair means or foul. The emphasis on wealth is important – though easily missed in performance, where an audience’s ears may easily mistake London’s “hoard” of gold for its “horde” of people.

The Yeomen of the Guard casts an unsentimental eye on the British past – not historically accurate in its details, but truthful, I think, in spirit. Power crushes the powerless, including the brave and the noble… and also the weak and the sensitive, as we see in the Jack Point subplot. The fetishising of the importance of the nation’s “golden hoard” over human life itself was something that Gilbert saw with a pitiless eye. ENO might take note of it during its nightly performances of the opera.


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