Sunday, 6 March 2011

"Strange the views some people hold"

About a week since, I was in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's last collaborative operetta, The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel. It's rarely performed - many G&S enthusiasts have never actually done it, though I may end up doing it twice in one year - but this is not really justified. One might assume that since it was the last, and the pair were by this point getting a bit sick of each other, it would be less good, less polished. But it still contains some brilliant stuff. It's true that in its entirety, it is somewhat long and unwieldy. A certain amount of editing is, if not actually required, then at least highly advisable. But if you do that editing, you can come up with a highly enjoyable show. My mother even said she thought The Grand Duke was the most professional looking production she'd seen me in. I am sceptical on this point - I think she may have been partially influenced by the set, which certainly did look rather professional - but regardless, it is certainly true that once the production came together and we got the energy and enthusiasm going, it was a brilliant show.

The characters are a bit odd - there is only one really big male role, and then the others simply have their own particular bits - some of them very good bits, but still just bits - whereas there are, I'd say, two or three sizeable enough female parts (Subject to what songs and dialogue get cut, of course). None of the female parts are as big as the main male part, of course (This is a general pattern in G&S, sadly), but they are fairly well up there.
Of course, as I recall from wikipedia, the reason for this is partly because Gilbert and Sullivan were writing for specific performers at the time. IIRC, the part of Rudolph was originally going to be a bit bigger, but then they couldn't get the actor they originally had it in mind for, so the part was reduced in size.

More detailed look at the characters:

Rudolph - Grand Duke of Pfennig Halbpfennig. Exceedingly miserly, and generally hated by the people. Supposedly somewhat despotic, though the character we see in the show gives no particular indications of any malice, so perhaps it's simply that he has an unpopularly miserly approach to public spending. Appears for the last third or so of act 1, leaving partway through the act 1 finale, and then the very end of act 2.
Ernest Dummkopf - A theatrical manager. His company are all involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Rudolph, in which case he will be the new Grand Duke, on the condition that his company fill all the positions in his court, ranked according to their position in the company. Somewhat exasperated by the difficulties of organising the company. Appears for the first half to middle of act 1, one scene mid-act 2 and then the end.
Ludwig - Leading comedian of Ernest's theatrical company. Very egotistical. Apparently Gilbert based him on a type of performer he disliked, because they were too prone to improvising rather than sticking to the script - as such, Ludwig gets into a certain amount of trouble in the show due to him improvising. On the other hand, he is the central character of the show, and things do turn out well enough for him, so perhaps Gilbert did not quite succeed in humbling such performers, if that was his goal. Hardly ever offstage.
Notary - Solicitor for the conspiracy to overthrow the Grand Duke. Mostly exists to explain the crucial plot point of the statutory duel. On for slightly longer than Ernest's initial period, comes back for the act 1 finale. There is then no particular reason why he couldn't be onstage for a few of the act 2 chorus scenes (Though he is not specifically required for them), so long is he is off for a while before the end.
Prince of Monte Carlo - His daughter was engaged in infancy to Rudolph. However he has been bankrupt for years and therefore unable to leave his palace for fear of arrest, until he invented roulette, as he explains. Though in the original run of The Grand Duke Gilbert cut the roulette song, despite the fact it's one of the best pieces of music in the show. (This is perhaps the main indication of declining quality due to the decline of the writing partnership - Gilbert perhaps made some unwise directorial decisions because he didn't really care so much any more) Appears for the second half of act 2.
Herald - Has one song, announcing the arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo. But it's a really good song. Appears just before the Prince, but doesn't necessarily have to remain onstage to the end - as such, could possibly be doubled up with Ernest, Rudolph or the Notary. Was played in our production by me.

Lisa - Engaged to Ludwig, and adores him. Gets rather distraught when he has to leave her. Rather shy and retiring. Not a great amount of spoken lines, but a considerable amount of singing (Though a certain amount of it can be safely cut out), and she's certainly onstage a lot (Most of the time that Ludwig is, except for a couple of scenes).
Julia Jellicoe - Ernest's leading lady. Supposed to be english, while the rest of the cast are supposed to be german. As such, Julia is traditionally done with a thick german accent. Personally, I'd much rather do without it. Very confident and forthright, with a fiery temper. On for most of Ernest's section of act 1, plus the act 1 finale, and then most of act 2.
Baroness Caroline von Krakenfeldt - Engaged to Rudolph, as she shares his views on extreme economy. Also has something of a temper. In our production, she spent quite a while drunk, starting from her song about the wonders of good champagne. Only has one scene in act 1, but then comes on early in act 2 and only goes off for one scene in the middle.
Princess of Monte Carlo - Engaged in infancy to Rudolph, but has been unable to fulfil that marriage contract (See description of the Prince). Onstage for the same period as the Prince.
Olga, Gretchen, Bertha, Elsa, Martha - Members of the theatre company and conspiracy. Only have particular lines in act 1, so could potentially double up with the Princess, costumier and/or supernumeraries (See below).

Also a couple of bit parts, the Viscount Mentone (A couple of spoken lines) and the Costumier (One sung line and a few spoken ones). Additionally in the entry of the Prince there are five supernumeraries in addition to Mentone, as well as the main chorus. Originally supposed to be all men, as was the Costumier, but there's no reason why they can't be female. Rudolph, Ernest and the Notary can also potentially double up as these parts. While the supernumeraries are in a sense just a mini-chorus for that scene, they should be a bit more than just background.

Rapid plot summary! Conspiracy, may only be discussed once one has both given and received the secret sign - eating a sausage roll. Unfortunately the Grand Duke's detective rather likes sausage rolls, so he finds out about the plot. Notary provides a solution - a statutory duel. Laws in Pfennig Halbpfennig last 100 years unless revived in the meantime, so in fact the law about statutory duels will expire tomorrow afternoon. By this means, Ernest and Ludwig will duel, by drawing cards. Whoever draws the lowest card is considered legally dead and the survivor takes his place. The survivor confesses the plot to Rudolph, blaming the dead man for it, and is pardoned. The following day the dead man returns to life, with a clean slate, as though nothing had happened. Ernest draws a king, Ludwig an ace. Ernest dies.
Rudolph explains to the Baroness about the Princess, nice scene, Baroness leaves, then he reads his detective's report and panics about how he's going to be deposed and killed. Enter Ludwig. Rudolph continues panicking, so Ludwig offers to save him with another statutory duel - so Ludwig will be deposed and killed instead (Naturally he neglects to mention that he was responsible for the plot).
Act 1 finale - They have the statutory duel (Fixed, cards up their sleeves). Rudolph draws a king and Ludwig an ace, again. Rudolph dies. Ludwig announces that he's reviving the law about statutory duels, and will keep Ernest's promise to fill his court with members of the theatrical company, according to professional position. Therefore, as the leading lady, Julia must be the Grand Duchess and marry Ludwig. Lisa is distraught.
Act 2. Ludwig and Julia have certain disagreements. The Baroness arrives, and of course since Ludwig has taken Rudolph's place, he is now engaged to her. Lisa is still distraught and Julia is enraged.
Ernest discovers from Julia that the law's been revived and so he won't be coming to life in an hour or so. He panics.
The Baroness sings a song about how great champagne is, so long as you don't pay for it yourself. Then the Herald arrives to announce the arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo and his daughter. Ludwig of course has no idea what's going on, but decides to have a bit of fun with them. Exit Ludwig and chorus, enter Prince, Princess, Herald, Costumier and supernumeraries. The supernumeraries, it turns out, are standing in for the nobles who would be expected to accompany the Prince and Princess for the Princess' wedding. Ludwig and the chorus come on and do some sort of dance in which the supernumeraries, and possibly the Herald and Costumier (Depending on how the director feels) get kicked offstage. It is explained that, of course, Ludwig is now also engaged to the Princess. But just before they can go get married, Ernest, Rudolph and the Notary arrive. The Notary explains that in fact, in statutory duels, the ace counts as lowest, so in fact Ludwig is the one who is dead. Ernest is restored to Julia, Rudolph gets the Princess, the Baroness may pair up with the Prince, though this is not specified, then the statutory duel act expires, Ludwig comes back to life and is restored to Lisa, and everyone is happy!

I suppose that wasn't particularly rapid. But it's one of the more complicated plots.

OK, so on possible issues with the show. Rudolph mentions that the marriage contract with the Princess is void "at two tomorrow" (That is, the day that is the second act). This seems pointless if it's not invoked, and matches up neatly with the expiration of the statutory duel, so one might expect Rudolph to get out of it and return to the Baroness, to whom he does seem rather well suited. Of course this leaves the Prince and Princess on their own, so it's not such a good solution. Then there's Julia and Ernest. Julia indicates clearly enough that she doesn't like Ernest that much, but just wants to be the Grand Duchess, so why does she pair up with him at the end? These issues can be overcome by good performances, but it's still curious. I once saw mention of a rewrite of the final scene to deal with these problems, but it seemed rather convoluted. I think it's best to leave the ending as it is, and just accept the oddities, but I mention them anyway.
And then there's the big one - the length. Much of The Grand Duke is somewhat superfluous, as is indicated by the fact that when I saw our director's cut of the script, I didn't notice most of what he'd removed. The story flowed perfectly well without it. Of course, some of these bits could be added back in without damaging the quality. Not all of them in the same production, perhaps, but some of them. And I imagine some of what he left in could be removed, similarly. I don't want to go on too long, so I'll just pick out a few bits which were cut from our production on which I have some thoughts.

1. The song from which I took the title of this blog post. About duelling. Very much superfluous. Though I do quite like the lines before it. "It’s not like a duel with swords. I hate a duel with swords. It’s not the blade I mind – it’s the blood" "And I hate a duel with pistols. It’s not the ball I mind – it’s the bang" "Altogether it is a great improvement on the old method of giving satisfaction."
But then, I don't know if those lines work as well as a cue for the next song.

2. Ludwig's recit and song immediately after the opening of act 2. I love the recit, but you can't really have it without the song, which basically just reiterates something already mentioned in the act 1 finale, then waffles on for three rather lengthy and pointless verses. I've heard that some productions put that recit in place of the one before the following song, but on the other hand, I've heard some rather negative views of that song, and it was cut from our production as well.

3. Some more lines, but the main one which springs to mind is one of Ludwig's when he has just been claimed by the Princess: "Here’s another! – the fourth in four‑and‑twenty hours! Would anybody else like to marry me? You, ma’am – or you – anybody! I’m getting used to it!"

4. Rudolph's song just before the final section of dialogue and the finale. I really like the song, but I can definitely understand why one would cut it - having just had the line "The law forbids the banns," one should proceed to explain it directly and build to the climax of the show. It's somewhat counter-intuitive to say something astounding and then pause to sing a song before explaining it. But it's a very good song, and gives Rudolph more of a part in act 2. Having thought about it a bit, my considered opinion is that there should be an extra scene somewhere in act 2, somewhere around 'Come bumpers', to serve as essentially Rudolph's equivalent of Ernest's scene in act 2. Include the song, Rudolph outraged that his money is being frittered away and to discover that the law has been revived - thus giving him a reason to be consulting the Notary about it as well as Ernest. Also gives more of a reason for the separation of Rudolph and the Baroness, since in the second verse he describes her as a flibberty-gibberty kind of a liberty.
Of course, there is a significant problem with this solution, namely that someone would have to write this hypothetical scene, and W.S. Gilbert has unfortunately been dead for some time.

... I was going to record a video of me singing that song, but I can't really be bothered at this point.

One thing I wanted to comment on - economy. Brought up of course by both Rudolph and the Baroness, it's a point which struck something of a chord with me. Because, other than the fact the two of them do in fact have plenty of money with which they could buy things if they wanted, it is essentially the student mentality - spending no money unnecessarily, lest you run out. Thus the Baroness singing about wine:
"Old wine is a true panacea for every conceivable ill,
If you cherish the soothing idea that somebody else pays the bill"
"But there's a distinction decided, a difference truly immense,
When the wine that you drink is provided, provided, at somebody else's expense..."
(I love it when other people buy me drinks)
But the biggest bit of it is of course Rudolph and the Baroness' duet (In which I was generally slightly confused in our production since we cut from the start of the first verse to the middle of the second - understandable, but I'd rather have the whole song). I just particularly love the chorus (Perhaps that's the wrong word, given the chorus are not in the song. Refrain?)
"Then let us be modestly merry,
And rejoice with a derry down derry,
For to laugh and to sing no extravagance bring
It's a joy economical very!"
I just love that as a sentiment. One should certainly be careful with one's money - pragmatism is only sensible - but to laugh, sing, and rejoice costs nothing, and the pursuit of joy is something to be lauded.

I like to try and rejoice where I can.


  1. I'm a terrible drunk!

    The supernumaries were the best part! THE BEST PART! Just fyi =p

  2. I, too, am sad that Rudolph's Act 2 song and Ludwig's hilarious 'anyone else like to marry me' line were cut. One day I am going to put on an un-cut Grand Duke. One day...x