And now for something completely different.
….Mrs Brit and I went to see the amateur Clevedon Gilbert and Sullivan Society put on a mmmarvelous Pirates of Penzance (Pirates of Penzances must always be ‘mmmarvelous’) at the Princes’ Theatre last night.
Although the whole cast could sing pleasantly enough with a minimum of bum notes, the production was most notable for the incongruous presence of what must surely have been an ex-pro opera singer in the role of leading lady Mabel. She was a proper, glass-shattering, scrotumtightening soprano, and although you could tell she was trying to rein it in a bit in the duets, she positively overwhelmed the rest of the cast. I’ll bet they loathed her in the green room.
Anyway, if you’ve never seen a G&S, the general idea is this: each character introduces himself in a little song, this introduction being echoed by the chorus (“I am a Major Gen-er-al”, “O he is a Major Gen-er-al”; “I am the Pi-hi-hi-rate King” “O he is the Pi-hi-hi-rate King” etc), which takes up most of the thing and then everyone gets married and it’s the end.
But what G&S really reminds you is that language can be irresistibly funny even without any jokes just by having unexpected rhymes (especially WS Gilbert’s swanky ‘internal rhymes’) and a bouncy rhythm.
For example, the maidens, about to be forcibly married to the pirates, observe:
We have missed our opportunity
Of escaping with impunity;
So farewell to the felicity
Of our maiden domesticity!
We shall quickly be parsonified,
By a doctor of divinity,
Who is located in this vicinity.
There’s something about that “Who is located in this vicinity” that just cracks me up every time.
A bit like world’s worst poet William McGonagal’s unintentionally hilarious (read it out loud for full effect):
Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,
They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.
Humour should never be analysed too much, just enjoyed, but it’s to do with juxtaposition. Mundane facts or grim sentiments expressed in light verse are amusing because the rhythm and rhyme mean that your ear is expecting something twee or sprightly, and the surprise is funny.
I came across a striking example (via David Baddiel’s book column in the Times), in the form of a ‘serious limerick’ by film critic Peter Bradshaw:
An Hiroshima victim called Raoul
Went stumbling around in a cowl
In this grim garb encased
He viewed carnage and waste
And felt misery and pain in his soul.