Written by Ned Sanger

Virginia Woolf was born in the Victorian era and lived to tell the tale of it in her novel Orlando. She makes clear what habits and tastes were typical of the artistic upper class in that swampy age: muffins and crumpets, loud harrumphing, restrained eructing, small trotting dogs, tight trousers warring against turgid bellies, and sententious books written in swollen sentences. Nature itself had an allergic reaction. We’re told that soon after King Edward succeeded Queen Victoria, a huge fog over Britain finally dispersed, and the sky “was no longer so thick, so watery, so prismatic.”

That was also the era Gilbert and Sullivan had to live through. Obviously Orlando caricatures it, but the description is on the mark if we take just Queen Victoria’s attitudes, particularly towards Arthur Sullivan. She was a great admirer of his musical talent and a thorough scorner of his comic talent; the two pieces composed by him in which she found most pleasure were a Christian hymn and a lament for his deceased brother; she repeatedly told him that he was squandering his talent by writing comic operettas; when he finally finished a serious opera, she claimed with pride that the great work was “partly owing to her own instigation”; and perhaps this is apocryphal, but apparently after he played for her a song from Pinafore, she raised the hair under his top-hat by hissing “We are not amused.”

Nothing would have displeased rigid Victorians and their queen more than the production of The Pirates of Penzance which HRG&SP is now preparing—i.e., nothing will please the rest of us more. Our stage director Patrick Cressler, music director Mateo Lincoln, and technical director Katie Polik are working with a cast and staff of some of Harvard’s most skilled artists and technicians, while Pirates itself is G&S at their very best: the show redeems not only the whole Victorian era, but even, by means of a clever twist in its final minutes, the name Queen Victoria itself.

Come see it and witness that miracle! Information about dates and tickets is on our “Happening Now” page.

One thought on “Victorian Piety and Modern Piracy

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