When anyone has the impertinence to ask why the Met puts on The Magic Flute every
Christmas (with its song, and—note–dialogue sections in English no less for the benefit of
youthful audience members) and yet has never staged a Penzance or Mikado, the stock reply runs something as follows: Gilbert and Sullivan can never join the ranks of serious “opera” because it is too light–too satirical, nonsensical, and altogether frivolous. Feigning temporary ignorance of the comic favorites that regularly rock the famous Lincoln Center stage (The Marriage of Figaro for one), we are faced with an interesting question: is G&S really as frivolously shallow as all that? I think not, and the coronavirus has proved it to me.

I was leading my regiment from behind and dreaming of polishing off batches of political dispatches in a distant island kingdom long before “Armageddon,” as we quickly took to calling it, struck the Harvard world in March. In the ensuing weeks and months, however, as I adjusted to life at home, classes on Zoom, and an entirely unpredictable future, one number from the Gondoliers surged into my consciousness with a unique affective power: the Act One quintet with Don Alhambra, the Duke and Duchess, Casilda, and Luiz. (“Try We Life-long”)

The plot, so to speak, has just thickened, with all the stereotyped ingredients of Victorian melodrama. Don Alhambra, having just revealed to Casilda that he does not know which of two gondolieri is her betrothed, reassures her in a recitative section with a typical touch of Gilbertian humor: “Submit to Fate without unseemly wrangle./ Such complications frequently occur.” Following this ludicrously laissez-faire pronouncement, however, Gilbert suddenly pivots. The following “Try we Life-long” is on an entirely different note, arguably among the most “serious” numbers in the canon. Yet what, you may say, of the truly heartrending numbers, such as Fairfax’s “Is Life a Boon”? There is an intriguing and important irony here. “Is Life a Boon” sets out to be a grand operatic tenor aria, or at least draws heavily from that tradition. And yet, in a Gilbertian world seriousness cannot help sabotaging itself. The emotional weight of Fairfax’s opening lines is subsequently undermined by lyrics such as “What kind of plaint have I,/ Who perish in July?,” which for all Sullivan’s efforts cannot escape the hint of a tongue in the cheek.


The irony, then, lies in the realization that if at the end of the day the heartrending cannot escape the funny, artful wit can be more heartrending that the heartrending itself. The intricate alliterating and rhyming verbiage of the quintet mirrors our attitude as we “hop and skip to Fancy’s fiddle.” We must make the best of life, dancing and singing with wild abandon in the face of uncertain Fate and especially of death, a word which Gilbert uses with startling directness at the end of the preceding recitative. (“Death is the only true unraveller.”) Here for once the comic genius is playing the ultimate joke on itself, turning the very fact of its satirical brilliance into something deeply tragic. Satisfied with the verbal veneer of lightheartedness, Gilbert is free to issue his most profound reflection on the human condition, a distinctively Victorian reworking of an age-old sentiment: if there is no resurrection, says Paul in the New Testament, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”; human life is like the waters of the mighty Yellow River, says the medieval Chinese poet Li Bai, flowing into the sea and never returning. Our only solution is to “never let our golden goblets sit empty as we drink under moonlight.” The most famous incarnation of this in formal “opera” is undoubtedly the Brindisi in La Traviata.


Showing yet another example of the mysterious creative telepathy between two very different men, Sullivan’s music catches the tension perfectly. Playing on the aural idioms and emotional range of the madrigal, it starts off with “try we lifelong, we can never…” on a romping, energetic note. “Life’s a pudding full of plums” begins to introduce more serious strains, “Set aside the dull enigma” burns with renewed determination, before more sober elements take back over for a haunting, elegiac climax with “String the lyre fill the cup/ Lest on sorrow we should sup.” “Hop and skip” is back to the energy and cheer of the opening, while “Life’s perhaps the only riddle” through the end finds the same middle ground as the words: older, wiser, artfully bridging sorrow and optimism.


Countless times over the past seven months I have been indescribably comforted by “Try We Life-long.” Life at Harvard was indeed a pudding full of the richest plums, full of singing and laughter and long, engaged conversation over dining-hall dinners. Care struck with a sudden vengeance. Yet we must keep singing, both literally (ask my parents and brother), and in our hearts. As always, Gilbert says it best:

String the lyre, fill the cup,
Lest on sorrow we should sup.
Hop and skip to Fancy’s fiddle,
Hands across and down the middle —
Life’s perhaps the only riddle
That we shrink from giving up!
Life’s perhaps the only riddle
That we shrink from giving up!
Then take it as it comes,
Take it as it comes.
String the lyre, fill the cup,
Lest on sorrow we should sup.
Take life as it comes!

One thought on “Life’s a Pudding Full of Plums, Care’s a Canker that Benumbs

  1. Thank you for this most uplifting article, every word a pleasure reminding us to treasure life’s fleeting moments of joy. I would follow Gilbert’s sage advice to hop and skip if I could!

    Like

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