Sunday, May 22, 2011

Life-long Love Affair

By Lisabet Sarai

I have a confession to make. I've been in love for most of my life - since I was about five years old, in fact. In love with a married man. Who's been dead for just a few days short of one hundred years. Not only am I enamored of this man, I've used him as a character in my writing.

I'm talking about William S. Gilbert, the master lyricist and comic genius responsible for Ruddigore, Iolanthe, The Yeomen of the Guard and the rest of the dozen or so works in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire.

I'm fond of poor beleaguered Arthur Sullivan, too, with his misguided desire to break free of his testy collaborator and their topsy-turvey world in order to write "serious" music. Indeed, neither Gilbert's nor Sullivan's solo efforts ever came close to the brilliance of their joint productions. But I'm a word girl, so it's Gilbert who really turns me on, with his penchant for abstruse vocabulary and delightfully intricate and unexpected rhymes:

When you're lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is taboo'd by anxiety,

I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in without impropriety;

For your brain is on fire - the bedclothes conspire of usual slumber to plunder you:

First your counterpane goes and uncovers your toes, and your sheet slips demurely from under you;

Then the blanketing tickles - you feel like mixed pickles - so terribly sharp is the pricking,

And you're hot, and you're cross, and you tumble and toss till there's nothing 'twixt you and the ticking.

Then the bedclothes all creep to the ground in a heap, and you pick 'em all up in a tangle;

Next your pillow resigns and politely declines to remain at its usual angle!

(Lord Chancellor's song from Iolanthe)


Our great Mikado, virtuous man

When he to rule our land began,

Resolved to try

A plan whereby

Young men might best be steadied.

So he decreed, in words succinct,

That all who flirted, leered or winked

(Unless connubially linked),

Should forthwith be beheaded.

(Pish Tush's song from The Mikado)

I've already written one Grip post ( about my life-time love affair with Gilbert and Sullivan. One of my dearest possessions is a Modern Library edition of The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan. It's so old that it does not appear to have a copyright date. The flyleaf, however, bears an inscription from my aunt to her younger sister, my mother, dated June 20, 1940 and expressing the hope that "she will learn to enjoy the witty dialogue of Mr. Gilbert to which Mr. Sullivan set such charming tunes".

I guess my love of the dynamic D'Oyly Carte duo runs in the family. Maybe it's even hereditary.

Here's another confession - one of my most fervent secret desires. Someday I want to play the role of Mad Margaret in Ruddigore. I've never cared all that much for most G&S heroines. For the most part , they're TSTL ("too stupid to live"). They also demonstrate unfortunate tendencies toward selfishness and social climbing. The secondary female characters - Katisha in The Mikado, the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe, and especially Margaret - are far more intriguing. Katisha is the well-seasoned "daughter-in-law elect"of the Mikado, who admits to being "just a little teeny weeny wee bit bloodthirsty". The Fairy Queen, "inclined to be stout", struggles to keep her literally and figuratively flighty troupe of fairies in line as well as to mortify her own carnal impulses. And Margaret - well, she's practically a BDSM heroine, passionately devoted and forever true to the dark baronet who led her to her ecstatic ruin (or so at least I'd like to believe) and then abandoned her.

Katisha and Margaret both have fabulous solos, too, which I could probably sing since they're both contraltos rather than sopranos. My dream has a limited likelihood of being realized, however, since I've never learned to sight read music (though I can sing almost any tune after listening to it a few times). I actually did audition for a G&S role once - Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore. It was a sadly humbling experience.

Ah well. I can dream. I do write fiction, after all.

Indeed, as I noted earlier, I've written an erotic story featuring Gilbert and Sullivan, called "Opening Night", which is now available as part of my ebook short story collection Body Electric. The story imagines a homoerotic attraction between Gilbert and one of the players in the premier production of Ruddigore:


Gilbert found that Wilson had already installed himself in Lely's dressing room. The young man sprawled in a chair, legs carelessly apart, breathing heavily. Sweat beaded his forehead. Gilbert was perversely pleased to see that the apparently effortless performance had in fact cost Wilson something.

"Well, Mr. Wilson. That was well done, especially for the first time."

Frank grinned. "It was, rather." He leaned forward like a conspirator. "I could tell that you at least enjoyed it."

Gilbert cleared his throat. He smelled acrid perspiration, laced with lilac. "I could appreciate your talent, certainly."

"Come on now, admit it. You loved it. You couldn't take your eyes off me."

Gilbert's dizziness returned briefly. The intensity of Frank's gaze unnerved him.

"Tell me that you enjoyed it, William." Wilson grabbed both of Gilbert's hands and pulled him closer. Gilbert didn't have the wit to pull himself away. "Tell me how you didn't dare blink for fear you'd miss something. How hard your heart beat as you watched me, performing for you." The arrogance suddenly melted from Frank's face, to be replaced by raw need. "I've been trying for so very long now to get you to notice to me."

"Mr. Wilson, please." Gilbert tried without success to release himself from the younger man's powerful grip.

"Frank. Call me Frank. I want to hear you say my Christian name." He drew Gilbert's hand to his chest.

"Feel my heart, William. Feel how it's beating, for you."

Sure enough, Gilbert felt the strong, even rhythm through the damp cotton of Wilson's costume, which rose and fell beneath his palm. His own breathing was ragged and labored. On their own accord, his fingertips wandered across the young man's chest, tracing the ridges of muscle down to the abdomen. There was something about this brash youth, some kind of perfection that was almost painful.

Frank sat completely still under Gilbert's touch, his eyes moist, his lips parted. A flush climbed up his fair cheeks. Sweat-soaked blond curls clung to his brow. "Yes," he whispered. "Oh yes!"

Gilbert started, as if waking from some dream. Deliberately, he drew his hand away, trying to recover his dignity. "Mr. Wilson. You're embarrassing me, and I should think you'd feel embarrassed as well."

"I'm not embarrassed, or ashamed, William. I want you, and I don't care who knows it. You’re a comic genius, unappreciated by ordinary stiffs like Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte. And what’s more, with your bearish body and your wild whiskers and that brusque manner you adopt to camouflage your soft heart, you’re as attractive as hell."

Frank cupped his swelling groin in one hand, daring Gilbert to look away. He pointed at the noticeable bulge in the director's trousers. "You may pretend to be shocked or horrified, but the truth is pretty obvious."

"I -- you --" A knock interrupted Gilbert's sputtering attempts at self-justification. Grossmith stuck his head into the dressing room.

"Rehearsal in five minutes, Frank. Better be on time if you don't want to the old Mustachio to get into a tizzy. Oh! Mr. Gilbert, sir, I didn't realize you were here."

Gilbert rose hastily. "I was just discussing some of the nuances of the character with Mr. Wilson. Meanwhile, you should be more aware of your audience, Mr. Grossmith, before you deliver your lines."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir."

"Never mind. Let's get the rehearsal started." Halfway out to door, Gilbert glanced back at the understudy. "On stage, Mr. Wilson."

Frank's tone flirted with insolence. "Of course, Mr. Gilbert. Right away, sir."


Sometimes, given my long-time attraction to corsets, turrets and lace-up boots, I'm convinced I had a previous life in Victorian times. I seem to understand, at some visceral level, the delicious tension between public propriety and private indulgence for which the Victorians were so noted. I wonder if I might not have actually witnessed a G&S performance in person. Maybe that would explain the draw?

Who knows? History records that Gilbert had a close relationship with his wife, but could I have been his mistress? Now there's a starting point for a story.


  1. I chortled all the way through this. It's a delightful post, Lisabet.

  2. I consider it quite an accomplishment to wring even a single chortle out of you, RG!


  3. Interesting point! I agree with you about the 'Second Lady' in G&S getting much better roles: if I were female I'd rather be Buttercup than Josephine, and Ruth (Pirates) has a lot more fun than Mabel!

    As a tenor I've sung all the lead roles, and it's hard for me to choose between Nanki-Poo and Ralph Rackstraw as my personal favourite.

    From your topic title, I wasexpecting something more serious and if we're into "confession time"asyouhintat in your Invitation, I'll admit freely and without any attempt to hide: if my ex ever knocked on my door and said "Help" ... or even rang to say "Can we try again?" my only possible answer would be "Welcome Home".

    THAT is a torch I will carry gladly to the end of my days - recalling memories of a contemporary of Mr.Gilbert, Sir Henry Newbolt who wrote Vitae Lampada, a poem in which he encourages youth to "Play up, play up, and play the game"

    Old-fashioned? Naive? Who cares: not me!!

  4. Years ago I saw an amateur performance of Iolanthe - one of the fairies tripped on stage chewing gum, suddenly realized she shouldn't be and spent the rest of her time on stage with the star at then end of her wand covering her mouth. My favorite line from Iolanthe from the hero - "But I'm only half a fairy!"

  5. I confess now I'm very curious about Gilbert and Sullivan. Anyone who came make a ryhme of "anxiety" and "propriety", and another of "mixed pickles" earns my deepest amazement. Or as Mack Daddy would say "You got to respect that shit."

    And for the excerpt having much to do with mixed pickles in another way I was much cheered that a man of bearish figure could still be attractive since my own figure is becoming more bearish all the time.

    I will say one thing though, as someone who knows little about Gilbert and Sullivan I'll have a bear of time figuring out what to write in a couple of days. That's always the creative challenge of being on this blog, its like a kind of party game where someone speaks out a word and you have to match it. Somehow. I can imagine the fun Gilbert would have had with that.


  6. Hello, Paul,

    I envy you, having had the chance to sing G&S! I think I'd choose Nanki-Poo - he's clever enough to escape from the path chosen for him and get his own way.

    As for the come-on in my email invitation - hey, it's advertising!! Anyway, I think I've written about my life-long amorous passions often enough that readers might be bored!

  7. Hi, JP,

    Yes, I love that line, too! Then there's the point where the Fairy Queen tells Strephon that his lower (human) half will be their "particular concern"!

    Ruddigore and Iolanthe are my two favorites, even though they're not as popular as The Mikado or Pinafore.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  8. Hey, Garce,

    I'll know you'll come up with something great, as you always do!

    But if you're not familiar with G&S - you're in for a treat. People don't use the English language that way any more.


  9. Great post, Lisabet. Yes...a story with you as Gilberts mistress - captivating excerpt you added, left me wanting more.

    I'm embarrassed to say I recognized the names Gilbert and Sullivan, but never new anything about them. You've given me some history here. Thanks for sharin.