Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Receipt for that Popular Mystery

If I asked you to list Gilbert and Sullivan operas, you could probably come up with three off the top of your head: H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Did you know that they actually wrote 11 more? It's true! From the outdated feminist critique Princess Ida to the heartbreaking grand opera The Yeomen of the Guard, there's a lot more to Gilbert and Sullivan than high seas mischief and execution antics. With that in mind, let's talk about Patience.

Patience tells the story of Reginald Bunthorne, an Aesthetic (capital A) poet ever-so-loosely based on Oscar Wilde, who falls in love with a simple milkmaid named Patience. While all of the women in town fall madly in love with Bunthorne's pretentious poetry and artistic attitude, Patience remains unimpressed. Things only get worse when her old flame, Archibald Grovesnor, comes to town and steals the affections of Patience - and every other girl in town!

With catchy music, an incisively funny libretto, and some very memorable characters, Patience is a thoroughly charming opera, in spite of a surprise downer ending. My favorite piece comes from the Colonel of the Heavy Dragoons. You see, before the women fell madly in love with Bunthorne (and later, Grovesnor), they were engaged to be married to a squadron of soldiers. When the soldiers return, they sing a song to introduce themselves.

The Heavy Dragoon (also called "If You Want a Receipt for that Popular Mystery") is a patter song in the style of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" or "My Name is John Wellington Wells." These songs are characterized by fast tempos and tongue-twisting rhyme schemes. In this piece, the Colonel lists a number of historical figures whom the dragoons aim to emulate. In this post, I would like to explain who each one is. So, without any further ado:

"The Heavy Dragoon"
by William Schwenck Gilbert

If you want a receipt for that popular mystery,
Known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon,
Take all the remarkable people in history,
Rattle them off to a popular tune!

  • A "heavy dragoon" is an armored footsoldier

The pluck of LORD NELSON on board of the VICTORY -
Genius of BISMARCK devising a plan;The humour of FIELDING (which sounds contradictory) -
Coolness of PAGET about to trepan -

  • Horatio Nelson, aboard the HMS Victory, was a British naval hero
  • Otto von BIsmarck was the founder of modern Germany
  • Henry Fielding was a humorous British novelist
  • James Paget was a British surgeon (trepanning is a medical procedure)
The grace of MOZART, that unparalleled musico -
Wit of MACAULAY, who wrote of QUEEN ANNE -
The pathos of PADDY, as rendered by BOUCICAULT -

  • OK, you should know who Mozart is
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay was an English baron, and wrote biographies of royalty like Queen Anne of England
  • Dion Boucicault was an Irish playwright; Paddy was a character in a song he wrote
  • The Bishop of Sodor and Man was a man named Rowley Hills, DD when Patience premiered
The dash of a D'ORSAY, divested of quackery -
Narrative powers of DICKENS and THACKERAY -

  • Alfred d'Orsay was a French dandy
  • Dickens? Come on now
  • W.M. Thackery was a British novelist
  • Victor Emmanuel was the first king of modern Italy
  • William Peveril was a knight who built a hilltop castle
  • Thomas Aquinas was a Catholic priest and philosopher
  • Henry Sacheverell was an English politician
  • Martin Tupper was an English poet
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson was an English poet
  • Daniel Defoe was a British novelist
  • Anthony Trollope was a British novelist
  • Fran├žois Guizot was a French historian
Take of these elements all that is fusible,
Melt 'em all down in a pipkin or crucible,
Set 'em to simmer and take off the scum,
And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum!

  • A pipkin is a small cooking pot
  • Residuum is a fancy word for residue
If you want a receipt for this soldierlike paragon,
Get at the wealth of the CZAR (if you can) -
The family pride of a Spaniard from Arragon -
Force of MEPHISTO pronouncing a ban -

  • The czar was the ruler of Russia
    • Aragon was a lawful Spanish kingdom
    • Mephisto is the demon from Doctor Faustus
    A smack of LORD WATERFORD, reckless and rollicky -
    Swagger of RODERICK, heading his clan -
    The keen penetration of PADDINGTON POLLAKY -
    Grace of an Odalisque on a divan -
    • Lord Waterford was a nobleman who coined "painting the town red"
    • Roderick was a Gothic king who lived in Spain
    • Paddington Pollaky was a Hungarian private detective (and forerunner of Sherlock Holmes!)
    • An Odalisque was a Turkish concubine
    The genius strategic of CAESAR or HANNIBAL -
    Skill of LORD WOLSELEY in thrashing a cannibal -
    Flavour of HAMLET - the STRANGER, a touch of him -
    Little of MANFRED (but not very much of him) -
    Beadle of Burlington - RICHARDSON'S show -
    • Caesar was the title of a Roman emperor, so this could be a number of people
    • Hannibal was a Carthaginian who attempted to invade Rome
    • Lord Wolseley was a British soldier who served in the far reaches of the world
    • Manfred was the hero of Lord Byron's epic poem of the same name
    • The Beadle of Burlington was a security guard who patrolled the Burlington arcade
    • Richardson's show was a sort of traveling Victorian circus
    • Wilkins Micawber was a character from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield
    • Marie Tussaud was a wax sculptor who founded a museum
    Take of these elements all that is fusible -
    Melt 'em all down in a pipkin or crucible -
    Set 'em to simmer and take off the scum,
    And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum! 

    And that's that! Why not take a listen to the song for yourself? Try to follow along with all the shout-outs.

    Big thanks to the Patience Glossary for helping me out on a few head-scratchers.

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