Princess Ida

While not as seriously flawed as Utopia, Limited or The Grand Duke, Princess Ida brings its own challenges.  These include the operetta’s three act structure and its dialogue in blank verse.  There are those who would also argue that another, more significant challenge with the operetta is its sexism.

It is certainly understandable why some would believe this to be the case.  Princess Ida tells the story of a woman who rejects the patriarchal world in which she was raised, and strives to create a better world for herself and for all women, only to fail in her efforts, due to her reliance on other women for their support and her own flawed reasoning.  In the end, she is forced to succumb to the patriarchal world she’d rejected.  The case, therefore, for Princess Ida being sexist would seem to be conclusive. 

There is no question that Gilbert takes satiric aim at women’s education and the early British women’s movement in Princess Ida.  Gilbert’s self-appointed role in Victorian society, after all, was that of a gadfly, poking good natured … and occasionally less than good natured … fun at British society and its institutions.  Few of us are troubled by Gilbert’s mocking of the Victorian era establishment and its institutions including the army, the navy, the legal system and the British government.  It is more difficult, however, to forgive his satire when it is aimed at progressive institutions such as the early British women’s movement and women’s education.

One perspective would be that Gilbert was simply being even handed and didn’t spare liberal institutions any more than he did conservative.  Another perspective, however, would be that in his doing so, Gilbert is taking a step backwards, as he appears to be, in effect, siding with the conservative British establishment of his day, the very establishment that he usually satirized.  As a result, instead of feeling that Gilbert served as a voice that moved society forward by mocking the establishment, Gilbert’s satire in Princess Ida seems to be a step backwards. 

Yet, does that mean that Princess Ida is sexist?  Based on our experience with the piece, ongoing study and thoughtful reflection of the content of the piece, the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company has taken the position that that is not. 

There is no question that while the early British women’s movement and women’s education are the subject of Gilbert’s pointed satire, he doesn’t stop there.  Gilbert is, in fact, very equal in his mocking of both men and women in Princess Ida.  While Gilbert satirizes the early British women’s movement and women’s education, Princess Ida also takes satirical aim at men and their institutions, including the monarchy and militarism.  The men in Princess Ida may, in fact, fare somewhat less well under Gilbert’s pen than do the women.  King Hildebrand is portrayed as pompous and short tempered, a man who is generally inclined to “shoot first and ask questions later.”  King Gama is obviously a horribly ill-natured, misanthrope and his three sons are muscled dolts.  Cyril is a loud mouthed drunkard and even Hilarion comes off as a bit shallow, particularly in his earliest speeches.  Florian is perhaps the only man in the piece who appears to be relatively competent!  In addition, it could be easily argued that, in Princess Ida, the women “give as good as they get.”  For example, while the men mock women for seeking an education, Lady Psyche mocks men, describing them at best, as only monkeys shaved!  In Princess Ida’s “battle of the sexes,” neither men nor women walk away unscathed by Gilbert’s rapier wit.

If the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company is correct in its determination that sexism is not the primary concern with Princess Ida, it still acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the operetta that sets it apart as one in need of revision in order to be performed as a truly satisfactory theatrical work, and that is the poorly written relationship between Ida and Hilarion, particularly how it’s represented in the operetta’s perfunctory concluding dialogue. 

Throughout the operetta, Ida has rejected Hilarion and the fact that he is her husband.  Even when he saves her life, she still threatens him with confinement and the potential of execution.  Yet, in the final dialogue, after having had her dreams of women’s advancement crushed, she suddenly declares that she loves a man whom she has had little time to get to know.  It is difficult to imagine presenting Princess Ida to a thoughtful, modern audience without making some changes as to how this relationship develops and its overall impact on the operetta.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company has produced Princess Ida four times in its history, in 1982, 1993, 2006 and 2018, and has addressed this issue differently every time, with the most significant revisions being made for the 2018 production.

Joe Andrews, the Director of that production, began his considerations as to how to address this issue by returning to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem, The Princess, upon which Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida was based. 

Tennyson’s poem tells the story of a princess who heroically forswears the world of men and founds a women’s university which men are forbidden to enter.  The prince to whom she was betrothed in infancy enters the university with two friends, disguised as women students.  They are discovered and flee, but eventually they fight a battle for the princess’s hand.  In Tennyson’s poem, unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, the prince and his friends lose the battle and are wounded.  The women nurse the men back to health and eventually, as the prince and princess have the opportunity to get to know each other, they fall in love.

It’s important to note that Tennyson’s poem was remarkably progressive and reflected his support for the early British women’s movement and higher education for women.  The poem celebrated the equality and mutuality of the sexes in a way that was certainly ahead of its time.

Mr. Andrews decided that the solution to the problem of Ida and Hilarion’s relationship in the operetta was to draw from the original source material.  Along with company member, Holly Windle, they selected texts from Tennyson’s poem to add to Princess Ida, and wrote additional lines in the spirit of the poem, to build a relationship between Ida and Hilarion so that her dream isn’t crushed but is transformed into a pursuit of the equality of sexes in which Hilarion will work beside her.

This revision resulted in quite a stunning change to the final tone of the piece.  Instead of capitulation, there was cooperation.  Instead of failure, there was new opportunity.  Instead of a perfunctory, unexpected statement of love, there was the beginning of a loving relationship based, on shared values, hopes and dreams for the future.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company believes that these revisions result in Princess Ida becoming a story that is truer to Tennyson’s original intent for his poem, while at the same time, making Princess Ida more acceptable and satisfying for modern audiences, ultimately turning Gilbert and Sullivan’s work into a truly wonderful theater piece.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s 2018 Revisions to Princess Ida

As discussed above, the primary issue in Princess Ida is that Ida and Hilarion have no opportunity to get to know each other before she declares her love for him in the operetta’s final dialogue.  The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s 2018 revisions, written by Director Joe Andrews and, company member, Holly Windle, addressed this issue.

Ida and Hilarion have only two scenes in which they can create the foundation for their relationship. 

The first scene is in the dialogue prior to “The World is But a Broken Toy.”  As revised, in the first portion of this dialogue, Hilarion makes a small joke that Ida enjoys.  In the second portion of the dialogue, Hilarion quotes Shakespeare, which Ida finds to be both moving and attractive. 

It’s important to point out that in building an attraction between Ida and Hilarion, from Ida’s perspective, given Hilarion’s disguise, it means that she’s finding herself being attracted to another woman.  While audiences may perceive Ida’s reaction to her attraction initially as comic, the situation also communicates to the audience a clear statement about love and its potential to transcend limitations, including those of sex.  As Mr. Andrews put it in an interview with Lavender Magazine, “New to our production … is that the Princess finds herself attracted to the new female recruit. The result is that they are able to explore their mutual attraction and ensuing confusion and excitement, regardless of gender.”

 

Gilbert’s Original Text

 

The GSVLOC’s 2018 Revised Text

PRIN:

You say you’re noblewomen.  Well, you’ll find
No sham degrees for noblewomen here.
You’ll find no sizars here, or servitors,
Or other cruel distinctions, meant to draw
A line ’twixt rich and poor;

PRIN:

You say you’re noblewomen.  Well, you’ll find
No sham degrees for noblewomen here.
You’ll find no sizars here, or servitors,
Or other cruel distinctions, meant to draw
A line ’twixt rich and poor;

    HIL:

                   So you teach a class…
But reject classes.

    PRIN:

                   Hah! You’re quite clever.
I never thought of that
(Touching his hand)

                     You’ll find no tufts
To mark nobility, except such tufts
As indicate nobility of brain.
As for your fellow-students, mark me well:
There are a hundred maids within these walls,
All good, all learned, and all beautiful:
They are prepared to love you:  will you swear
To give the fullness of your love to them?
 

                   You’ll find no tufts
To mark nobility, except such tufts
As indicate nobility of brain.
As for your fellow-students, mark me well:
There are a hundred maids within these walls,
All good, all learned, and all beautiful:
They are prepared to love you:  will you swear
To give the fullness of your love to them?

HIL:  Upon our words and honours, Ma’am, we will! HIL:

Upon our words and honours, Ma’am, we will!
In truth, we have not known such love, princess.
But love of learning we delight to share.
For as the bard has written … may I, though?
(Ida nods)
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments … (Ida joins in as if in a trance)  

    HIL / PRIN:

                   Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
(They stare into one another’s eyes.
Ida breaks the spell.)

    PRIN: A maid with Shakespeare near her heart is … fine. 
(collects herself)
PRIN: But we go further: Will you undertake
That you will never marry any man?
 

Now let me see … And will you undertake
That you will never marry any man?

FLOR: Indeed we never will!     FLOR:

Indeed we never will!

 

The second scene in which Ida’s attraction towards the disguised Hilarion can be furthered is the picnic scene.  Mr. Andrews and Ms. Windle made minimal changes to the dialogue in this scene, but chose rather to have them build their relationship through their proximity and blocked interactions with each other. 

The final, most significant revision to the operetta’s text was in the operetta’s concluding dialogue.  As discussed above, in this revision, instead of giving up her dream, Ida remains strong and committed to her cause, despite her apparent defeat.  Instead of Hilarion pointing out the failure of her women, he states clearly that he shares her dream and will work with her in support of her cause.  The fact that Ida and Hilarion will now begin their married lives together makes sense and results in a richer, truly satisfying conclusion to the operetta.

 

Gilbert’s Original Text

 

The GSVLOC’s 2018 Revised Text

PRIN:

I thought as much!  Then to my fate I yield –
So ends my cherished scheme!  Oh, I had hoped
To band all women with my maiden throng,
And make them all abjure tyrannic Man!

PRIN:

I thought as much!  Then to my fate I yield –
So ends my cherished scheme!  Oh, I had hoped
To band all women with my maiden throng,
And make them all abjure tyrannic Man!

HILD:

A noble aim!

HILD:

Ridiculous!

    GAMA:

                   I warned her!  Many times…

PRIN:                    You ridicule it now;
But if I carried out this glorious scheme
At my exalted name Posterity
Would bow in gratitude!
PRIN:

AND NEVERTHELESS I PERSISTED!
But if I carried out this glorious scheme,
At my exalted name Posterity
Would bow in gratitude!

HILD:                    But pray reflect –
If you enlist all women in your cause,
And make them all abjure tyrannic Man,
The obvious question then arises, ‘How
Is this Posterity to be provided?’
HILD:

                   But pray reflect –
If you enlist all women in your cause,
And make them all abjure tyrannic Man,
The obvious question then arises, ‘How
Is this Posterity to be provided?’

PRIN: I never thought of that!
                  My Lady Blanche,
How do you solve the riddle?    
PRIN:

I never thought of that!
                  My Lady Blanche,
How do you solve the riddle?  

BLAN:                     Don’t ask me –
Abstract Philosophy won’t answer it.
BLAN:

                   Don’t ask me –
Abstract Philosophy won’t answer it.

    HIL:

But give it time, for maybe wildest dreams
Are but the needful preludes of the truth.

BLAN: Take him – he is your Shall. Give in to Fate! BLAN:

Take him – he is your Shall. Give in to Fate!

PRIN: And you desert me. I alone am staunch! PRIN:

I still am loth to yield myself to one
That wholly scorn’d to help our equal rights
Against the sons of men, and barbarous laws.

HIL: Madam, you placed your trust in Woman – well,
Woman has failed you utterly – try Man,
Give him one chance, it’s only fair – besides,
Women are far too precious, too divine,

To try unproven theories upon.
Experiments, the proverb says, are made
On humble subjects – try our grosser clay,
And mould it as you will!

HIL:

Those were the rough ways of the world till now.
Henceforth thou hast a helper, me, that know
That woman’s cause is man’s; they rise or sink
Together, bond or free

CYR:                    Remember, too
Dear Madam, if at any time you feel
A-weary of the Prince, you can return
To Castle Adamant, and rule your girls
As heretofore, you know.
CYR:

                   Remember, too
Dear Madam, if at any time you feel
A-weary of the Prince, you can return
To Castle Adamant, and rule your girls
As heretofore, you know.

PRIN:                    And shall I find
The Lady Psyche here?
PRIN:

                   And shall I find
The Lady Psyche here?

PSY:                    If Cyril, ma’am,
Does not behave himself, I think you will.
PSY:

                   If Cyril, ma’am,
Does not behave himself, I think you will.

PRIN: And you Melissa, shall I find you here?   PRIN:

And you Melissa, shall I find you here?  

MEL: Madam, however Florian turns out
Unhesitatingly I answer, No!
MEL:

Madam, however Florian turns out
Unhesitatingly I answer, No!

GAMA: Consider this, my love, if your mama
Had looked on matters from your point of view
(I wish she had), why where would you have been?
GAMA:

Consider this, my love, if your mama
Had looked on matters from your point of view
(I wish she had), why where would you have been?

BLAN: There’s an unbounded field of speculation,
On which I could discourse for hours!
BLAN:

There’s an unbounded field of speculation,
On which I could discourse for hours!

PRIN:                    No doubt!

We will not trouble you. Hilarion,
I have been wrong – I see my error now.
Take me, Hilarion –

PRIN:

                   No doubt!

    HIL:

Remember too, that “love is not love which
(HIL takes off the last vestiges of his lady garb)

    PRIN:

(Overlapping “which”)
which alters when it alteration finds.”
I have been wrong – for in true marriage lies
Nor equal or Unequal.

  “We will walk this world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end!
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no one knows!”
HIL:

                   Work no more alone.
The new day comes, and “we will walk this world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end!
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no one knows!”

PRIN:                    Indeed, I love thee – Come! PRIN:

                   Indeed, I love thee – Come!
(They kiss)

 

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company is very proud of its successfully produced revision of Princess Ida.  As a part of its mission to encourage the sharing of the wonderful works of Gilbert and Sullivan with new audiences, wherever they may be, the company invites other companies to use its rewritten version of Princess Ida if they are interested in producing the operetta.

The company’s only requests are to be notified that the revision is going to be used in a production and that there would be an acknowledgement of The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company in the company’s show program and website.