Princess Ida

While not as seriously flawed as Utopia, Limited or The Grand Duke, Princess Ida is a difficult operetta to produce.  It is a challenge to deal with its three act structure and its dialogue written in blank verse.  The most problematic aspect of the operetta, however, is its sexism.  As written by Gilbert, Princess Ida tells the story of a woman who has rejected the patriarchal world in which she was raised, both for herself and for all women, only to fail in her efforts, due to relying on other women and her own flawed reasoning.  In the end, she capitulates to her arranged marriage, declaring that she loves a man whom she has had little time to get to know.  It is difficult to imagine presenting Princess Ida to modern audiences without making changes to the script or to the overall presentation of the production.

It is actually unfortunate that the problem even exists.  Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida was based on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem, The Princess, published in 1847.  Tennyson’s poem told the story of a princess who heroically forswears the world of men and founds a women’s university where 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.  They lose and are wounded, but the women nurse the men back to health.  Eventually the princess returns the prince’s love.

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

Gilbert’s self-selected role in Victorian society, however, was to be the gadfly, poking good natured … or somewhat less than good natured … fun at British institutions and society.  In most cases, Gilbert took aim at the established, conservative British norms.  For Gilbert, however, there were no “sacred cows,” and in the case of Princess Ida, his satire was aimed at a progressive issue in British society, that of feminism and women’s education.

While we would be in disagreement with Queen Victoria on this point, few of us are troubled by Gilbert’s mocking of the Victorian era army, navy, legal system or even the House of Peers.  We find it more difficult to be forgiving of his mocking the early British women’s movement.  Certainly, while it might be considered fair that Gilbert doesn’t spare liberal institutions any more than he does conservative ones, modern audiences can’t help but feel that in doing so, Gilbert is taking a step backwards, as he is, 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, one can’t help but feel that Gilbert’s satire in Princess Ida was actually a step backwards.

What, therefore, should be the response of a Gilbert and Sullivan company to Princess Ida?  An easy choice, of course, would be not to produce the work, setting it aside in favor of Gilbert and Sullivan’s better written, better known works.  The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, however, is dedicated to producing the full canon of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, and is, therefore, compelled to face and deal with the challenges that Princess Ida presents.  It is, in fact, this conviction that led the Company to its extensive revisions of Utopia, Limited or The Grand Duke, which subsequently led to extraordinarily successful productions of both operettas.  It is that same conviction that inspires the Company to seek a way to present The Mikado in a way that preserves the extraordinary beauty and brilliant wit of the piece, but eliminates the racism implicit in the original script.

The Company has produced Princess Ida three times in its history, in 1982, 1993 and 2006.  It will do so again in 2018.

The 1982 production was representative of the Company’s early productions in that it strove to produce the operettas as authentic to the D’Oyly Carte traditions as possible.  That production, therefore, was traditionally set and costumed, with few changes to the text.  

The 1993 production took a different tack.  Zoe Kuester, the Director for this production, was conscious of the issues of sexism in the piece.  While she was willing to make minor changes to the text, she addressed the issue primarily by setting Princess Ida in the mind of a romantic young girl who wrote the story as it unfolded in her journal.  The concept was that some of the excesses in the piece might be forgivable if they were the expressions of a romantically oriented young girl, rather than coming from the voice of an adult.  

In 2006, Director Lesley Hendrickson chose not to change the text, but to communicate her intent through the sets, costumes and reinterpreted motivations of the characters.  She set Princess Ida during the run-up to the Great War, with a focus on the pacifism of the women versus the militarism of the men.  The male oriented court in Act I bristled with military uniforms.  King Gama was outrageously Prussian and his three sons were costumed as the invading army from Alexander Nevsky.  The female oriented castle set in Act II, however, featured the banner of Girton College, Cambridge, “Better wisdom than weapons of war.”

Though no words were changed, the presentation didn’t echo the attitudes Gilbert originally intended.  Great care was taken to suggest that Hilarion was more intent on wooing and understanding than on intimidating or belittling his bride-to-be.  Ida’s lectures suggested not innate intellectual sloppiness, but rather how women shape the world given the tools they are allowed.  Still, much humor came from Ida’s insistence on isolation from men, an ideal to which the other ladies are rather less committed.

What was most rewarding about this production, however, was that Ida’s failure was not so much her ultimate defeat but that, in defending herself, she had stooped to the men’s military insanity.  At the end, one could imagine that Ida and Hilarion would come to an amicable and mutually respectful political union, and might even come to love one another.

With Princess Ida scheduled to be produced in the spring of 2018, the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company must consider how it will handle the piece.  While preserving Gilbert’s humor and Sullivan’s beautiful music, the Company anticipates that that it will make revisions.  No doubt, these will be handled, in part, in the overall presentation of the piece, as was the case in the Company’s 1993 and 2006 productions.  What also seems likely, however, is that there will be textual revisions in order to turn the piece in the direction of what was Tennyson’s original intent for his poem, that of celebrating the equality and mutuality of the sexes.  We look forward to exploring the possiblities.