The West Wing

Writer, Producer and Actor Aaron Sorkin is a well-known Gilbert and Sullivan fan.  In The West Wing, his series about the lives of President Bartlet’s White House staff, the episode titled “And It’s Surely to Their Credit,” included the story of Republican attorney Ainsley Hayes who was asked to join the otherwise Democratic staff, much to the chagrin of the man who was to be her supervisor, White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey.  While, no doubt, a brilliant attorney, Lionel appears to have a somewhat incomplete knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan …

The best line in the argument over whether “He is an Englishman” is from H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance or Iolanthe, of course, is when Ainsley states, in regards to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, “They’re all about duty!”

Later in the episode, after Ainsley has had a rough first day on the job, her colleagues kindly surprise her with a Gilbert and Sullivan themed welcome to the White House team.

In addition, the West Wing included a number of other Gilbert and Sullivan references.  While attending college, Sam Seaborn, Deputy White House Communications Director, had been the Recording Secretary of the Princeton University Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

In the Lord John Marbury episode, White House Press Secretary C.J. Crege describes Lord John as “the Earl of Sherbourne, he is the great great grandson of a former Viceroy and for thirteen years served as the Queen’s minister to either India or Pakistan.  Lord Marbury is here to counsel the President, and if you think this is all starting to sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, I don’t blame you a bit.”

Foundation Trilogy

Science fiction author Isaac Asimov, a devoted fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, found inspiration for his famous Foundation Trilogy in Iolanthe.  In his introduction to Foundation, the first book in the trilogy, Asimov states the following, “I was 21 years old, a graduate student in chemistry at Columbia University, and I had been writing science fiction professionally for three years.  In that time , I had sold five stories to John Campbell, editor of Astounding … I had an appointment to see Mr. Campbell to tell him the plot of a new story I was planning to write, and the catch was that I had no plot in mind, not the trace of one.  I therefore tried a device I sometimes use.  I opened a book at random and set up free association, beginning with whatever I first saw.  The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays.  I happened to open it to picture of the Fairy Queen of Iolanthe throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis.  I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire – of a Galactic Empire – aha!” Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy had a profound effect on the subsequent worlds of science fiction, from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to George Lucas’ Star Wars films, both of which incorporated a number of homages to Asimov’s work, including the concept of a galactic empire.  Perhaps in another age, Gilbert might have written, “When Coruscant really ruled the stars in Emperor Palpatine’s day…”

Foundation Television Series

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of novels was dramatized for television in a series that was first released on Apple TV Plus on September 24, 2021. The television series diverges in several significant ways from the novels, including a storyline in which terrorists from the planets Anacreon and Thespis commit an act of terrorism against Trantor, the Galactic Empire’s capital planet. While the planet Anacreon figures prominently in the Foundation novels, the planet Thespis was created for the television series. The name is likely a reference to Asimov’s short story, “Fair Exchange?” about a time traveler who tries to save the musical score of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lost operetta, Thespis.

I, Robot

I, Robot was Isaac Asimov’s collection of nine science fiction short stories about the interaction of humans, robots and morality. The stories, originally published independently, were compiled into a single book and woven together by a framing narrative. The second story in the collection, titled “Runaround,” takes place on Mercury, in a mining facility. Robot SPD-13, nicknamed “Speedy,” is missing after having been sent out on a mission. The two men responsible for the facility, Powell and Donovan, go out in search of him. Eventually they find “Speedy” who is obviously malfunctioning. He is running around in a circle, weaving and appearing to be drunk. When they try to speak to the robot, he responds, “I’m Little Buttercup, sweet Little Buttercup,” and then says “There grew a little flower ‘neath a great oak tree.” One of the men asks the other, “Where did he pick up Gilbert and Sullivan?” As the story goes on, “Speedy” continues to quote fragments of Gilbert and Sullivan, including, “I’ve made a little list … the piano organist … all people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,” and “lover’s professions when uttered in Hessians.” At one point Speedy” says, “When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is tabooed,” to which Powell murmurs, “Iolanthe!” Later in the story, “Speedy” and Powell are watching each other “without a word of Gilbert and Sullivan gibberish as a greeting” and Powell thinks to himself, “Thank God for that!” In a subsequent story in the collection, the characters of Powell and Donovan appear again and are confronted with another malfunctioning robot. In response to the situation, one of the men says to the other, “Well, at least he’s not quoting Gilbert and Sullivan!”

Stranger in a Strange Land

In chapter 20 of Robert A. Heinlein’s award winning science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, Joseph Douglas, the Secretary General of the Federation of Free States hosts a formal reception for Valentine Michael Smith, the “Man from Mars,” attended by the leaders of Earth’s governments.  The narrator describes Douglas’ opening speech to the assembly as nothing but banal pleasantries, and paraphrases Iolanthe’s Lord Mountararat when he states that Douglas said nothing and “said it very well.”

Young Winston

Young Winston is a 1972 film depicting the early life of future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  This historical drama includes his childhood, his time as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Second Boer War and culminating in his first election to Parliament.  In one scene, Winston and his father are walking in a London park while a military band plays “The March of the Peers” in the background.

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, includes references to four Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, including Trial by Jury, Iolanthe, The Mikado and Ruddigore.

The Iolanthe reference occurs in Chapter 15.  Following a dance at the high school, Principal Tuffit demands a confession from the person who threw “falsies” onto a patriotic sign that he’d posted in the school yard.  They belonged to Jean Louise Finch and her date, Henry Clinton, had thrown them away for her when she became frustrated with them.  It was dark and, unbeknownst to them, they landed and got caught on the sign.  Henry consults Atticus as to how to respond to the embarrassing situation.  Atticus subtly suggests a scheme to mask the truth and quotes Iolanthe, saying that he wouldn’t be above throwing some “dust in a juryman’s eyes.”