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One of my favorite operettas is Iolanthe (1882). It’s the plot of this operetta that reveals the solution to our political mess in the U.S. in 2012. Gilbert’s primary target is the extremely conservative upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, also called the House of Peers. The only qualification for membership in the House of Lords was to have been born the son of a lord. If you were a peer, you were a member. No intelligence was required. (The famous pirates of Penzance turn out to be “young lords gone wrong.” A lot of young lords went wrong—gambling, carousing, dueling, raising hell—though few of them became pirates. See almost any Victorian novel.) The Lords, who probably never read any of the legislation proposed by the Liberal Party, could veto any bill passed by the Lower House. Are you seeing any parallels yet between Gilbert’s dysfunctional government and our own? Like the totally unqualified Tea Partiers who got themselves elected in 2010 and now rage against any kind of compromise with the Democrats in Congress?
You may have read or heard the famous “ nightmare song” from Act II of Iolanthe. It’s probably Gilbert’s most famous patter song: When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache, and repose is tabooed by anxiety, I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in, without impropriety; For your brain is on fire….
So what’s the connection I see between Iolanthe and the U.S. Congress in 2012? Let me try to condense the plot. Twenty-five-years before the operetta begins, a fairy named Iolanthe married the Lord Chancellor, who to this day is still the highest judiciary functionary in England and ranks above all the peers except the royal family. The Lord Chancellor acts as the Speaker of the House of Lords. Now let’s keep in mind that a Speaker recently tried to run for the Republican nomination for President of the U.S. (see my parody, Eye of Newt), and Speaker John Boehner has more or less surrendered to the Tea Party.
Because of her marriage to a mortal, Iolanthe was banished by the Fairy Queen. But she gave birth to a son, Strephon, who is an Arcadian shepherd (more parody—of the fabled innocence and purity of all rural folk). Strephon, we learn, is a fairy from the waist up and human from the waist (well, actually, just a bit lower) down. Strephon and Phyllis, a ward of the Chancery, are going to be married, but Phyllis is also being courted members of the House of Lords. The Fairy Queen is persuaded to bring Iolanthe back from exile, and when mother and son sing a duet, Phyllis and the Lords spy on them. Fairies don’t age and Iolanthe looks as young as her son, so Phyllis thinks her boyfriend is making out with another woman and promptly gets herself engaged to two Lords.
Meanwhile, the Lord Chancellor is plotting to marry Phyllis himself. Strephon calls on the fairies—his aunts—for help, but when they arrive on stage, the Lords think they’re merely students at a girls’ school. There are satirical remarks in several of Gilbert’s librettos about the deleterious effects of women in politics. (And what percentage of the U.S. Congress is female?) Offended, the fairies decide to run Strephon for Parliament. He wins of course, and soon becomes the head of both parties. One of his first acts is to sponsor a bill opening the House of Lords to competitive examination, which every existing Lord would certainly flunk. But Strephon already has too much power to be voted down. End of Act I.
As the curtain rises on Act II, we meet Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards, who sings about how every boy and every girl is born either “a little liberal or a little conservative” and that when Parliament meets, they leave their brains outside and vote the way their leaders tell them to. Does this sound familiar? Think about what the Tea Party has wrought in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Brains have indeed been left outside the door. Strephon explains to Phyllis that he is part fairy, which leads Phyllis to muse that if she ever sees him with a young, attractive woman, well, it has to be one of his aunts. Now Strephon asks his mother to persuade the Lord Chancellor to release Phyllis, but Iolanthe says that because she was his wife (the Lord Chancellor thinks she’s dead), she can’t. But she pleads her son’s case, anyway, in disguise. No luck. Though the Lord Chancellor is glad to see his fairy wife is alive, Iolanthe has broken the law again. Marriage to a mortal is still a capital offense, even though all the other fairies have been flirting with the Lords. Now the fairies are all “fairy duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, vicountesses, and baronesses.” Are they all to be put to death? Iolanthe is about to be banished again when the Lord Chancellor—who used to be a very crafty clerk—finds a way to change the fairy law. “The subtleties of the legal mind are equal to this emergency,” he says. “The thing is really quite simple—the insertion of a single word. Let it stand that every fairy shall die who doesn’tmarry a mortal….” And every Lord promptly sprouts fairy wings. To save her own life, the Fairy Queen marries Private Willis, and they all fly away to fairyland. And how does all this nonsense apply to politics in the U.S. in 2012? Four ways.
First, Private Willis sings that “I often think it’s comical…/How Nature always does contrive…/ That every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!” This suggests to me that it would be good to have some liberal-conservative amity. Maybe some mating, too! There’s good to be found in liberalism, also in conservatism. If they mate, maybe they’ll produce a child with the best points of both philosophies. We can consider this either metaphorically or literally.
Second, let’s institute that competitive examination for people running for both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. First, give them an I.Q. test. Then a simple multiple-choice test. First question: The year we are living in is (a) 1929, (b) 1954, (c) 1984, (d) none of the above.
Third, as every pagan knows, the humans and animals we see walking upon the planet today are not the only sentient beings here. There are invisible beings. Some are fairies, or the Faery. They don’t look like Gilbert’s fairies “tripping hither, tripping thither,” nor like Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania. They’re not little twinkly folks. They’ve almost been wiped out, but some still live in hidden places, and they’re not called the Good Neighbors for nothing. I bet they’re really pissed off by global warming, monoculture farms, and strip mines and fracking. We need to be nice to them. Let’s arrange some meetings between the Good Neighbors and the Tea Partiers and see what happens to the latter. With any luck, the Good Neighbors will find them entertaining (or tasty) and they’ll be flown off to Faery Land and we can get back to running the country in a more civilized, kinder way. Finally, Gilbert’s Fairy Queen is not a wispy little Hallmark babe but a substantial contralto with a powerful voice and presence. Women are 51 percent of the U.S. population Let’s elect more smart, powerful women to government, local, state, and federal. We need more Fairy Queens in charge.
Posted by Barbara on Sunday, May 20, 2012 | Read Comments