King(s) for a Day

Houston’s superlative Gilbert and Sullivan Society will give four performances of The Gondoliers between July 21 and 23 at the city’s Worthem Theatre Center Cullen Theatre.

The Gondoliers may well be the celebrated duo’s happiest collaboration. Gilbert’s lyrics were never wittier nor Sullivan’s melodies more infectious than in this engaging work. To further enhance its appeal, the action plays out against the sunshine and bright colors of the Mediterranean.

The plot derives from one of the oldest, most enduring and most universal of all fantasies: Who has not dreamed of being king (or queen) for a day?

Gilbert, being Gilbert, takes this familiar fantasy and gives it a twist by providing the audience with two potential kings and queens—and leaving the question of which pair will ultimately reign unresolved to the very end.

The operetta opens with a search for the heir to the throne of the mythical kingdom of Barataria. Twenty years earlier, the infant prince was smuggled to Venice for safekeeping by Spain’s Grand Inquisitor, who arranged for the baby boy to be reared in secret by a “highly respectable gondolier.” The gondolier already had an infant son of his own and, since he turned out to be not respectable at all but a hopeless drunk, he was soon too soused to tell which of the prattling babes was his and which was the prince.

So both boys were brought up as gondoliers. As stalwart and independent working men, they have strong republican principles, declaring that they “hold all men to be equal” and that they “abhor kings.”

Here, Gilbert’s satiric genius takes center stage.

When the two plebeian gondoliers are informed that not only are they not brothers, but that one of them is a king to boot, their republican scruples begin to waver. “Well, as to that, of course,” says one, “there are kings and kings. When I say that I detest kings, I mean I detest bad kings.”

The other gondolier quickly concurs. So since both are willing to be good kings, the Grand Inquisitor decrees that they shall rule Barataria as joint sovereigns until it can be determined which of the two is of royal birth.

Because the country is in a state of insurrection, they are required to take up their royal duties immediately, even though that means that they will have to bid a temporary farewell to the two pretty girls they have just married. Off they go, while the girls console themselves with the thought that “one of us will be a queen and sit on a golden throne.”

So ends the first act. The second act follows the hilarious attempts of the two gondolier-kings to run their monarchy on strictly democratic principles.

Gilbert’s satire is doubled-edged. He mocks the rigid and artificial class distinctions of his day, but he likewise mocks the idea of attempting to create a genuinely classless society. As a result, the operetta was considered conventional enough to be enjoyed even by real royalty. Queen Victoria herself ordered a command performance of it at Windsor Castle.

Victoria, who was famous for banishing the slightest hint of impropriety with her withering comment “We are not amused,” very obviously enjoyed the show. She was even observed beating time to the music.

She appeared particularly tickled by the song in which one of the gondoliers describes the typical day of a democratic king: “Rising early in the morning, we proceed to light the fire…”

But there was one aspect of the production that puzzled her. Like other Gilbert and Sullivan fans of the time, she had a copy of Gilbert’s libretto in hand and used it to track the performance. When she observed that some of the principal players occasionally made additions to the text, she sent for the manager of the company, Richard D’Oyle Carte, to explain the meaning of these interpolations.

“These, your Majesty,” said Mr. Carte, “are what we call ‘gags.’”

“Gags?” replied the queen. “I thought that gags were things that were put by authority into people’s mouths.”

“These gags, your Majesty,” answered Mr. Carte with a low bow, “are things that people put into their own mouths without authority.”

Popular belief notwithstanding, Queen Victoria was not without a sense of humor. She found Mr. Carte’s quick-witted reply to her liking. She smiled.

I expect that all Houstonians fortunate enough to see the G&S Society’s current production of The Gondoliers will find themselves smiling as well.

For tickets, visit


Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: Like this post? Share with your friends using the button below! Also be sure to like PunditWire on Facebook. 

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