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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Pirates, policemen, and other patriots : late Victorian ’Englishness’ and the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan Thompson, Melanie Jean


Music and theatre have long played a particular - but hitherto rather neglected — role in the construction and articulation of national identity. This thesis takes a closer look at that role through an examination of the fourteen "Savoy operas" produced by librettist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur S. Sullivan between the years 1871 and 1896. It explores the impact these operas had on the formation of a particular idea of 'Englishness' in the late 19th century. The Savoy operas were produced in the context of a larger cultural trend, a historical moment of collective self-examination in which English national identity was being renegotiated and redefined. Designated as 'authentically English' national cultural products, the operas acted as foci for a cultural-nationalist discourse that defined and glorified English culture. Through their satire of the foibles, 'typical' traits, institutions and attitudes of a specific (English) national community, they encouraged their audiences to imagine themselves as part of that community, and educated them in the symbolic content of the national culture. The operas' unprecedented popularity crossed class and geographical boundaries, making participation in the Gilbert and Sullivan phenomenon a common cultural referent for many thousands of English people. The fact that the operas were musical theatre (as compared to literature, poetry, visual art, or classical music) meant that they were performed in countless different social contexts, and thus involved a large population in actively producing and re-producing the version of 'Englishness' that they came to represent. The example of the Savoy operas makes it clear that the workings of cultural nationalism are more complex than the imposition of hegemony through national culture on subordinate groups by an elite. National identities are forged in the interaction of all the various aspects of cultural production, from music, lyrics and staging to critical discourse, audience experience and amateur participation. Nationality is a constructed category, certainly, and one that is learned rather than inherent - but one that is also internalized and 'acted out' on a concrete, everyday level through forms of cultural expression such as music and theatre.

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