Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Very Model of a Modern Major General

"Hail, Poetry!" breaks out one song in a hilariously comic opera, by a couple of blokes you may have heard of once or twice...Gilbert and Sullivan.

Okay, okay, so "The Pirates of Penzance" is nothing new. In fact, it's an astonishing 130 years old - but it's brilliance is in the fact that it is still hilarious. Laugh-out-loud, intelligent, British humor in spades.

Where have I seen "The Pirates of Penzance" recently? Well, I rented the old 1983 version with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt - the version I saw when I was young with my Mom and we took trips to the local library. Now, there are a couple of versions available of the 1983 rendition, one higher quality than the other, I believe (since we're talking VHS here): the one with Angela Lansbury is higher quality, and with a more Broadway-esque set.
This past week, I actually watched a poor quality taping of a performance in Central Park, with the same principle actors, except that surprisingly, Patricia Routledge performed instead of Lansbury (I didn't know Mrs. Bucket - Bookay - even did Broadway! And would you believe she's 80 now? She was born in 1929! In the nineties, she was voted Britain's favorite actress - ever. And that includes less comic, but intensely profound Judi Dench and Helen Mirren).

But Gilbert and Sullivan were so brilliant, the actors so good, that I invited a friend over and we loved it - despite the high school A-V club feel of the camera work.

What's "The Pirates of Penzance" about, you ask? Well, first of all, it's a comic opera. Second, it's British - which means that plays on words and witty dialogue abound. Now, it's handy to have a laptop with the libretto up, for some of the faster songs, or in case you miss a line.

"The Pirates of Penzance" is satirical; and because under the comedic situations lies a jab at politicians, it is timeless. (Because the question may be asked, and answered - who are the real pirates in the world?) Take, for instance, this verse from the song of the Pirate King:

Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part,
With a pirate head and a pirate heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where pirates all are well-to-do;
But I'll be true to the song I sing,
And live and die a Pirate King.

Then there's the rapid-fire humor of the Major-General's anthem:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news �
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery;
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.

For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

You can watch the speed with which this is sung, here:

The great thing about this? It was written to be performed live, which means no multiple takes, no dubbing - just hilarious talent. I hope that if you watch the Major General's song, you'll want to watch the rest.

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