Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 comic opera "Patience" skewers a popular art movement of the day—and the satire still stings
When Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience opened on April 23, 1881, London’s Savoy Theatre had another hit from the popular duo. Patience had another witty and stinging libretto from W.S. Gilbert and a witty and lush score from Arthur Sullivan.
Gilbert and Sullivan once again tapped into the latest fad by lampooning the aesthetic movement of the 1880s and '90s. The art-for-arts-sake approach to the arts, including theater, was itself a critique of art with a message or political manifestos. Though the movement preceded Oscar Wilde, he is often cited as an example of the aesthetic approach.
Over time, Patience has not been performed as frequently as Gilbert and Sullivan’s other comic operas, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.
Cameron Graham is directing the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of Patience, which runs April 13-16 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, and believes it has a lot to say about our own self-involved times as it did when it first wowed the London audiences.
Graham, a recent graduate of Eastern Michigan University’s theater program, said contemporary audiences and producers might get the idea that the operetta was too much of its time.
“Because of that it’s been swallowed up and kind of pushed behind the more popular ones like Pinafore, Pirates, and The Mikado," he said. "But for people coming to the show, I still think there is a lot that is positive in the show and a lot that can appeal to a modern audience."
Patience is set in a small provincial English town. The local maidens are wooed by dragoons at a nearby army camp. But the maidens have recently drifted away from the dragoons to attach themselves instead to an aesthetic poet and dandy, Reginald Bunthorne.
“He’s a poet who adopts the aesthetic persona for the sake of admiration and all these women want to marry him and be with him, but he doesn’t love any of them,” said Graham. “They are all obsessed with him and clinging to him and in love with him.”
Bunthorne loves the attention but he’s attracted to an innocent milkmaid named Patience, the only woman in town who hasn’t succumbed to Bunthorne’s charms.
“She has sworn off love entirely," Graham said. "She sees the relationship between the dragoons and the maidens and the relationship between the maidens and Bunthorne and it kind of ruins her image of love."
A childhood friend, Arthur Grosvenor comes back to the village with the intention of marrying Patience and presenting himself as an aesthetic poet. This sets up a comic love triangle. Bunthorne and Grosvenor want Patience, and Patience wants Grosvenor, but she isn’t sure if she’s worthy of love.
Graham sees the operetta as reflecting our current obsession with posturing on social media. He said he grew up in an artistic environment and became an actor, aware that stage acting draws attention and even adoration from audiences.
“Actors say that being on stage is kind of like a drug, that feeling you have being on stage in front of an audience,” Graham said. “I find myself being drawn to that feeling, and it was the adoration of people that became more important than my actual love of what I was doing. I’m a young person; I know people of my generation are obsessed with our public image and the way people look at us and assess us. Because of that, we lose sight of who we really are because we are so busy trying to show people an idealized image. I think this satire is a critique of that.”
Graham said he wanted to emphasize interpersonal relationships and create a central idea that would give the production a focus.
“One phrase I used at the beginning of this process with the staff and with the cast is that this is like a civil war—in the middle of civil war between the maidens and the dragoons,” Graham said. “It’s not a civil war in terms of violence, but it’s a civil war where they’re trying to get people to love them and it creates this tension. When I was staging and blocking, I was hammering into the actors that I wanted to build into that animosity between characters, when they don’t get what they want and how they respond when they don’t get what they want.”
Graham said that music is always the biggest draw to the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, but audiences are still drawn into the relationships that drive the story.
Ezra Donner is the production's musical director.
“He’s been one of the biggest supporters and resources throughout the entire process,” Graham said. “He was probably the first person that I got in contact with and spoke to a lot before the mass meeting with the production staff and all the people who auditioned for the show.”
Graham said he and Donner have been working together to bring the music and staging together.
“He’s really been a collaborator and a support system, a great resource and one of the best musical directors out there,” he said.
Staging can sometimes be a problem on the small, intimate Mendelssohn stage. Patience doesn’t require as much production as Pinafore or The Mikado but it does have a cast of 18, including a large chorus of army dragoons and village maidens.
“There are a lot of people on stage at once, which can create some difficulties,” Graham said. “That’s why the whole civil war and separation aspects of the show came into play and came to isolating people. The stage is small but because of that they can’t get on the same terms and they cramp each other to the sides of the stage. It was difficult, but I think we were able to make it work with the concept we have.”
Patience has 10 featured roles and a chorus of eight. In key roles are Rebecca Clark as Patience, Aiden Davis as Grosvenor, and Matt Grace as Bunthorne.
Graham said the cast includes many actors with experience performing in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, but it also has student actors from the U-M School of Musical Theatre and other students.
“It’s a nice range of experience,” he said. “The more experienced people can help the younger people move through certain aspects of the show. Young people can bring a new way of looking at the show.”
Graham said he looks forward to having Gilbert and Sullivan fans come again to see a show they’ve enjoyed as well as bringing in a new audience to enjoy the humor and music of Patience.
“Patience is my first Gilbert and Sullivan show that I have worked on as a director and I fell in love with how funny it was, how beautiful the music was, and the possibilities of this story and where you could take it,” he said. “I hope they can take something new away and it can help build an audience for Gilbert and Sullivan in general.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of "Patience" is presented April 13-16 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University Avenue, Ann Arbor. For tickets and more info, visit muto.umich.edu.