The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gilbert and Sullivan Characters

The bulk of Leone Cottrell-Adkins' opera troupe had been performing together for years, but opera was a new experience for the fledgling small-town community theatre who now hosted them, and for me. As an eighteen-year-old stage manager I was actually a little intimidated by the whole thing.

I had managed to sit through their production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutti, but the finale brought welcome relief. However, their production of the Gilbert and Sullivan mainstay operetta, The Mikado, was another story entirely. I had never been exposed to the sublime ridiculousness of G & S before then, but I melted each time the lead soprano sang The Moon and I and thrilled at each performance of the Act I finale. I laughed at all the little jokes interspersed through the dialogue, and even vaguely understood a bit of the social and political satire. If it weren't for herding around that chorus of ancient singers, the experience would have been a dream.

In fact, as I became more familiar with the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, a collection of little operatic satires that brought the musical theater to new heights of wit and sophistication, I noticed how these characters resonate within our individual and cultural psyches. They mirror our own aspirations, our own failures, and even our own successes.

I learned that these operas can teach us valuable lessons for leading happy, productive lives. If their libretti were collected in one volume, you might even call it The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gilbert and Sullivan Characters.

Lesson 1: Synergy and the Three Little Maids From School


A friend once told me his grandmother's theory about little boys and mob mentality: "One boy is fine, but two boys is about like half a boy and three boys ain't no boy at all."

Synergy happens when the result is greater than the sum of it's parts, so I guess with little boys it's a case of synergy in reverse.

But on the other hand three little girls can be synergy personified. Just consider the three little maids in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Individually, they are nothing more than little girls who just graduated from a ladies' seminary. But synergistically, these three little maids are a force to be reckoned with.

Jim Rohn said: "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."

It's true our associations help us decide what activities we'll engage in and they influence our general psychological outlook. But synergy happens when we step outside our everyday associations. It takes place through teams and at its essence requires us to embrace diversity.

Stephen Covey said: "Synergy is the highest activity of life; it creates new untapped alternatives; it values and exploits the mental, emotional, and psychological differences between people."

Granted, Gilbert and Sullivan's three little maids are a fairly homogeneous group. But at heart they are three unique individuals with their own needs, wants, and desires. Obviously something in their union touches our culture's corporate psyche.

And what can synergy accomplish? Perhaps the first little maid puts it best when she shares her true agenda:
I mean to rule the earth,
As he the sky--
We really know our worth,
The sun and I!

If not rulers of the earth, synergy has certainly allowed these three little maids to ascend to the status of cultural icon. Here are a few of the many nods pop culture has given this synergistic trio, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The song "Three Little Maids" is featured in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, where Harold Abrahams first sees his future wife dressed as one of the Three Little Maids. Many television programmes have featured the song, including Frasier Crane and John Cleese in the Cheers episode "Simon Says" (for which Cleese won an Emmy Award), Frasier solo in the Frasier episode "Leapin' Lizards", the Angel episode "Hole in the World", The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare," Alvin and the Chipmunks episode "Maids in Japan",The Suite Life of Zack & Cody episode, "Lost In Translation," and The Animaniacs Vol. 1 episode "Hello Nice Warners". The Capitol Steps also performed a parody entitled "Three Little Kurds from School Are We" about conditions in Iraq. In the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode Suckers, a corrupt casino owner uses the notes from the first line ("Three little maids from school are we") to program the combination to the casino's safe.

Where can synergy take you?

Lesson 2: Strategic Planning and the Lord High Executioner


Flotsam and jetsam are interesting things. In general they're just debris that floats around in the ocean, but specifically they have two entirely different origins.

Jetsam is debris you'll find floating around in the ocean that was thrown overboard (jettisoned) by the crew of a ship, usually to lighten their load in an emergency. Flotsam is other stuff floating around in the sea that wasn't deliberately put there, like perhaps the remnants of a ship wreck.

But generally they're just topsy-turvy stuff floating around in the ocean.

Not that Sirs Gilbert or Sullivan would necessarily be classified as flotsam or jetsam, but a few of the characters they created might be. In particular Ko-Ko, the reluctant Lord High Executioner in The Mikado.

Ko-Ko describes his rapid (and involuntary) ascent from common tailor to political heights:
Taken from the county jail by a set of curious chances; liberated then on bail, on my own recognizances; wafted by a favoring gale as one sometimes is in trances, to a height that few can scale, save by long and weary dances; surely, never had a male under such like circumstances so adventurous a tale, which may rank with most romances.

Oh sure Ko-Ko might enjoy all the general deferring by the common folk, but his new lot in life presents a couple of unpleasant tasks. First he is expected to separate folks from their beloved heads. Second, after another set of curious events he is left with no choice other than to woo and wed a rather unpleasant woman named Katisha.

Ko-Ko ended up in a mess because he merely floated with the current. Not being proactive, lacking a plan of his own, a plan was trust upon him.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Harvey Mackay, John L. Beckley have all been credited with some version of this saying:
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Ko-Ko did not have a plan. While he did create a list of possible decapitation candidates, a dutiful task for any Lord High Executioner, that was after he had already been wafted around a bit and dubbed (or dooped) Lord High Executioner.

Experts tell us the best laid plans are:

  1. Written. If we just keep plans in our heads they have a way of morphing, a great way to justify when we don't stick to them. Yes Ko-Ko had written a list, but it also needed to be . . .

  2. Measurable. It's not enough to say you're going to chop off a few heads; you need to say you'll chop off X-number of heads before a certain date or you'll have no concrete way of knowing when you've actually attained your goal.

  3. Attainable. You've got to pace yourself. You're not going to decapitate too many criminals when you're first starting out. Set a do-able measurement for your goal, but don't be afraid to push yourself.


Flotsam and jetsam go wherever the current takes them and where they'll wind up is anyone's guess. But we're not sea debris; we can be proactive and plan for our own choices. They'll find someone to be Lord High Executioner, but does it really have to be you?

Lesson 3: Win-Win Thinking For Multi-Talented Fairies and Mortals


Henry Ford may not have invented the assembly line, but it's probably safe to say his use of the concept helped it catch on. His first conveyor-belt version of it started cranking out sub-assemblies and chassis somewhere around April 1st, 1913, but hardly anyone considered it a bad April Fools joke.

Workers were trained in the art of specialization, and the assembly-line exploded on 20th Century America. All over it, to be exact.

And soon, gone were the Renaissance men, the generalists, the Ben Franklins among us who joyously pursued varied vocations. The number of kites flown in thunder storms reduced drastically as well.

Teachers everywhere started asking children what they want to be when they grow up, and Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis business really started taking off.

But Gilbert and Sullivan had long since addressed this situation in their fairy opera, Iolanthe.

You see, young Strephon faces a problem with duplicity. Being born of an unlawful marriage between a fairy mother and a mortal father, he is fairy from the waist up but his legs are entirely mortal. But does he let this get him down?

Of course not. Would I write about him if he were a loser like that?

Oh sure, he hesitates about telling the little secret to his fiance. But when he does, his fiance is very glad to know his bottom half is the mortal part.

At first there is a little strife between the fairies and the mortals over the whole issue, but following the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition, everything ends in a win-win situation.

Stephen Covey listed "Think Win-Win" as number four in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey learned a lot from Gilbert and Sullivan.

Covey also listed four steps to win-win thinking. Covey used a lot of lists.

  1. See the problem from the other point of view, in terms of the needs and concerns of the other party.

  2. Identify the key issues and concerns (not positions) involved.

  3. Determine what results would make a fully acceptable solution.

  4. Identify new options to achieve those results.


But what if you, like Strephon, struggle with embracing your inner fairy? What if you feel there are two halves to you and never the twain shall meet (nor never shall the two meet Twain)?

The same process applies.

Multiple interests and talents are common among creative types. But thanks to the Industrial Revolution and things like Ford's Great April Fools Joke the multi-talented are often encouraged to choose one thing and go with it. It's nobody's fault, it's just the brainwashing we've all had.

However, by learning to think win-win about our multiple interests (okay, so if you have several just tack on more wins and think win-win-win or whatever) we come up with true solutions to help us live happy and congruent lives.

Choose one paradigm and you're thinking win-lose, surpress them both and you're thinking lose-lose. But embrace your inner fairy and everybody wins.

Lesson 4: I Am the Very Model of a Modern Armchair Generalist


Frank Gelette Burgess, artist, art critic, poet, author, humorist, and inventor of the Purple Cow once said, "To appreciate nonsense requires a serious interest in life."

Leonardo da Vinci (whose introduction requires no laundry list of accomplishments) is quoted with: "Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen."

Gilbert and Sullivan addressed these same ideas in the Major-General's famous patter song from The Pirates of Penzance.

Understanding military leadership's necessity to see things from a distance, as well as their ability to appreciate nonsense, the Major-General breezily rattles off a laundry list of his impressive academic accomplishments.
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.

What's that? You say knowing the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes, understanding calculus and binomial theorem, and the ability to whistle all the airs from that delightful operetta H.M.S. Pinafore has nothing to do with military competency? Rubbish, I say!

Granted, a taste for G & S does require an ability to appreciate nonsense, but this capacity may easily transfer into an ability to see the all-important bigger picture in life, work, and all the above. Gilbert and Sullivan's patter song could be the anthem for modern armchair generalists.
I am the very model of a modern Armchair Generalist,
I treat life like a drug store and approach it with a lotta lists . . .

Stephen Covey tells us if we ever hope to be one of the seven highly effective people with habits, we must "sharpen the saw." Although many of us do in fact have an axe to grind, sharpening our saws is an entirely different affair; of course Mr. Covey is (in part) talking about sharpening our minds.

Of course, sharpening our minds doesn't give us carte blanche to go all willy nilly. In his novel, The Prime Minister, Anthony Trollope describes the character Everett Wharton:
[He] had read much, and although he generally forgot what he read, there were left with him from his reading certain nebulous lights, begotten by other men's thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself - but he thought that he thought.

And of course any conversation about thinking leads us to the famous Dr. Seuss-ian epiphany:
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! 'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!'

Taking in the view from Mt. Crumpit, the Grinch became a generalist, a divergent thinker. Gilbert and Sullivan, Stephen Covey, and Benjamin Franklin would all be proud.

Creative minds unite untie.

Lesson 5: Little Buttercup On Seeking First to Understand


In Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, things are not what they seem. It appears young sailor Ralph Rackstraw loves above his station in life, the Captain's fair daughter Josephine. But as in life and as in the bulk of the G & S Canon, things are seldom what they seem.

In fact, under her gay and frivolous exterior, so gay and frivolous everyone calls her "Little Buttercup," dockside vendor Mrs. Cripps hints she may be hiding a dark secret.
The others however are as uninterested in hearing her secret as she is in revealing it.

But after a great deal of general topsy-turvy we learn Mrs. Cripps had once been the nursemaid of Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine's father, the Captain. Prone to confusion, she inadvertently switched the two babes and Ralph should in fact be the Captain and the Captain should in fact be Ralph.

So being of high birth, Ralph hadn't loved above his station at all, but below it. As such, he is free to marry the low-born but lovely Josephine.

Two hours of twisted plots could have been avoided if everyone had sought to understand Mrs. Cripps' earlier warnings. But of course we would not have had two hours of Sullivan's lovely music either, so all is forgiven.

In Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he extols us seek first to understand, then to be understood.

And Mrs. Cripps extols us:
Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers.

I think Covey may have learned a thing or two from Mrs. Cripps.

Lesson 6: Aesthetic Poets and "To Thine Own Self Be True"


Aesthetics. These are people who really get into appearances. They suffer for the sake of suffering, and supposedly that makes great art.

Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience, Reginald Bunthorne is an aesthetic poet whose apparent sincerity and purity make him a big hit with the ladies. I say "apparent" because he is a total fake. In a private moment with the audience, Bunthorne gives a little advice:
If you're anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and plant them ev'rywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind,
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
And ev'ry one will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!"

Here is what Wikipedia (love Wikipedia) had to say about Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience:
The opera is a satire on the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and '80s in England, when the output of poets, composers, painters and designers of all kinds was indeed prolific-but, some argued, empty and self-indulgent. This artistic movement was so popular, and also so easy to ridicule as a meaningless fad, that it made Patience a big hit.

Bunthorne teaches us a sort of anti-lesson. Contrary to what he might advise, be true to yourself.

Embrace all the varied and wonderful things that make you unique and unleash that on the world, even if you feel foolish. Your right people will find you if you're not hiding behind something else, something that isn't really you. Then sit back and don't worry about what will come; the right things will come along with the right people. Just let your creative spirit go skipping down the halls, if that's what it needs to do.

Being true to yourself is the first priority.

Lesson 7: Begin With the End in Mind


Returning to The Mikado, Pooh-Bah holds numerous exalted offices including Lord Chief Justice, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Master of the Buckhounds, Lord High Auditor, Groom of the Back Stairs, and Lord High Everything Else. Wikipedia says:
The name has come to be used as a mocking title for someone self-important or high-ranking and who either exhibits an inflated self-regard, who acts in several capacities at once, or who has limited authority while taking impressive titles.

It isn't so much an issue of inflated self-regard, and while I Pooh-Bah may have had a penchant for holding grand-sounding titles, he had a goal in mind: power. His willingness to wear so many hats was just the price he was willing to pay for his ambition. Through all these efforts, he kept the end in mind.

Mark Twain offered some advice:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

An old joke asks how you can sculpt an elephant. The answer is this: Get a huge block of marble, then chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant.

Or as Stephen Covey says, "Begin with the end in mind."

And With That in Mind, Here is the End


At eighteen I didn't realize how true to human nature these silly little characters really were. Since then I've crossed paths with the persistent Katisha in real life, I've known others who habitually wafted to and fro like Ko-Ko, and each of the operetta's surprisingly three-dimensional characters have appeared in other faces throughout my adult life. But what really surprises me is when I notice elements these merry musicals' characters in myself.

Now I just need to heed their sage advice.

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