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Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody (Gender and Culture Series) Hardcover – November 25, 2010

4 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


A superb examination of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas... Highly recommended.Library Journal

(Library Journal)

Rich, challenging, irritating, inspiring, provocative, just what one wants in a new G&S study, this is a worthwhile albeit tough read.


Williams substantive study is all the more praiseworthy because her biting insights into gender and sexuality, sharpened through the lens of contemporary critical theory, are tucked within what could pass as a much more staid study of Gilbert and Sullivan.

(Josephine Lee Nineteenth Century Gender Studies)

Unmodified rapture should best describe the scholarly reponse to this exciting contribution to a broad swath of disciplines...

(Victorian Studies)

this book will be an important reference point for future discussions of Gilbert and Sullivan, gender, and the Victorian stage.

(Benjamin D. O'Dell English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920)

[A] triumphant cultural history.

(Joseph Bristow Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900)

An outstanding pick... this is a recommendation for any college-level course in Gilbert and Sullivan, and for readers who would receive a fine reinterpretation of their works and impact.

(Midwest Book Review)


Carolyn Williams highlights what ought to have been obvious all along about Gilbert and Sullivan's portrayal of gender: they're just kidding. Williams gives these wonderful works the reading they deserve.

(Robyn Warhol-Down, Ohio State University)

In its details, intelligence, breadth of scholarship, and original archival research, this book offers treasures and a beautifully written, sometimes exhilarating read. A brilliant, unique contribution to Victorian studies that will prove to be a benchmark.

(Adrienne Munich, Stony Brook University)

It takes superb critical tact and intelligence—not to mention a finely-developed affection for the ludicrous—to write well about the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. How, indeed, to capture their classic mixture—the satiric fizz and musical japes, sublimely silly plots and galumphing stage turns, the gorgeous lyrical flights—without destroying everything that is funny, significant, and ravishing? Yet in Gilbert and Sullivan, Carolyn Williams has done exactly that: given us a scholarly study as full of dazzle, wit, generosity, and surpassing intelligence as the Savoy operas themselves. Yes, one appreciates at once the graceful, marvelously informed discussions of individual works, but this book is always opening out into something larger and more magisterial too. In the complex and absorbing way Williams has mobilized a spectacular panoply of themes—the history of nineteenth-century comic theater, Victorian feminism and sexual mores, the nature of parody and burlesque, the dramatic use of choruses, political satire, Wagnerism in England, the Aesthetic movement-she astounds and delights. Pour, oh pour, the pirate sherry: this is joyful, joyous, life-enhancing scholarship.

(Terry Castle, Stanford University, author of The Professor and Other Writings)

Product Details

  • Series: Gender and Culture Series
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (November 25, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231148046
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231148047
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,083,599 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By J. Grossman on April 1, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Full disclosure: the author is a colleague in the field, whom I know & respect.

But I had to write this review in reply to the negative customer review by Koko, who despairs that William's analysis of Gilbert & Sullivan's works is not as funny as the comic operas. This is to miss the point and the pleasure of this book!

Williams's aim is to illuminate for us how parody works, e.g. that it is "a mode, not a genre"; that we should notice how it typically plays smartly on the very question of "originality" and "convention" and "recognition"; and that it juxtaposes historical theatrical types with present-day social types to expose us all as a pack of fools.

For me, one of the most important effects this book had was to rescue Gilbert and Sullivan from what I had taken to be their unthinking sexism--but of course I was not crediting the *parody* enough: for instance, Williams shows how the opera's divisions over and over into male and female choruses makes a joke out of the idea of tidy gender oppositions and stereotypes.

Sometimes to get a joke, you really do need to have someone explain it. With great sensitivity to the humor, Williams does that for the jokes--and for the serious cultural critiques that lurk behind them--and so there is a good chance this book will make you like your favorite Savoy opera even more.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book was a revelation. Focusing on the three elements of the subtitle, Professor Williams devotes a chapter to each of the works in the G&S canon. She makes a persuasive case that Gilbert wrote each libretto as a parody of a particular theatrical genre that was popular at the time. She reviews the most salient examples of these genres to illustrate the aspects that Gilbert was parodying -- and makes Gilbert's work seem even more brilliant because we now understand it in the context of the times. That seems like enough for one book, but as it was written as part of the Gender and Culture series, Professor Williams takes on gender as well -- and makes that element far more interesting and integrated into her G&S deconstruction than the necessity for including it might indicate. In fact, show by show, she illustrates how Gilbert's treatment of women (and men) was either a reflection of, or more often, a reaction to, Victorian culture. Having just prepared a multimedia presentation on Gilbert & Sullivan, I can tell you this book was easily my most valuable resource of the many G&S books available.
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By Koko on February 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This study has everything concerning the canon of Gilbert and Sullivan. Everything, that is except the one key element -- a sense of humor on the part of the author. Totally misses the fun and greatness of the collaboration. An academic screed, molded to fit a supposed scholarly mold. Save the money; buy a CD.
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Format: Paperback
Very helpful for unpacking the background and context which would have been apparent to a Victorian viewer of the operettas, but not to a contemporary viewer. In order to understand parody, one needs to be aware of that which is parodied. For instance, without knowledge of nautical and gothic melodrama, and how they were used previously in Victorian theatre and literature, Pinafore or Ruddigore will just look like a silly mess, rather than doing something quite specific and witty of which audiences at the time would be aware. As a previous reviewer mentioned, what one might today take for sexism towards elderly ladies, is usually a parody of drag roles in Burlesque. Again, if one views Mikado as a parody of Japan, rather than of English Japonism, one will entirely miss the point. One could go on, or one could simply recommend the book to anyone who is interested in understanding G&S better from a literary/historical perspective.

What the book is not doing is giving a history or biography of G&S, or a musical analysis. If one is seeking these, one might look elsewhere.
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