The future has been all the rage for the past two centuries. Modernism, as an ideology, might almost be defined as the cult of the future, whether in science fiction or in Utopian political creeds like Marxism. Even in its death throes modernism was able to spawn “futurology,” a pseudo-science as richly comic as phrenology. An obsession with the future is usually taken as a sign of naive optimism, but the most influential futurist of the century, H.G. Wells, was profoundly pessimistic, and if his heirs—the Tofflers, for example—exhibit a cheery confidence in what the future holds, it is only because their writings are the intellectual equivalent of a lobotomy.

On the verge of despair, we put our faith in the future: we buy lottery tickets, change jobs after reading the message in a fortune cookie, pick stocks on the basis of a lucky number or a broker’s recommendation. Confirmed atheists on their deathbed call for a priest, not necessarily because they now believe, but because eternity is the only future left. Horace, advising a mistress against astrology, gave his famous advice to “seize the day, putting as little stock as you can in tomorrow.” Entire societies may become infected with futurism, and since the Renaissance, as our social conditions have become more and more detached from the roots of human experience, intellectuals of every kind have been constructing Utopias—architectural sketches for the world tomorrow that no one will ever, in his worst nightmare, inhabit.

Progressivism in any form is an indication of alienation and discontent. In the so-called Middle Ages, on the other hand, which must have been as uncomfortable as any since men learned how to smelt copper, most people knew the difference between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. The interest that a Christian people takes in the future should be limited to practical and down-to-earth questions: Whom should I marry? Under what moon should I sow the rye?

In those days literate men looking for clues to the future would perform the sortes virgiliane by opening a text of Vergil at random. The practice has not died out, entirely, and there are people who leaf through Shakespeare or the King James Bible as if they were taking the auguries. In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, the house-steward begins his account by citing an appropriate passage of Robinson Crusoe, which he had come upon by accident. “If that isn’t prophecy,” he asks, “what is?” The steward had worn out seven copies of his favorite book, while I, on the other hand, have gone through any number of recordings of The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, and Iolanthe. They have exhausted themselves keeping the promise the Queen of the Fairies made to Strephon: “Shouldst thou be in doubt or danger, / Peril or perplexitee, / Call us, and we’ll come to thee!” And over the past few months I have come to believe that my views on equality were shaped by The Gondoliers, my distaste for feminism inspired by Princess Ida, and my contempt for social and political idealism—and ideology—nourished by W.S. Gilbert’s satires on the rigors of class structure, chauvinism, party loyalty, and romantic love.

Invective and realistic social criticism, which satisfied later and inferior writers like Ibsen and Shaw, were not in Gilbert’s line. He preferred to construct Utopian fantasies and upsidedown worlds in which his contemporaries could see themselves as in a funhouse mirror. In 1875, his play Topsyturvydom portrayed a country where people are born old and wise but gradually youthen and forget everything. In the stage set, the chandelier rose from the floor, while the furniture was fixed to the ceiling. In her recent W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre (Oxford University Press), Jane Stedman describes Gilbert’s vision of a “double world: one part consisting of things or principles as they are, and the other consisting of ideas about or attitudes toward these things and principles; a world of truth and a world of what we think is reality—two separate worlds which are only intermittently synonymous.”

Topsyturvydom was produced only months before the first successful collaboration between William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, Trial by Jury, but Gilbert’s technique was already well-advanced in his Bab Ballads, where we meet the prototype for Topsyturvydom as well as the originals of characters made familiar in the Savoy operas: the common soldier who discovers that he and his general were switched at birth, a curate named George, the son of a fairy who objects to his High Church proclivities (“To this / Papal rule-ish / Twaddle put an ending; This a swerve is / From our service / Plain and unpretending”). When the bishop finds him embracing his young and beautiful mother, he refuses to believe she is not a hussy of two and twenty. The curate takes umbrage: “George the point grew warm on; / Changed religion / Like a pigeon, / And became a Mormon!”

My favorite topsyturvy ballad concerns “Gentle Alice Brown,” daughter of a family of Italian robbers. Alice falls in love with a poor but honest man and goes to make her confession to the village priest, who is indulgent toward her peccadilloes of kidnapping, burglary, and murder: “You mustn’t judge yourself too heavily my dear. / It’s wrong to murder babies, little corals for to fleece; / But sins like these one expiates at half-acrown apiece.” But, when she confesses her innocent dalliance, the good father is outraged:

This dreadful piece of news will pain your worthy parents so!

They are the most remunerative customers I know;

For many many years they’ve kept starvation from my doors;

I never knew so criminal a family as yours!

The hapless young man is chopped into particularly small pieces, and Alice is wed to her father’s lieutenant.

In turning the conventional on its head, Gilbert was able to see into the paradoxes that lay just beneath the surface of Victorian morality. His favorite plot device—which he never succeeded in selling to Sullivan—was of a magic lozenge which turned people into what they pretended to be. Sullivan wanted something more human, but Gilbert gave him a series of Utopias and fantasies that were as topsyturvy as he could make them: a magic potion that makes people fall in love with the first member of the opposite sex they encounter, a family curse that condemns the baronets of Ruddigore to “do a crime a day or die,” the appointment of a condemned man to the position of executioner on the grounds that “he cannot cut off another’s head until he’s cut his own off.”

Like Alice Brown and the baronets of Ruddigore, many of Gilbert’s characters are trapped in an allegiance to something essentially absurd or wrong. The Mikado of Japan does not actually wish to execute Ko Ko, Poo Bah, and Pitti Sing by boiling them in oil, but they have unknowingly executed the heir to the throne, who has been traveling in disguise as a wandering minstrel. The Mikado quite understands, thinks perhaps his son got what he deserved, but, unfortunately, the law in question says nothing about a mistake. Cheer up, he tells them, “I’ll have it altered next session. Now let’s see about your execution —will after luncheon suit you?” The baronets of Ruddigore do not enjoy committing a crime a day, but what are they to do? It is a family tradition, or rather curse.

This message of affable cynicism is often conveyed by a woridly wise older man who is variously the Pirate King, The Mikado, and the Grand Inquisitor in The Gondoliers. In H.M.S. Pinafore, the cynical baritone is poor Dick Deadeye who sums up Gilbert’s view of life with his, “It’s a queer world.” Dick ought to know. Cursed with an ugly name and a still uglier face, he cannot say “nice day” without incurring quite literally a chorus of disapproval. When Dick repeats the Boatswain’s warning that the captain’s daughter will never marry a simple sailor like Ralph Rackstraw, the boatswain tells him, “Them sentiments of yourn are a disgrace to our common natur.”

In the recently republished The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (Oxford University Press), Ian Bradley describes Dick as “the nearest that Gilbert comes . . . to creating the archetypal stage villain of Victorian melodrama,” but Dick is more of a Cassandra than a villain. He is resigned to being hated for his looks, and he knows that on his lips “the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination” (a charge the critics often leveled against Gilbert’s cruel brand of humor). Dick’s paradoxical nature illustrates the central point of Pinafore, whose plot turns on the distinction between a man’s true nature and the position he holds in society—the simple sailor turns out to be the captain and vice versa.

Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, is convinced that “love levels all ranks,” and when he explains his doctrine of equality to the crew, they naturally assume that he is putting them on his own level. Only Dick understands reality: “He means well, but he don’t know. When people have to obey other people’s orders, equality is out of the question.” But in Gilbert’s upside-down world, Sir Joseph—the “monarch of the sea” who knows nothing of the navy—is applauded, while Dick is excoriated. In the end, when Buttercup reveals the truth, Ralph and the Captain exchange places, and in most productions the Captain begins speaking in a Cockney accent. His duty is not to anything in his real life (e.g., his daughter, his crew), but to the social position he has inherited.

Under the sinister influence of Immanuel Kant, the public morality of the 19th century was dangerously deontological, that is, duty-bound. Schopenhauer pointed out the absurdity of Kant’s insistence upon a universal duty owed by all human beings, regardless of circumstances, and Gilbert put the dilemma on the stage in the person of young Frederic, “the slave of duty” in The Pirates of Penzance. As a boy, Frederic was mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate band (his father wanted him to be a pilot, but his nurse was hard of hearing). The young man hates piracy, and he is not persuaded by the Pirate King’s declaration that

Many a king on a first-class throne,

If he wants to call his crown his own.

Must manage somehow to get through

More dirty work than ever I do.

But out of a sense of duty, he will not abandon the pirates until he has reached the age of 21, when the term of his indenture will have expired. On the day of his liberation he meets and affiances the daughter of Major General Stanley, and it becomes his duty to lead a squad of timid policemen against the friends of his youth. There is, however, a wrinkle, or rather a paradox. It seems that Frederic was born in a leap year, on February 29, and as the King explains: “Though you have lived 21 years, yet if we go by birthdays, you are only five and a little bit over.”

Frederic’s duty is plain: he must delay his marriage to Mable (who promises to wait until 1940, while complaining, “It seems so long”) and rejoin the pirates who are planning to murder his future father-in-law, who had secured the release of his daughters from the marriage-mad pirates by claiming to be an orphan. (While the Major General, too, has a conscience, he cannot quite bring himself to confess his sin to the Pirate King.) When the pirates defeat the police and seize the Major General, only a deus ex machina can save the day. In this case the deus (or rather dea) is Queen Victoria in whose name the pirates are commanded to surrender. But even the pirates are not beyond redemption. “They are no men of the common throng. They are all noblemen who have gone wrong.” The Major General, declaring that Englishmen, for all their faults, love their House of Peers, pardons the pirates and gives them his daughters.

These irreverent digs at royalty and peerage are not casual bits of fun. Victorian rigorism was embedded in a social system that equated worth with status. Gilbert was no leveler, but he was convinced that many criminals are victims of circumstance. Rich people do not steal from shops, because they do not need to, and if they do go wrong—like the pirates or Michael Milken—they will never lack for apologists. In his ballad “Mister William” the hero, an otherwise good man who forges a will “as an experiment,” assuages his conscience by reflecting that “the greater the temptation to go wrong, the less the sin.” Convicted of his crime William suffers from the unaccustomed harshness of prison life, his gaolers take pity on him, arguing, “He ain’t been brought up common, like the likes of me and you.” Eventually Mr. William is released with an apology from the Secretary.

With the exception of the cowardly police, everyone in the Pirates has a strict sense of right and wrong. With a thrill in her voice, Mabel tells the policemen to march off to “glory and the grave”; the pirates’ merciful creed forbids them to harm orphans, and once the word got out, all of their victims claimed to be orphans. Ruth, the nursemaid, when she realizes her mistake, resolves to stick with her master, becoming “a piratical maid of all work.” Piling absurdity upon paradox, Gilbert has managed to satirize moral rigorism by revealing its vicious consequences. In the name of duty, a good man is willing to betray and murder his childhood friends and the father of the woman he loves, although, as he says, “It breaks my heart to betray the honored father of the girl I adore.” In an earlier version of the same plot. Our Island Home (1870), a similarly indentured pirate captain comes upon a group of castaways and informs them that it is his duty, unpleasant though it be, to murder them all. He persists in his resolution even after realizing that two of his victims are his long-lost parents. As his father explains: “I wouldn’t have him break his articles of apprenticeship on my account. I always taught him a scrupulous adherence to his engagements, and I am glad—very glad . . . [shaking the pirate’s hand] to see that you have not forgotten my precepts.”

There is more here than poking fun at Victorian morality whose emphasis on duty had made heroes of the soldiers sacrificed at Balaclava (Gilbert was an armchair expert on the Crimean War) and would slaughter untold thousands in the Great War, for nothing. Frederic has made a religion out of obedience, and while his fanaticism owes much to the pieties so vigorously promoted by his beloved Queen, his lofty devotion to duty is only one aspect of the liberal tradition of ethics going back to Kant, Locke, and Descartes. Gilbert’s idiotic hero gets himself in trouble for embracing precisely the sort of universalist ethics that Englishmen had been taught for two centuries, and the situation could only be resolved (and the murder avoided) by an old-fashioned appeal to the love and loyalty that even bad men may feel for their country and their sovereign. Yet Gilbert can play it both ways. The pirates are absurdly tenderhearted when it comes to Queens and orphans, but their misplaced loyalty and ridiculous sentimentalism are far more human than Frederic’s cult of duty or the Major General’s prickly conscience.

Frederic is a decent, if dunderheaded young man, but Gilbert carries the satire further in the person of Dick Dauntless, the young sailor in Ruddigore. Dick is the foster brother of Ruthven Murgatroyd, who is by right the latest “bad baronet” of Ruddigore, but Ruthven has disguised himself as a farmer (under the name Robin Oakapple). Too shy to propose to Rose, he asks his apparently good-hearted foster brother to intercede. He and Robin had sworn an oath that they “would always act upon our hearts’ dictates,” and when he sees how beautiful she is, he proposes on his own account. When Rose learns the truth, she prefers Robin, but Dick has another trick up his sleeve, and he reveals Robin’s true identity to his younger brother, who has been reluctantly upholding the family honor by committing a crime a day. At the wedding. Sir Despard denounces Robin, and when Rose asks “who is the wretch who has betrayed thee?” Dick replies:

Within this breast there beats a heart

Whose voice can’t be gainsaid.

It bade me thy true rank impart.

And I at once obeyed

I knew ‘twould blight thy budding fate—

I knew ‘twould cause thee anguish great—

But did I therefore hesitate?

No I at once obeyed.

Gilbert has sometimes been censured for introducing Dick, in Act One, with a silly song in which he boasts of English courage against the French. But the whole point of the song is to reveal Dick as a dishonest blowhard who explains that his sloop did not attack a French frigate, because “to fight a French fa lal, it’s like hitting of a gal.” The French were outraged but, like most critics, they missed the point. Dick Dauntless is the very opposite of the ugly but honest Dick Deadeye. Dauntless is handsome, strong, as sentimental as a greeting card, but essentially selfish and hypocritical.

The mistaken indenture is only a variation on his “lozenge plot” (the same might be said of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”). In his most effective political satire, however, he asks us to laugh at English customs dressed up in Japanese costumes, to see the absurdity of English republican arguments when they are propounded by Venetian gondoliers, and in his penultimate collaboration with Sullivan, to understand the corruption of English politics by watching a Southsea paradise (whose name is Utopia) as it turns itself into an English limited stock company.

The plot of Utopia, Limited may well have been too complex for an audience expecting an evening of cheerful tunes and lighthearted absurdity, but the libretto is one of Gilbert’s best. Paramount, the Anglomaniac king of Utopia, is a despot in name, but he lives under the shadow of the public exploder, who is empowered to blow up the king with dynamite at the first sign of misbehavior. In The Gondoliers, Gilbert had played with a monarchy “that’s tempered with republican equality,” but in Utopia’s “despotism tempered with dynamite,” the king is forced to write and publish libels about his own entirely fictitious vices and follies. But, as the king is fond of saying, “It’s a quaint world.”

His daughter, who has been educated in England, returns to Utopia, bringing with her “the flowers of progress” (the opera’s subtitle): a military man, a lawyer, a Lord High Chamberlain (to censor morals), a county councillor. Captain Corcoran (straight out of Pinafore), and Mr. Goldbury, a “company promoter.” The promoter explains the limited liability company as a means of investing the least money at the least risk for the greatest profit. And if the company goes belly up, well, that is too bad for the investors but not for the promoters:

Though a Rothschild you may be

In your own capacity.

As a Company you’ve come to utter sorrow

But the liquidators say,

“Never mind—you needn’t pay”

So you start another company tomorrow.

At first the king is dubious about turning his entire kingdom into a limited liability company. “I do understand you,” he asks Goldbury, “that Great Britain / Upon this Joint Stock principle is governed?” The promoter answers, “We haven’t come to that yet, but—/We’re tending rapidly in that direction.”

Goldbury is given the go-ahead and applies the limited liability principle to every individual in the realm, and before long “there is not a christened baby in Utopia who has not already issued his little prospectus.” (This sounds like Washington, D.C., where every policy-geek and political gopher has his own think-tank or institute.) The king’s first cabinet meeting is conducted as a minstrel show, complete with banjo and bones—a satiric touch that we may find disquieting for more than one reason.

The flowers of progress turn out to be weeds, unfortunately, and all the little pleasures of Utopian life are ruined:

Utopia swamped by dull prosperity

Demands that these detested

Flowers of Progress

Be sent about their business.

The situation appears hopeless until the English-educated princess advises the king to introduce one last British-style reform, namely “government by party,” which will bring progress to a halt: “No political measures will endure because one Party will assuredly undo all that the other Party has done; and while grouse is to be shot and foxes worried to death, the legislative action of the country will be at a standstill.” Half a genuine loaf, Gilbert seems to be saying, is better than an entire pastry shop filled with imaginary delights that can only be enjoyed in some future state.

Utopia, Limited opened in 1893, and had a limited success. The partners were long since tired of each other’s company, and, as the 20th century loomed nearer, Gilbert’s humor seemed increasingly dated. He went on to write other plays, but his greatest successes were behind him, and when he died in 1910, he was already an institution of the previous reign. By then. Wells had already written The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and the science fiction industry was on its way to being established on the broken dreams of the American Century. The Savoy operas have been kept alive, partly for the brightness of Gilbert’s wit and the beauty of Sullivan’s music, but they have also suffered from a deadening nostalgia for times gone by.

Gilbert was himself a man of no particular party. He was as suspicious of progressive levelers as he was contemptuous of the conservative defenders of entrenched interests. Between the improbable glories of past golden ages and the impossible beauties of the paradise that awaits us, just around the corner, once the public exploders have done their job—there was little to choose. Like Sir Thomas More, he knew that the real purpose of Utopias was satiric, that such fantasies are of no positive use in planning a society. If Plato thought otherwise, then Plato was wrong. Like Trollope, W.S. Gilbert is the wholesome Victorian antidote to the poisonous fantasies of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and taken in regular doses, his works will reform the manners, as well as the meters, of our degenerate times.