The Law is the True Embodiment: Gilbert and Sullivan for Lawyers, 0415 KSBJ, 84 J. Kan. Bar Assn 4, 25 (2015)

AuthorBy Roger W. Badeker

The Law is the True Embodiment: Gilbert and Sullivan for Lawyers

Vol. 84 J. Kan. Bar Assn 4, 25 (2015)

Kansas Bar Journal

April, 2015

By Roger W. Badeker

No legal education can be considered complete without a working knowledge of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and others who produced several masterpieces of comic opera. For those already acquainted, this will be a review. Newcomers will have the pleasure of meeting legal luminaries, such as the judge in trial by Jury and the law clerk elevated to “Ruler of the Queen’s Navee” in H.M.S. Pinafore. I first became acquainted with the work of those composers at the age of 4, listening to Pinafore on a 78 r.p.m. record. I have been a fan ever since.

First, a little about the two men: Arthur Sullivan was a serious composer. His works were not confined to comic opera. He is probably best known as the composer of the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” W.S. Gilbert was a practicing barrister ho wrote comic prose for a magazine titled Fun until he found comic writing more profitable and abandoned the practice of law. Te two men collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896. Their operas are still performed frequently throughout the English-speaking world.

Lawyers, judges and people connected with the law in one way or another appear n many of the operas. Trial by Jury is a good place to start. Te setting is a “breach of promise” action. Te plaintiff, unlike a woman in the judge’s background, had not been forgiving. She sued. It is interesting to note that this was a recognized cause of action in the United Kingdom until 1971.

Te presiding judge had an interesting personal history. As a young barrister he ad agreed to marry the elderly, homely daughter of an established and prosperous barrister and then jilted her. Her father had promised to help the young lawyer and does so despite his conduct. Te judge provides some comments about his progress n the profession with this: Te rich attorney was as good as his word

The briefs came trooping gaily,

And every day my voice was heard

At the Sessions or Ancient Bailey.

All thieves who could my fees afford

Relied on my orations,

And many a burglar I’ve restored

To his friends and his relations.1

After hearing all the evidence (such as it is), the judge resolves the matter by marrying the plaintiff himself, explaining his decision: All the legal furies seize you

No proposal seems to please you

I can’t sit up here all day.

I must shortly get away.

Barristers, and you, attorneys, Set out on your homeward journeys; . . .

Put your briefs up on the shelf, I will marry her myself.2

Despite the irony of the learned judge’s conduct as a young lawyer in jilting the laughter of his employer, the jury and public approve of him.

In H.M.S. Pinafore, another lawyer plays a prominent role. Sir Joseph Porter, the first Sea Lord, recounts his rise from a humble beginning as “office boy to an attorney firm” to his present lofty position as “Ruler of the Queen’s Navee.” In his words: Of legal knowledge, I acquired such a grip Tat they took me into the partnership And that junior partnership, I ween, Was the only ship that I ever had seen.

But that kind of ship so suited me Tat now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee.3

After exulting in his success and sharing it with those assembled on the deck of the Pinafore, Sir Joseph offers this advice: Now, landsmen all, whoever you may be,

If you want to rise to the top of the tree,

If your soul isn’t fettered to an office stool,

Be careful to be guided by this Golden Rule –

Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,

And you all may be Rulers of the Queen’s Navee.4

Does it seem strange that one who had no experience at sea should be running a nation’s navy? If so, look around at our own Department of Defense and see how many senior positions are held by those who have never worn a uniform. Te model for Sir Joseph was W.H. Smith, a newspaper man who had no knowledge of the sea or ships. Despite that glaring lack of knowledge, he was made First Sea Lord and became known as “Pinafore Smith.”

There were strict orders against playing music from the opera when Smith was around. Ignoring the prohibition, a Royal Marine band played “When I was a Lad” on one of his visits to Portsmouth. Te satire was not directed at Smith personally but against the entire system of putting people in charge of affairs in which they had no experience.

There is a Kansas connection with Gilbert and Sullivan in the folklore of Dodge City. Legend has it that Wyatt Earp met his long-time common law wife Josey when she was in Tombstone with a traveling company of H.M.S. Pinafore.

Another opera with a nautical theme takes us to the other side of the law and a look at a pirate ship and crew in Te Pirates of Penzance. They...

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