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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Capital Punishment - by W. S, Gilbert

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens: 

“. . . [T]he hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition; now, stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now, hanging a housebreaker on Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; now, burning people in the hand at Newgate by the dozen, and now burning pamphlets at the door of Westminster Hall; to-day, taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer's boy of sixpence.”

Dickens wrote those words in mid 19th century, looking back on his country’s bloody history.  

The death penalty generates controversy in our time, but in other civilized societies, it has been the subject of satire as well as polemics.  Perhaps none have struck the nail on the head better than W. S, Gilbert, the librettist, who with his composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan, successfully skewered pomposity and hypocrisy and manners in a series of comic operas more than a hundred years ago.

As an example, perhaps their most famous operetta, "The Mikado," first performed in 1885, considers the subject of capital punishment as its central theme and holds the entire concept to joyful derision.  

In the mythical Japanese city of TitiPu, there is a law decreed by the ruler, the Mikado, which generates the action of the play.  The “stern decree” makes flirting a capital offense.  
As a nobleman, sings:

Our great Mikado, virtuous man, 
When he to rule our land began,
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.
So he decreed, in words succinct,
That all who flirted, leered or winked
(Unless connubially linked),
Should forthwith be beheaded,
This stem decree, you'll understand,
Caused great dismay throughout the land!
For young and old
And shy and bold
Were equally affected.
The youth who winked a roving eye,
Or breathed a non-connubial sigh,
Was thereupon condemned to die —
He usually objected,
Objected, objected,
He usually objected. 
And you'll allow, as I expect,
That he was right to so object.
And I am right,
And you are right,
And everything is quite correct! 

Realizing the severity of this law, however, a culprit who had been found guilty of the offense of flirting, a tailor called Ko-ko, is appointed to be the Lord High Executioner.  This remedies the problem for the time being, because it creates a legal anomaly — the executioner would have to slice off his own head first, which, as Ko-ko explains, would be inconvenient.
Ko-ko, having lucked into this exalted post, dreams of those who might merit the punishment more than he.

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list — I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs — 
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs — 
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with 'em flat — 
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that — 
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-á-têtes insist — 
They'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed! 

There's the banjo serenader, and the others of his race,
And the piano-organist — I've got him on the list!
And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
And who "doesn't think she dances, but would rather like to try";
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist — 
I don't think she'd be missed — I'm sure she'd not he missed! 

And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife,
The Judicial humorist — I've got him on the list!
All funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life — 
They'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed.
And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,
Such as — What d'ye call him — Thing'em-bob, and likewise — Never-mind,
And 'St— 'st— 'st— and What's-his-name, and also You-know-who — 
The task of filling up the blanks I'd rather leave to you.
But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list,
For they'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed! 

(For Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production, the “list” was updated, written and performed by Eric Idle, as Ko-ko:

There's weightlifters and bodybuilders
People of that sort
Bank robbers who retire to spend
The minute they get caught
Bishops who don't believe in God
Chief constables who do
All people who host chat shows
And the guests who's on them too
And customs men who fumbling through your underwear insist
I don't think they'd be missed
I'm sure they'd not be missed

There's the people with pretentious names
Like Justin, Trish, and Rob
And the gynaecologist
I've got him on the list
All muggers, joggers, buggers, floggers
People who play golf
They never would be missed
They never would be missed
All waitresses who make you wait
Accountants of all kinds
And actresses who kiss and tell
And wiggle their behinds
And pouncy little singers who to entertain us try
By dressing up like women and by singing far too high
And who on close observance must be either stoned or pissed
I don't think they'd be missed
I'm sure they not be missed
There's the beggars who write letters
From the inland revenue
And the gossip columnist
I've got him on the list
All critics and comedians and opera singers too
And none of them be missed
And none of them be missed
All traffic wardens, bankers,
Men who sell Venetian blinds
All advertising chappies
And Australians of all kinds
And nasty little editors whose papers are the pits
Who fill their rags with gossip
And huge and floppy... ritz.
And girls who sell the stories
Of the Tories they have kissed
But you must have got the gist
'Cause none of them be missed

(Original song by: Gilbert and Sullivan, New lyrics by: Eric Idle)

A crisis arises when Ko-ko receives a letter from the Mikado demanding to know why no executions have been carried out.  He insists that one be done before he arrives in a month.  
Ko-ko fears being the victim, imagines the result:

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

The plot, as always, thickens:
Fortunately, he finds a willing substitute, Nanki-Poo, (a “wandering minstrel” - playing "second trombone") who is insistently suicidal due to losing his true love, Yum-Yum, who is betrothed to none other than Ko-ko, himself.  Seeing a reprieve for himself, Ko-ko persuades Nanki-Poo to be the first to be executed, pointing out that suicide is also a capital crime.  Offered thirty days of marriage to Yum-Yum before his beheading, Nanki-Poo is overjoyed.  
A glitch in the plan is later revealed when Ko-ko discovers a forgotten law that requires that the wife of anyone beheaded for flirting must be buried alive with her husband’s decapitated body. This law, we are told, had never been applied because Victorian husbands never flirt!
Told that she is faced with being doomed to a “stuffy death,” Yum-Yum sings,

Here’s a how-de-do!
If I marry you,
When your time has come to perish,
Then the maiden whom you cherish
Must be slaughtered, too!
Here’s a how-de-do!
To save his lover from such fate, Nanki-Poo reverts to his initial plan of imminent suicide, to which Ko-ko desperately protests: 

“Why, hang it all, you’re under contract to die by the hand of the Public Executioner in a month’s time! If you kill yourself, what’s to become of me? Why, I shall have to be executed in your place!”  He continues, “Now look here, you know—this is getting serious—a bargain’s a bargain, and you really mustn’t frustrate the ends of justice by committing suicide. As a man of honour and a gentleman, you are bound to die ignominiously by the hands of the Public Executioner.”

Ko-ko, however, is unable to go through with it.  He has never killed a “blue-bottle,” was hoping the position of High Executioner was merely “nominal”.  Thinking he had a month to prepare – beginning with small animals and “working my way through the animal kingdom,” he finally weeps: “I can’t kill you—I can’t kill anything! I can’t kill anybody!

The dilemma is alleviated when Pooh-Bah, who holds every other office in the city, agrees (for a hefty bribe) to create a death certificate certifying that Nanki-Poo has been executed.  Meanwhile the happy couple run off to be married and flee to England.

When the Mikado arrives, he claims to have designed more appropriate punishments for wrong-doers for the entertainment of his subjects:

A more humane Mikado never
Did in Japan exist,
To nobody second,
I’m certainly reckoned
A true philanthropist.
It is my very humane endeavour
To make, to some extent,
Each evil liver
A running river
Of harmless merriment.

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time—
To let the punishment fit the crime—
The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

All prosy dull society sinners,
Who chatter and bleat and bore,
Are sent to hear sermons
From mystical Germans
Who preach from ten till four.
The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies
All desire to shirk,
Shall, during off-hours,
Exhibit his powers
To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

The lady who dyes a chemical yellow
Or stains her grey hair puce,
Or pinches her figure,
Is painted with vigour
With permanent walnut juice.
The idiot who, in railway carriages,
Scribbles on window-panes,
We only suffer
To ride on a buffer
In Parliamentary trains.

The advertising quack who wearies
With tales of countless cures,
His teeth, I’ve enacted,
Shall all be extracted
By terrified amateurs.
The music-hall singer attends a series
Of masses and fugues and “ops”
By Bach, interwoven
With Spohr and Beethoven,
At classical Monday Pops.

The billiard sharp who any one catches,
His doom’s extremely hard—
He’s made to dwell—
In a dungeon cell
On a spot that’s always barred.
And there he plays extravagant matches
In fitless finger-stalls
On a cloth untrue
With a twisted cue
And elliptical billiard balls!

When presenting the Mikado with proof of the completed execution, Ko-ko is forced to describe in detail the performance, which he does, with excessive imagination:

The criminal cried, as he dropped him down,
In a state of wild alarm—
With a frightful, frantic, fearful frown,
I bared my big right arm.

I seized him by his little pig-tail,
And on his knees fell he,
As he squirmed and struggled,
And gurgled and guggled,
I drew my snickersnee!
Oh, never shall I
Forget the cry,
Or the shriek that shriekèd he,

As I gnashed my teeth,
When from its sheath
I drew my snickersnee!

We know him well,
He cannot tell
Untrue or groundless tales—
He always tries
To utter lies,
And every time he fails.

The exaggerated descriptions become more elaborate.  Pooh-Bah elaborates with a grisly tale:

Now though you’d have said that head was dead
(For its owner dead was he),
It stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred,
And bowed three times to me!

It was none of your impudent off-hand nods,
But as humble as could be;
For it clearly knew
The deference due
To a man of pedigree!

And it’s oh, I vow,
This deathly bow
Was a touching sight to see;
Though trunkless, yet
It couldn’t forget
The deference due to me!

The Mikado is quite pleased with the accounts, until he discovers that the victim was in fact, his only son and heir to the throne, who had fled the prospect of marrying a Margaret Dumont-like contralto (the dreaded “daughter-in-law elect”).  Now, he reluctantly informs Ko-ko and his “corroborative” companions, that they must be executed as well — after lunch.  

When the new victims assert claim in mitigation that they had been ignorant of the identity of the supposedly executed person, the Mikado is distressed, agrees to change the unjust law — at the next session!

Meanwhile, he decries the injustice of having to excuse the guilty “A” while punishing  the innocent “B”. 

See how the Fates their gifts allot,
For A is happy—B is not.
Yet B is worthy, I dare say,
Of more prosperity than A!
Is B more worthy?
I should say
He’s worth a great deal more than A.

Yet A is happy!
Oh, so happy!
Laughing, Ha! ha!
Chaffing, Ha! ha!
Nectar quaffing, Ha! ha! ha!
Ever joyous, ever gay,
Happy, undeserving A!

If I were Fortune—which I’m not—
B should enjoy A’s happy lot,
And A should die in miserie—
That is, assuming I am B.

But should A perish?
That should be
(Of course, assuming I am B).
B should be happy!

Oh, so happy!
Laughing, Ha! ha!
Chaffing, Ha! ha!
Nectar quaffing, Ha! ha! ha!
But condemned to die is he,
Wretched meritorious B!

Ko-ko, as any great defense lawyer, solves the problem.  First, he agrees to marry the jilted and fearsome “daughter-law-elect,” then devises a brilliant defense that persuades the Mikado:

“It’s like this: When your Majesty says, ‘Let a thing be done,’ it’s as good as done—practically, it is done—because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, ‘Kill a gentleman,’ and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead—practically, he is dead—and if he is dead, why not say so?”

The opponents of capital punishment could take lessons from Gilbert and Sullivan.

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