Gondoliers

In Brief

By calling Richie Goulding and his brother "Highly respectable gondoliers," Simon Dedalus implies that they are beneath his social class. The phrase comes from a song in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Gondoliers; or, The King of Barataria, which was first performed in 1889 at the Savoy Theatre in London. Since the opera satirizes class distinctions, Simon's allusion would seem to backfire on him.

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The opera centers on two young Venetian gondoliers named Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri. They are very popular with the local girls, and, early in the opera, marry two of them. Meanwhile, a party of Spaniards arrives in Venice: the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, their daughter Casilda, and their drummer Luiz (they cannot afford the pretension of an entire band). They have come to meet the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, Don Alhambra. The duke and duchess tell their daughter that when she was only six months old she was married to the infant son of the King of Barataria. It turns out that the Grand Inquisitor kidnapped the young boy and took him to Venice, because the King had converted to Methodism. The King has recently been killed, and so Casilda has been brought to Venice to be united with her husband, who will assume the throne. Casilda is not happy about having been married without her permission or knowledge, and in fact she is in love with Luiz.

The Grand Inquisitor arrives and reveals still more complications: when he brought the young prince to Venice, he left him with a "highly respectable gondolier," to be raised alongside the boatman's own son. But the boatman was a drunk and lost track of which boy was which, and besides he is now dead. However, the prince's nurse (who turns out to be Luiz's mother) will be able to identify him, with the help of a little torture if necessary. She is living in the mountains around Cordoba, married to "a highly respectable brigand."

The Grand Inquisitor tells the Palmieri boys that one of them is a king and that they should both move to Spain until it can be determined which is which. He does not mention that the king is already married, and thus a bigamist. The boys agree to the plan. Both are republicans, and they announce that they will rule in an egalitarian way. The opening of act 2 finds them doing just that: they are doing all the work around the palace, and everyone else has been promoted into the nobility. The Grand Inquisitor arrives, and tells them that one of them has already been married to Casilda. Casilda too shows up with her parents, and tells the boys that she will be a good wife and queen to one of them, but she is in love with someone else. This proves cause for celebration to the boys and especially their wives.

The opera concludes with the appearance of the old nurse, who says that in fact neither of the Palmieri boys is a prince. When the Grand Inquisitor instructed her to steal the infant, she gave him her own child instead, and raised the prince as her child. So Luiz is the king of Barataria, Casilda does not have to renounce him, and the Palmieri couples can return to their rightful home. The opera ends with a celebratory dance.

It turns out, then, that neither of the young gondoliers is noble, and after they have returned to Venice the servants can return to doing the work in the Spanish court, and the nobility can return to doing nothing. Class distinctions are affirmed as they must be at the end of a comic subversion. But along the way, the opera has suggested that nothing substantial at all separates dukes from boatmen. Simon Dedalus appears to have rather missed the point.

The lyrics to Don Alhambra's aria about a "highly respectable gondolier" are as follows:

I stole the prince and I brought him here and I left him gaily prattling
With a highly respectable gondolier, who promised the Royal babe to rear
And teach him the trade of a timoneer with his own beloved bratling!
Both of the babes were strong and stout, and, considering all things, clever
Of that there is no manner of doubt, no probable, possible, shadow of doubt,
No possible doubt whatever!

Time sped, and when, at the end of the year, I sought that infant cherished,
That highly respectable gondolier was lying a corpse on his humble bier—
I dropped a Grand Inquisitor's tear; that gondolier had perished!
A taste for drink, combined with gout, had doubled him up forever!
Of that there is no manner of doubt, no probable, possible, shadow of doubt,
No possible doubt whatever!

But owing, I'm much disposed to fear, to his terrible taste for tippling,
That highly respectable gondolier could never declare with a mind sincere
Which of the two was his offspring dear, and which the royal stripling.
Which was which he could never make out, despite his best endeavour
Of that there is no manner of doubt, no probable, possible, shadow of doubt,
No possible doubt whatever!

The children followed his old career—this statement can't be parried—
Of a highly respectable gondolier; Well, one of the two (who will soon be here)
But which of the two it is not quite clear—is the royal prince you married!
Search in and out and round about and you'll discover never
A tale so free from every doubt, all probable, possible, shadow of doubt,
All possible doubt whatever!

JH 2015
Rutland Barrington and Courtice Pounds as Marco and Giuseppe Palmieri, in the original D'Oyly Carte production company. Source: Wikipedia.