Back in June, my grand-daughter (age 6) went, with her mother, to her first adult stage production (that’s ‘stage production for adults [as opposed to children]‘, not ‘stage production with sexual content or taboo language’): Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, as done to a treat by the Lyric Theatre of San Jose, in the Montgomery Theater in San Jose (note theatre/theater ‘theatrical company’ and ‘building for theatrical productions’). We were worried that she wouldn’t be able to sit still and reasonably quiet — she is a very active, and sometimes noisy, child — out of boredom or incomprehension and expected that she would then just fall asleep as the rather long operetta continued into late hours.
But no. Opal was transfixed. Delighted, all the way through — except for Katisha’s lament, “Alone, and yet alive” in Act II, which she thought was stupid and boring and went on too long (I have to say I’m sympathetic to her view). Granted, Elizabeth had given her some prep for the event, including practice on “a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block” (which is not only lots of fun to say or sing, but also is satisfyingly gruesome). Still, it was a great success, and now Opal listens to recordings of the songs, sings some of them, has figured out that (thanks to the intentions that she and Henry, son of our friend Jason, have to get married when they grow up) she is Jason’s daughter-in-law elect, and generally bathes in a happy and spirited G&S glow.
Elizabeth and I have done our best to induce her to join us in watching at least one of the DVDs of the Mikado that I have — the second of these will bring me, eventually, to my point — but she has firmly resisted, without explanation, though I expect that for her anything other than the Lyric Theatre, live, would be like a re-make, and we all know that re-makes are almost never as good as the originals. (We’ve tried explaining that musical productions and plays aren’t like movies, that people perform — not re-make, perform — the good ones over and over again, but she’s had enough experience with re-done versions of classic children’s books to be deeply suspicious of some new version of the Mikado.)
Ah, yes, those two performances of the Mikado on DVD. The first is a classic D’Oyly Carte production (filmed in 1966). I was concerned that Opal might find it too stagey (in make-up, gesture, facial expressions, and so on — there’s a big difference between seeing things from the audience in a theater and seeing those same performers in camera shots taken close up), and in fact there’s the same concern with the second DVD, the version produced in 1987 by Jonathan Miller with the English National Opera and televised for Thames Television — what’s often referred to as the “Eric Idle version”, because it has the former Python playing Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, though it should really be called the “Jonathan Miller version”, since it’s Miller’s re-working of traditional G&S productions that makes this version stand out.
People tend to adore the Idle Miller show or to detest it. Partly (in either case) for Idle’s performance (he’s scarcely your standard Savoyard, and he’s not as strong a singer as the pros) and partly for Miller’s re-imagining of the Japanese town of Titipu as a late-Victorian English seaside resort. (I think it’s brilliant, and the change of setting brings out the social satire in Gilbert’s words. I mean, the people and settings — not to mention the language of “Mi-ya sa-ma / On n’m-ma no ma-yé / etc.” — in Doyly Carte productions aren’t authentically Japanese, but fantastical burlesques of “Japanese”.)
Which brings us to the song, “The flowers that bloom in the spring” (No. 20, in Act II — yes, I have a score), in which Ko-Ko cries out
And that’s what I mean when I say, or I sing,
“Oh, bother the flowers that bloom in the spring”
Tra la la la la,
Tra la la la la,
“Oh, bother the flowers of spring!”
(whereupon he, Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah tra-la-la together in full voice).
Idle sings that first bother (in the libretto) as bugger, which seems to have scandalized some people viewing the production; even I find it a bit startling in the context. (The following time he sings bother.) Other people think that bother is “just” a Victorian euphemism for the taboo verb bugger, so this version merely strips away the veneer of politeness and restores the “real” feeling in Ko-Ko’s dismay at the prospect of having to marry Katisha or face death (reader, she married him; as Elizabeth reassured Opal beforehand, “In the end, they all get married.”)
There’s a serious question about whether most upper-middle-class Victorians perceived bother as a euphemism; after all, what are historically euphemisms are often learned, and then used, simply as informal expressions, without reference to (or awareness of) their disreputable origins. Ko-Ko’s bother was probably seen by audiences at the time as just an expression of annoyance. (To modern American ears, it sounds very British or very old-fashioned or both. There is some suggestion from recent British slang dictionaries, which don’t have entries for exclamatory transitive bother with an object other than it, that it has disappeared from British usage as well as American.)
But the exclamatory use of transitive bother (as in “Oh, bother the flowers of spring!”) almost surely has its origins in the gutter. It’s there in the syntax, as is clear even in OED2, which averts its eyes from bugger:
In the imperative (logically 3rd pers. sing. with implied subject after analogy of verbs of cursing) as a mild imprecation
(Just to remind you: ordinary transitive bother, with a variety of senses — ‘pester, worry, annoy, trouble, disturb’ — has been around for a long time.)
The analogy in question is to subjectless cursing uses of edgy-or-worse verbs like blast, damn, fuck, screw, and of course bugger:
Oh, damn/fuck/screw/bugger the flowers of spring! ‘To hell with the flowers of spring!’ (with various imports)
(There is a considerable literature on these imprecative constructions and related ones.)
OED2 has cites for this use of bother from 1844 (Dickens), 1855 (Thackeray), and 1877 (Fraser’s Magazine). I trust that up-dates will add Ko-Ko’s “bother the flowers of spring!”
OED2 folds two other uses of bother in with this one:
also bother it! and absol. bother! as an exclamation indicating annoyance
The first is just a specialization of the subjectless transitive to occurrence with vague it referring to the situation in general — as in Damn/Darn/Blast/Fuck it! OED2 doesn’t actually give any cites for this use.
The second — for which OED2 has cites from 1840 (Dickens again) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1850) — could have originated as a truncation of the first, as with other imprecative verbs (Damn!/Darn!/Fuck!). Or it could have derived historically from the noun bother (a nouning of the ordinary verb bother), conveying something like ‘What a bother!’. Something like this latter analysis is suggested by the way it’s used in Winnie-the-Pooh (1926); from ch. II, “In Which: Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place”:
“Oh help!” said Pooh. “I’d better go back.”
“Oh bother!” said Pooh. “I shall have to go on.”
“I can’t do either!” said Pooh. “Oh help and bother!”
(Let’s hope this one will also make it into an OED revision.)
Note the coordination of help and bother, and the absence of a comma before bother in the second line.
Whatever its origin(s), free-standing Bother! still seems to be around in the U.K.; both Bother! and Bother it! are in the Concise New Partridge (2008) as expressions of annoyance.
Meanwhile, the Partridge 8th ed. (1984) has the colloquial I’m bothered and I’ll be bothered (presumably in things like “I’ll be bothered if I go there again!”) as “a disguised form of swearing”, with a reference to bugger, which is still “coarse slang” in its imprecative uses, as well as in the expressions bugger up and bugger off.
Oh bother! I started with the flowers of spring and have descended to buggery.