Tripping over the tropes
After doing the usual minuet to get An Annoyance of Grackles live on Kindle and almost-there on Createspace, I’ve taken a couple of days off to be shamelessly frivolous. I indulged in Dorothy Grant’s new book, Shattered after Midnight – there’s a review here – and watched a DVD I’ve been hoarding of the operetta Countess Maritza all the way through, sung in German with English subtitles. I was sort of familiar with the operetta — a CD of highlights is among the music I like to listen to while writing the Applied Topology series, light and frothy — but I’ve never been able to follow the plot summaries in English.
Now I know why. The thing is as close as you can get to being entirely plot-free. It was like being served something covered with whipped cream for dessert, plunging your fork into the whipped cream and diving down to reach… more whipped cream. I got the feeling that the librettists couldn’t bear to let their characters suffer; no sooner would a problem be revealed than a new deus ex machina would come onstage to fix it.
And the most annoying non-plot bit concerned Baron Kálmán Zsupán.
Let’s back up: The young and wealthy widow Countess Maritza has retreated to her country estates to avoid the fortune-hunters who plague her in Vienna. As a further discouragement to her would-be suitors, she announces her engagement to a Baron Kálmán Zsupán, who, sadly, is unable to attend the engagement party in person… or so she thinks. She confesses to a friend that the Baron does not exist; she invented him to ward off suitors, and the only name she could think of was that of the wealthy pig-farmer in the Strauss operetta The Gypsy Baron.
Promptly, the Baron makes his appearance in person, saying that he had been surprised to read of his engagement but is happy to make Maritza’s acquaintance. Twirling his mustaches and flourishing the cape that semi-covers his glorious gold-braided uniform, he informs her that he is so wealthy that her money does not matter to him. Oh, and he has eighteen thousand beautiful pink pigs on his estate. With this introduction, he sweeps Maritza into a lively duet that begins with her throwing his flowers at him and ends with a blissful agreement that they will live happily ever after.
Okay. Now we all know what to expect, don’t we? Here’s a setup worthy of Blandings Castle. “Kálmán Zsupán” has to be an impostor, and the rest of the operetta must turn on freeing Maritza from him while arranging a happy conclusion for him too (because even if he’s a rogue, he’s a charming rogue.)
I watched in slack-jawed disbelief as the operetta went on its merry way and I slowly realized that we were supposed to take the Baron at face value – him and his eighteen thousand beautiful pink pigs! What a disappointment!
Now, sometimes it can be fun to play against the expected tropes of a genre. But the surprise is satisfying only if you offer the readers something better than what they expected. If it’s just a bald refusal to play at all, they’re going to be disappointed. The dark, miasmal basement with the broken stairs needs nothing but redecorating and some attention to drainage. The too-good-to-be-true heroic soldier isn’t a double agent or a reasonable man caught up in a war not of his making; he’s just noble and heroic. The couple who “meet cute” in the first scene soon decide that they’re not that interested in each other and would just as soon date just about anybody else.
It’s no fun.
And as writers, we don’t even get to dress up the plot with a lively csárdás. We really have to make the bare naked story fun for the readers, because in the end that’s all we can offer them: words on a page.
A look at this performance should explain why I still like the operetta, even if I would have preferred something more like a torte under all that whipped cream. (Skip ahead to 3:00 to skip the conversation and go straight to the song and dance.)