Drawing on several of his earlier "Bab Ballad" poems, Gilbert imbued H.M.S. Pinafore with mirth and silliness to spare. The opera's gentle satire reprises and builds on a theme introduced in The Sorcerer – love between members of different social classes. The opera also pokes good-natured fun at the Royal Navy and, in themes to be repeated in the later operas, parliamentary politics and the rise of unqualified people to positions of authority. The title of the work itself is humorous, as it juxtaposes the name of a little girl's garment, pinafore (which sounds like "semaphore"), with the symbol of a naval war ship.
The plot revolves around a naval captain's daughter who is in love with a lower-class foremast hand (a common sailor, well below officer rank), even though her father intends her to marry the First Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet minister in charge of the Royal Navy. As with most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, a surprise twist changes everything dramatically near the end of the story.
I have very little doubt whatever but that you will be pleased with it. I should have liked to have talked it over with you, as there is a good deal of fun in it which I haven't set down on paper. Among other things a song (a kind of 'Judge's Song') for the First Lord – tracing his career as office-boy... clerk, traveller, junior partner and First Lord of Britain's Navy. I think a splendid song can be made of this. Of course there will be no personality in this – the fact that the First Lord in the Opera is a Radical of the most pronounced type will do away with any suspicion that W. H. Smith is intended. Mrs. Cripps [Little Buttercup] will be a capital part for Everard. I propose to have no comprimaria.... Barrington will be a capital captain, and Grossmith a first-rate First Lord....
...As soon as I hear from you that the plot will do, I will set to work, sending you the first act as soon as it is finished.
Despite Gilbert's disclaimer, everyone identified W. H. Smith with Sir Joseph Porter, but in general, Gilbert's intentions in this early sketch were turned into reality.
Following the example of his mentor, T. W. Robertson, Gilbert strived to ensure that the costumes and sets were made as realistic as possible. This attention to detail was typical of Gilbert's stage management and would be repeated in all of the Savoy Operas. When preparing the sets for H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), Gilbert and Sullivan visited Portsmouth in April 1878 to inspect ships. Gilbert made sketches of H.M.S. Victory and H.M.S. St Vincent and created a model set for the carpenters to work from. This was far from standard procedure in Victorian drama, where naturalism was still a relatively new concept, and where most authors had very little influence on how their plays and libretti were staged. During the composition of the bright and cheerful music of Pinafore, Sullivan suffered from excruciating pain from a kidney stone.
Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte used most of the same principal cast members that they had used in The Sorcerer. Mrs. Howard Paul, who had played Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, however, was declining vocally, and by mid-May 1878, both Gilbert and Sullivan wanted her out of the cast. With only a week to go before opening night, Carte hired concert singer Jessie Bond to play the role of Cousin Hebe. Since Bond had little experience as an actress, however, Gilbert and Sullivan cut out most of the dialogue from the role and turned some of it into recitative. As was to be his usual practise, Sullivan left the overture for last, sketching it out and leaving it to the company's music director, Alfred Cellier, to complete.
Meanwhile, numerous pirated versions of Pinafore began to be played in America with great success. Pinafore became a source of popular quotations, such as the exchange:
In February 1879, Pinafore resumed profitable operations at the Opera Comique, and touring resumed in April, with two touring companies crisscrossing the provinces by June (one starring Richard Mansfield and the other W. S. Penley as Sir Joseph). Carte left for America to make arrangements for a New York theatre and tours for Pinafore, Sorcerer and the next opera in America.
Sullivan, as had been arranged with Carte and Gilbert, gave notice to the partners of the Comedy Opera Company in early July 1879 that he, Gilbert and Carte would not be renewing the contract to produce Pinafore with them. The disgruntled partners in return gave notice that they intended to play Pinafore at another theatre and brought a legal action against Carte and company. They offered the London and touring casts of Pinafore more money to play in their production. They engaged the Imperial Theatre but had no scenery. On 31 July, they sent a group of thugs to seize the scenery during the evening performance at the Opera Comique. Stagehands successfully managed to ward off their backstage attackers and protect the scenery. Gilbert sued to stop the former partners from staging their rival production of H.M.S.Pinafore. The court permitted the production to go on, but it was not as popular as the D'Oyly Carte production and was withdrawn in October. The matter was settled in court, where a judge ruled in Carte's favour about two years later.
Some of the most popular songs from the opera include "I'm called Little Buttercup", the solo introducing the round, rosy, but mysterious bumboat woman, "A British tar" (a glee for three men describing the ideal sailor, composed by Sir Joseph "to encourage independent thought and action in the lower branches of the service, and to teach the principle that a British sailor is any man's equal, excepting mine"); "Never mind the why and wherefore" (a trio for the Captain, Josephine, and Sir Joseph); and Sir Joseph's patter song "When I was a lad" (like the judge's song in Trial by Jury, a satire on the meteoric career of an incompetent man to high office – in this case, the story bears similarities to the career of William Henry Smith, the newsagent who had risen to the position of First Lord of the Admiralty in 1877).
On 20 February 1880, Pinafore completed its initial run of 571 performances. Only one other work of musical theatre in the world had ever run longer, Robert Planquette's operetta Les Cloches de Corneville). Pinafore remains one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular works, perhaps because of its infectious tunes and generally well-constructed libretto.
Carte had travelled to New York in the summer of 1879 and made arrangements with Ford to open at the Fifth Avenue Theatre with the first authorized American production of Pinafore on 1 December, to be followed by the premiere of Pirates on 31 December and two American touring companies. In November, he returned with a company of strong singers, including J. H. Ryley as Sir Joseph, Blanche Roosevelt as Josephine, Alice Barnett as little Buttercup, Furneaux Cook as Dick Deadeye, Hugh Talbot as Ralph Rackstraw and Jessie Bond as Cousin Hebe. To these, he added some American singers, including Signor Brocolini as Captain Corcoran. After Pinafore ran through December, Pirates played at the Fifth Avenue Theatre through February to strong houses. Carte then sent three touring companies around the U.S. East Coast and Midwest, playing The Sorcerer, Pinafore and Pirates.
Little Buttercup, a Portsmouth "bumboat woman" (dockside vendor) — who is the "rosiest, roundest, and reddest beauty in all Spithead" — comes on board to sell her wares. She hints that she may be hiding a dark secret under her "gay and frivolous exterior". The Boatswain demurs that he's never thought about that, but the grim and ugly realist, Dick Deadeye, says he's "thought it, often". Ralph Rackstraw, "the smartest lad in all the fleet," enters, declaring his love for the Captain's daughter, Josephine. His fellow sailors (excepting Dick) offer their sympathies, but can give Ralph little hope that his love will ever be returned.
The Captain greets his crew and compliments them on their politeness, saying that he returns the compliment by never ("well, hardly ever") using bad language, such as "a big, big D." After the sailors have left, the Captain complains to Little Buttercup that Josephine has not taken kindly to a marriage proposal from Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Buttercup says that she knows how it feels to love in vain. As she leaves, the Captain remarks that she is "a plump and pleasing person." Josephine enters and confesses to her father that she loves a common sailor, but she is a dutiful daughter and will marry Sir Joseph as her father wishes.
Sir Joseph comes on board, accompanied by his sisters, cousins, and aunts. After telling everyone how he came to be "ruler of the Queen's Navee," he delivers a lesson in etiquette. He tells the Captain that he must always say "if you please" after an order; for, as he says, "A British sailor is any man's equal" – excepting his. Sir Joseph has composed a song to illustrate that point, and he gives a copy of it to Ralph.
Elated by Sir Joseph's views on equality, Ralph decides that he will confess his love to Josephine to the delight of his shipmates, except Dick, who explains that equality is incompatible with the giving and obeying of orders. In horror at his words, the sailors force Dick to listen to Sir Joseph's song before all exit, leaving Ralph alone. Josephine now enters, and Ralph confesses his love. Although she finds Sir Joseph's attentions nauseating, she knows she is obligated to marry him. Keeping her feelings to herself, she haughtily rejects Ralph's advances.
Ralph summons his shipmates, and tells them he is bent on suicide. He puts a pistol to his head, but as he is about to pull the trigger, Josephine enters, proclaiming she loves him after all. Ralph and Josephine plan to sneak ashore to get married that night. Dick Deadeye warns them that their actions will lead to trouble, but he is ignored by the joyous ensemble.
Sir Joseph enters, and complains that Josephine has not yet agreed to marry him. The Captain speculates that she is probably dazzled by his superior rank, and that if he can persuade her that "love levels all ranks," she will accept his proposal. When Sir Joseph makes this argument, a delighted Josephine says that she is convinced. The Captain and Sir Joseph rejoice, but Josephine, in an aside, admits that she is now more determined than ever to marry Ralph.
Dick Deadeye intercepts the Captain, and tells him of the lovers' plans to elope. The Captain confronts Ralph and Josephine as they try to leave the ship. The pair declare their love, adding that "I am (He is) an Englishman!" The furious Captain is unmoved, and says, "Why, damme, it's too bad!" Sir Joseph and his relatives, who have overheard, are shocked to hear swearing on board a ship, and Sir Joseph orders the Captain to his cabin.
When Sir Joseph asks what had provoked this outburst, Ralph replies that it was his declaration of love for Josephine. Furious in his turn at this revelation, Sir Joseph has Ralph put in chains and taken to the ship's dungeon. Little Buttercup now reveals her secret. Years before, when she was a nursemaid, she had cared for two babies, one "of low condition," the other "a regular patrician." She confesses that she "mixed those children up and not a creature knew it.... The wellborn babe was Ralph; your Captain was the other."
Sir Joseph now realizes that Ralph should have been the Captain, and the Captain should have been Ralph. He summons both, and they emerge wearing one another's uniforms: Ralph is now middle-class, and in command of the Pinafore, while the former Captain is now a common sailor. Sir Joseph's marriage with Josephine is now impossible. As he explains it, "love levels all ranks... to a considerable extent, but it does not level them as much as that." He gives her to now-Captain Rackstraw. The former Captain, with his rank reduced, is free to marry Buttercup. Sir Joseph settles for his cousin Hebe, and all ends in general rejoicing.
1See discussion, below.
2Includes reprises of several songs, concluding with "For he is an Englishman".
In April 1999, Sullivan scholars Bruce I. Miller and Helga J. Perry announced that they had discovered a nearly complete orchestration – lacking only the second violin part – in a private collection of early band parts. These materials, with a conjectural reconstruction of the lost vocal lines and second violin part, were later published and professionally recorded. This piece has now been performed a number of times by amateur and professional companies, although it has not become a standard addition to the traditional scores.
Late in rehearsals for the original production, Jessie Bond assumed the role of Hebe, replacing Mrs. Howard Paul). Miss Bond, who at this point in her career was known primarily as a concert singer and had no experience as an actress, did not feel capable of performing dialogue, and these passages were revised to cut Hebe's dialogue. Hebe's dialogue is occasionally restored in modern performances, particularly her lines in the scene following No. 14.
In the winter of 1940–41, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company scenery and costumes for Pinafore and three other operas were destroyed in enemy action. The opera spent seven years out of the repertory before a London revival in the summer of 1947. It was then included in the D'Oyly Carte repertory in every season from then on, until the company's closure in 1982. The D'Oyly Carte company performed Pinafore before Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family at Windsor Castle on 16 June 1977 (the first royal command performance there since 1891).
In America, Pinafore was an instant success. The first American production was given at the Boston Museum on November 25 1878. According to Reginald Allen, some 150 companies played the opera (all without royalties to the authors) before Gilbert, Sullivan, and D'Oyly Carte arrived to present the "authorised" version, which opened in New York on 1 December 1879. In Australia, its first authorized performance was on 15 November 1879 at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, produced by the J. C. Williamson company.
The following table shows the history of the D'Oyly Carte productions in Gilbert's lifetime:
|Theatre||Opening Date||Closing Date||Perfs.||Details|
|Opera Comique||May 25, 1878||December 24, 1878||571||Original run in London. (The theatre was closed between December 25, 1878 and January 31, 1879.)|
|January 31, 1879||February 20 1880|
|Crystal Palace||July 6, 1878||July 6, 1878||1||Special performance at the Crystal Palace, conducted by Eugene Goossens.|
|Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York||December 1 1879||December 27, 1879||28||Official American premiere in New York, prior to the opening of The Pirates of Penzance|
|Imperial (Royal Aquarium) Theatre||August 1 1879||c. 1 September 1879||91||A pirate production set up by the disgruntled directors of the Comedy-Opera Company after they failed to seize the scenery during the July 31, 1879 performance at the Opera Comique.|
|Royal Olympic Theatre||September 8, 1879||October 25, 1879|
|Opera Comique||December 16, 1879||March 20, 1880||78||Company of juvenile performers, matinees only. (This company went on a provincial tour between August 2 and December 11, 1880.)|
|Opera Comique||December 22, 1880||January 28, 1881||28|
|Savoy Theatre||November 12, 1887||March 10 1888||120||First London revival.|
|Savoy Theatre||June 6, 1899||November 25, 1899||174||Second London revival. Played with Trial by Jury as a forepiece.|
|Savoy Theatre||July 14, 1908||March 27, 1909||61||Second Savoy repertory season; played with five other operas. (Closing date shown is of the entire season.)|
|Sir Joseph||George Grossmith||J. H. Ryley||George Grossmith||Walter Passmore||Charles H. Workman|
|Captain Corcoran||Rutland Barrington||Sgr. Brocolini||Rutland Barrington||Henry Lytton||Rutland Barrington|
|Ralph Rackstraw||George Power||Hugh Talbot||J. G. Robertson||Robert Evett||Henry Herbert|
|Dick Deadeye||Richard Temple||J. Furneaux Cook||Richard Temple||Richard Temple||Henry Lytton|
|Fred Clifton||Fred Clifton||Richard Cummings||W. H. Leon||Leicester Tunks|
|Mr. Dymott||Mr. Cuthbert||Rudolph Lewis||Powis Pinder||Fred Hewett|
|Josephine||Emma Howson||Blanche Roosevelt||Geraldine Ulmar||Ruth Vincent||Elsie Spain|
|Hebe||Jessie Bond||Jessie Bond||Jessie Bond||Emmie Owen||Jessie Rose|
|Buttercup||Harriett Everard||Alice Barnett||Rosina Brandram||Rosina Brandram||Louie Rene|
|Sir Joseph||Henry Lytton||Henry Lytton||Martyn Green||Martyn Green|
|Captain Corcoran||Leicester Tunks||Leo Sheffield||Leslie Rands||Richard Watson|
|Ralph Rackstraw||Walter Glynne||Charles Goulding||John Dean||Herbert Newby|
|Dick Deadeye||Leo Sheffield||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt|
|Boatswain||Frederick Hobbs||Henry Millidge||Richard Walker||Stanley Youngman|
|Carpenter||George Sinclair||Patrick Colbert||L. Radley Flynn||L. Radley Flynn|
|Josephine||Phyllis Smith||Elsie Griffin||Ann Drummond-Grant||Muriel Harding|
|Hebe||Nellie Briercliffe||Aileen Davies||Marjorie Eyre||Joan Gillingham|
|Buttercup||Bertha Lewis||Bertha Lewis||Dorothy Gill||Ella Halman|
|Sir Joseph||Peter Pratt||John Reed||John Reed||James Conroy-Ward|
|Captain Corcoran||Jeffrey Skitch||Alan Styler||Michael Rayner||Clive Harre|
|Ralph Rackstraw||Thomas Round||David Palmer||Meston Reid||Meston Reid|
|Dick Deadeye||Donald Adams||Donald Adams||John Ayldon||John Ayldon|
|Boatswain||George Cook||George Cook||Jon Ellison||Michael Buchan|
|Carpenter||Jack Habbick||Anthony Raffell||John Broad||Michael Lessiter|
|Josephine||Jean Hindmarsh||Ann Hood||Pamela Field||Vivian Tierney|
|Hebe||Joyce Wright||Pauline Wales||Patricia Leonard||Roberta Morrell|
|Buttercup||Ann Drummond-Grant||Christene Palmer||Lyndsie Holland||Patricia Leonard|
1 The Midshipmite, Tom Tucker, is traditionally played by a child. "Fitzaltamont" was likely a pseudonym used to protect the child's identity, as the same name appears on programmes of several provincial touring companies.
The 1930 recording is notable for preserving the performances of the best D'Oyly Carte Opera Company stars of the era. Of the post-war D'Oyly Carte the 1960, which contains all the dialogue, is most admired. The New D'Oyly Carte recording also contains complete dialogue and the "lost" ballad for Captain Corcoran, "Reflect, my child," as a bonus track. The Mackerras recording, featuring opera singers in the roles, is musically well-regarded. on one CD, is particularly compelling.
On video, the 1973 D'Oyly Carte preserves the company's traditional style of the period, but some people find it dull. The International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival offers various video recordings of the opera, including its 2003 professional G&S Opera Company video.Selected recordings
Pinafore had a profound effect on musical theatre in general and American musicals in particular. According to critic Andrew Lamb, "The success of H.M.S. Pinafore in 1879 established British comic opera alongside French opera bouffe throughout the English-speaking world. Over the next twenty years successful British comic operas continued to cross the Atlantic almost as a matter of course. Theatre historian John Kenrick comments that Pinafore "became an international sensation, reshaping the commercial theater in both England and the United States. Pinafore's popularity also led to musical theatre adaptations of the piece itself, including George S. Kaufman's 1945 Broadway musical Hollywood Pinafore and Pinafore Swing, a 2004 British swing adaptation with a score arranged by Sarah Travis in which the actors serve as the orchestra, playing the musical instruments. Several other musicals parody or pastiche Pinafore.
In addition, songs from Pinafore have been widely parodied or pastiched in films, on television and in a variety of other media. For example, in a 1963 comedy album, Allan Sherman parodied "When I was a lad," from the point of view of a young man going to an Ivy League school and then rising to prominence in an advertising agency. At the end he thanks old Yale, he thanks the Lord, and he thanks his father "who is chairman of the board". On his next album, Sherman sang "Little Butterball" to the tune of "I'm Called Little Buttercup". Literary references to Pinafore songs include those in "Runaround", a story in I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, where a robot sings part of "I'm Called Little Buttercup". Pinafore songs and images have also been used in advertising. For example, Pinafore themed trading cards were created.Film references Particularly notable examples of the use of songs from Pinafore in films include The Good Shepherd (2006), which depicts an all-male version of Pinafore at Yale University. The Matt Damon character plays Little Buttercup, singing falsetto. In the 1981 British historical film Chariots of Fire, the protagonist, Harold Abrahams, and others from Cambridge University, sing "For he is an Englishman". In the 2003 movie Peter Pan, the Darling family sings "When I Was A Lad". Characters also sing various songs from Pinafore in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), Captain Picard and Lt. Commander Worf sing part of "A British Tar" to distract a malfunctioning Lt. Commander Data. The soundtrack of the 1992 thriller The Hand that Rocks the Cradle prominently features songs from Pinafore. There was also a 1976 film called Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done.Television references Among notable examples of songs from Pinafore used in television shows is the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons, Bart stalls his would-be killer Sideshow Bob with a "final request" that Bob sing him the entire score of Pinafore. Similarly, the "HMS Yakko" episode of Animaniacs consists of pastiches of songs from H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. In a Family Guy episode, "The Thin White Line" (2001), Stewie sings a pastiche of "My gallant crew". The song "He is an Englishman" is referenced both in the title's name and throughout The West Wing episode "And It's Surely To Their Credit".