Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
A History and a Comment
by H. M. Walbrook



Two sailors with Captain Corcoran

After The Sorcerer came the opera which completely established the popularity of the partnership. H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass that loved a Sailor, was first produced at the Opéra Comique on the evening of Saturday, May 25th, 1878. In the Times of the following Monday the opera was hailed with modified rapture as, at any rate, likely to contribute to the popularity of the theatre. The Daily Telegraph, with a deliberation which many an overworked critic of today would envy, published no notice of the production until the following Thursday! On that day appeared a criticism which can hardly have helped the new piece overmuch. In the course of it the writer said:

In H.M.S. Pinafore Mr. Gilbert shoots his arrows at civilian First Lords of the Admiralty, and, in a song, traces with exquisite taste the rise of an attorney's office-boy to be the "Ruler of the Queen's Navee." He ridicules also the modern gentlemanly sailor who commands his men without swearing at them. . . . It is fortunate that something is thus provided to laugh at, since in the story itself there is not much of humour to balance its studied absurdity.

and solemnly proceeds:

Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan have a splendid opportunity of building up a stage for this type of English lyric drama, and it is to be hoped that neither the one nor the other will treat the matter lightly and rest satisfied with the momentary recompense gained by frothy productions destined soon to subside into nothingness.

After that, it will surprise nobody to learn that the writer thought very little of Sullivan's music in the new opera. The falling-off of the score, as compared with those of The Sorcerer and Trial by Jury, is, he says, "too obvious to escape notice."

After this critical detachment it is not surprising to find that the first few weeks of the long career of H.M.S. Pinafore were distinctly anxious ones. The house was not full at night, and there were few of the ordinary foreshadowings of coming fame. Gradually, however, all this changed. The melodies began to be heard in the streets. The jokes began to get into the newspapers. The pianoforte score grew into much demand in London drawing-rooms after dinner. And in the following year an edition of the full text was published in New York, illustrated with six pen and ink drawings of the principal characters in their costumes (and how quaint the large hat and flounced skirts of the original Josephine look today!), and with the following sentence printed conspicuously under the list of the dramatis persona:

First produced in London (at the Opéra Comique) May 25th, 1878, and now the Reigning Sensation throughout all Theatrical Circles all over the world.

That sentence was printed many years ago, and the opera has not yet exhibited the smallest indication of being one of "those frothy productions destined soon to subside into nothingness." H.M.S. Pinafore satirizes in the first place the promotion of a civilian to be British First Lord of the Admiralty. This exceptional event had actually happened in English political life only the year before that of the first performance, when Mr. W. H. Smith, M.P. for Westminster, was invited by Mr. Disraeli to join his Cabinet as First Lord, and, amid a storm of criticism (mainly, it must be admitted, inspired by deplorable snobbery), accepted the invitation. The unusualness of the appointment (which, as it happened, turned out a complete success) gave Gilbert his chance, and the satire was recognised by all as pointed straight at the head of the Member for Westminster. The opera further satirizes the type of nautical drama of which Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan is a typical instance, and the "God's Englishman" sort of patriotism which consists in shouting a platitude, striking an attitude, and doing little or nothing to help one's country.

The book of words is too well-known to call for long comment. It is never serious for more than two or three consecutive sentences. The only person in the play who talks nothing but absolute common-sense is the "villain," Dick Deadeye, and part of his reward is to get knocked on the head by one of his messmates with the butt of a pistol amid a peal of approving laughter. Consistency is airily and universally defied. Captain Corcoran, in his first song, brags of being “related to a peer." A few moments later, when his daughter confides to him that she has "given her heart," he cries with scorn, "Not to some gilded lordling?" The conversation of the hero, Ralph Rackstraw, is at one moment simplicity itself, at another a turgid and diverting mass of polysyllabic periphrasis. When Josephine is most deeply moved she sings (to exquisite music):

My rank I'd laugh to scorn
In union holy,
Were he more highly born,
Or I more lowly.

a quatrain of which the meaning is — exactly nothing. Many lines in the book have passed into the current conversational coin of the people. Among these are the "Never? Hardly ever!" refrain of the Captain's opening song; the allusion to the "big, big D" in the same ditty; the description of Little Buttercup as a plump and pleasing person," the couplet

Stick close to your desk and never go to sea
And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!

and the obiter dictum: "It is one of the happiest characteristics of this happy country that official utterances are invariably regarded as unanswerable."

The music contains some of Sullivan's merriest strains and some of his tenderest. There are few things more joyous in all the operas than the "Never mind the why and wherefore" trio, few more tender than Ralph's madrigal and succeeding ballad in the opening scene, or octettetett "Farewell, my own," and few more quaint than the two duets in which the Captain takes part in the second Act. The barcarolle sung by the First Lord's unseen feminine escort in the first Act is another of the opera's many delicious musical moments, and the muffled chorus, "This very night," is another. The air of "For he is an Englishman" is one of those which once heard is never forgotten, and the roulade at the end of it is a typical touch of Sullivan's fun, which, in its way, was just as pronounced and brimming as Gilbert's.

The literature of this opera is considerable. One of the pleasantest "Pinafore books" is one in which Gilbert himself retold the story as a Tale for Children. Here, in his introduction of the First Lord, he writes:

One of the most important personages in the Government of that day was Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. You would naturally think that a person who commanded the entire Navy would be the most accomplished sailor who could be found, but that is not the way in which such things are managed in England. Sir Joseph Porter . . . knew nothing whatever about ships. Now as England is a great maritime country it is very important that all Englishmen should understand something about men-of-war. So as soon as it was discovered that his ignorance of a ship was so complete that he did not know one end of it from the other, some important person said: "Let us set this poor ignorant gentleman to command the British Fleet, and by that means give him an opportunity of ascertaining what a ship really is." This was considered to be a most wise and sensible suggestion, and so Sir Joseph Porter was at once appointed "First Lord of the Admiralty of Great Britain and Ireland." I daresay you think I am joking, but indeed I am quite serious. That is the way in which things are managed in this great and happy country.

On the page upon which all this is printed is a pen-and-ink drawing of the First Lord, in which the face and figure of Mr. W. H. Smith, whiskers and all, are clearly recognisable; and facing the next is a coloured representation of the great man wearing a grey frock-coat suit, and looking more than ever like the worthy Member for Westminster.

From time to time small changes have been made in H.M.S. Pinafore. For one of the early revivals at the Savoy, for instance, the final chorus was allowed to conclude with the refrain of "Rule Britannia": —

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never shall be slaves!

These familiar words harmonise very well with those of the song which Sir Joseph Porter had kindly composed for the use of the Royal Navy, but the melody was, of course, an obvious importation, and the original finale was presently reverted to and has been adhered to ever since.


Page created 14 March 1999