Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Spins on the Plot

[During the discussion David Craven offered us a couple of "spins" i.e. alternative presentations of the basic Pinafore plot. The first generated some discussion which touched on the traditional/progressive argument but also shed some light on certain aspects of the original and will certainly be interesting to those who produce and direct G & S. Nonetheless, as they are somewhat removed from Gilbert's original concept, I have kept them separate from the main body of the discussion judging that they are best placed in the pot-pourri of Pinaforiana. There has been no editing of the spins themselves but some tightening of the discussion has been undertaken, although matters of historical observation have been retained as these are germane to the "spins" themselves.]

11.1 The Dark Pinafore

David Craven wrote: I have always found it interesting that Gilbert spent as much time tracing down accurate Royal Navy information when preparing Pinafore, yet ended up presenting a very un -"RN" like crew. A few basic facts. The RN, during the days of sail, was comprised of a great many "impressed" landlubbers. Such individuals were often gathered from prisoners and the like and were a very disreputable lot. Mutinies in the RN during the Napoleonic period were not uncommon. In fact, the best Captains, such as Bligh, were often the victim of such Mutinies. (Bligh was actual the subject of more than one mutiny). A further tradition in the RN was the practice of allowing wives of the crew to live on board during the periods when the ship was in the harbour. The area immediately around the harbour was designed to quickly separate the sailor from his money.

The concept:

The curtain opens on a very clean ship with a crew member being flogged for some trivial offense. Soon the crew returns to their work. They are a rather disreputable lot, generally appearing to look like the traditional Dick Deadeye. Two sailors stand out from the rest. One is a rather disreputable somewhat older sailor who appears to be gold bricking, and the other is a young and handsome sailor who is working quite hard. They are, of course, Deadeye and Rackstraw - only it is Deadeye who is the handsome, young hardworking sailor. Buttercup arrives on the boat. She is an older woman (she appears to be about 55). In contrast to traditional interpretations, such is a rather attractive rather shapely woman who is wearing far too much make-up. The roundest and rosiest comments clearly refer to physical attributes, but are presented in a rather salacious style. Buttercup has with her a number of young women who are obviously being made available to the crew in exchange for money. The underlying story is that Buttercup is a former prostitute and is now a "madam" who brings her girls out to meet the boats on the guise of selling food.

The Captain comes out on deck. He is clearly an object of fear. Captain C is about 40 years of age. He addresses his crew and then goes to talk to Buttercup. There is a clear spark of recognition. (The back story to this is that when he was about 15, just having come into port after his first cruise as an ensign, he had his first sexual encounter with a then 30 year old Buttercup...) Soon there after Josephine comes out on deck. She is a rebellious young girl of about 14 or 15. The relationship between Josephine and Captain C. is clearly strained. She only sees him only on his infrequent times in port, and the rest of the time lives with some distant relatives (Aunt Margaret and Uncle Despard) who run a National School in Basingstoke. Her relationship with Ralph is clearly that of a lecherous old man and a rebellious girl.

Sir Joseph is very brilliant, yet arrogant middle-aged man. He has used his political savvy to quickly rise through the ranks to the post of First Lord. He arrives at the Pinafore dapperly dressed in a "Yachting" Outfit. He is accompanied by about 5 or 6 women (his sisters cousins and Aunts) The rest of the women's chorus consists of the "maidens" brought on board by Buttercup and the sailor's "wives", all of whom come up from the lower decks to welcome Sir JP on board.

The rest of the plot spins out with the same sort of twist in interpretation. The end result is a Pinafore which is much less sugary, much more acidic. It makes the tenor a far more interesting character, He is now no longer the traditional "hero". Rather, he is now a character with a flaw, that being that he is lusting after a women who is young enough to be his daughter. The rebellious nature of Josephine also provides some motivation for her strange attraction to someone who she has barely met, who comes from a different social class, and who is so significantly older.

Is this a traditional Pinafore. Certainly not. Does it follow historic performance practice? No. But then just because something was done one way once, does not mean that it ALWAYS must be done that way. Is it grounded in the script... well I think that it is a legitimate reading of the script. Certainly some inflections must be changed (For example, the Boatswain's line about her being the "rosiest, the roundest and the reddest beauty in all spithead" needs to be read with a very clear set of lewd sexual undertone.) but the lines themselves work. Many of the ideas are "back story details". (Note: One well accepted method by which an actor prepares is to create a back story and a character history which fills in some of the holes in the actors character. Thus, for example, in a traditional production of Pinafore, one of the Back stories for Deadeye is how he became crippled and disfigured. Some directors don't use this approach, but most do.) As such details are not specified in the script either way, they are legitimate areas for examination by a director and an actor.

David Duffey replied: Absolutely spot on. The Gilbertian ship is the ship of Victorian imagination. Wives did indeed come aboard, but most females on board were prostitutes. The expression, "show a leg", for 'get out of bed', or 'get a move on' came from the cry of boatswains who would pull out the male occupant of a hammock but not the female to go on watch. The women often sailed with the ship, although not officially. Hammocks were hung out to dry in the side rigging when they were not in use. When slung between decks they would be in tiers of three and lines of fifty, with eighteen inches free space above and to each side. The height of the space in which the hammocks were slung was seldom greater than five feet six inches.

The impressed men were certainly a rag-bag lot. Given the option between hanging and serving in the Navy, many criminals chose to hang. Those taken from the county jails had often not been in daylight for as much as a year when they were loaded in chains and marched to the nearest naval dockyard. Many did not survive the journey there, many more died within a week of going on a ship, expected as they were to climb into the rigging. The press gangs frequently rounded up agricultural labourers, but a good labourer was usually bought out by a farmer or landowner by bribery of the petty officers. The vestry - i.e. the committee in each parish appointed to administer the Poor Law, welcomed the empressment, as it took the feckless, the ill and the insane off their hands. Yes, a historically accurate Pinafore would be interesting.

Andrew Crowther responded: Well, of course! The whole point of "Gilbertian" theatre is there should be a contrast between a realistic-seeming presentation and an absurd content. His Japan is, in all externals, absolutely "authentic" (as far as the English understood Japan at that time) - but of course the events he presents us with are complete nonsense from the point of view of Japanese culture. It's a kind of "distancing" technique: by showing us these things in all apparent gravity, he makes the absurdities stand out all the clearer.

It's my view that G & S only becomes "sugary", on the whole, when the performers misunderstand the Gilbertian technique. If you start out thinking that he meant all this stuff about hale and hearty sailors, free as mountain birds, to whom big, big Ds are anathema - if, in short, you don't realise that the opera is an ironic commentary on the sanitised "tars" of melodrama, then you're going to go drastically wrong. But I think David's suggested alternative would be a very bad way of avoiding "sugariness". This kind of easy, "shocking" realism is surely as much of a cliché as the Jolly Jack Tar was in Gilbert's day: the naval regime could be brutal? Well, who'd've thought it?

It might be fun, of course, to do a "take" on this kind of revisionist interpretation. The new stereotypes taken to Gilbertian excess: Little Buttercup's leering insinuations taken to the limit of repulsiveness and beyond into simple idiocy; her "back history" with the Captain carefully signposted with a lumbering cynicism; Josephine portrayed as a caricature of the hackneyed old "coming-of-age story" heroine, nymphomania and shyness succeeding each other at mechanical intervals. The question is, of course, not whether the interpretation is "acidic", but whether it is artistic.

Marc Shepherd observed: I actually think Dave Craven's "spin" on Pinafore could possibly work in performance. There's no doubt in my mind that Gilbert would have found it offensive, but it doesn't mean I can't enjoy it -- IF it's well done. The problem with such creative interpretations is that they place a very high burden on the director to get all the dramatic emphases right; if he fails, then Gilbert can't rescue the show, because his intentions have been thrown out the door completely. You must recognize that when you put on such a show, you're treading on the razor's edge. And Gordon Pascoe: An amusing spin on Pinafore, indeed. What fun it could be. But such realism defeats the whole purpose. Gilbert wrote a satire. And it is his amazing attention to detail that makes this work. His impressed men are absurd models of politeness; the sex-starved sailors are more concerned with ribbons; the low-life tarts of the dockside become lah-de-dah ladies. And all wrapped up by Sullivan's melodic score.

Bruce Miller responded: As to the "dark Pinafore" suggestion; I'm with Marc in that theoretically there's no reason not to try it - but be prepared a the difficult task of reconciling all the elements once you've tampered with the chemistry which the authors had balanced in the original. It's worth remembering also that this sort of revisionism is nothing new; the early American pirate productions tried all sorts of variations which were as different from the original as this one. The danger is, of course, that if every production took this attitude we'd have a tough time knowing what the original was in the first place. It would be unfortunate indeed if, at some future date, a critic were to write something like the well-known words of an 1879 New York reviewer: "We've seen Pinafore as a comedy, we've seen it as a tragedy, but the quite a new play to us, and very good it is."

Arthur Robinson noted: I've seen this review quoted before, and I wonder if anyone knows how Pinafore was altered to make it a tragedy? (Did Josephine not show up after the line "For Josephine I fall"?) To which Gwyn Aubrey replied: Indeed. In a production I heard about, the soprano failed to make it on. One of the women said, "Wait! She told me that she loves you!" in the right place and on the right pitch, to stall the action a little bit until the soprano could be found. And Bruce Miller asked: Did the chorus then respond, "Wait! she told her that she loves you? "They could have sung the original words and it would have worked, but it's nice to think they would have continued with the new, instant setting.

11.2 The St. Petersburg Pinafore

David Craven wrote: I have been "accused" of trying to politicize Pinafore. Thus, I offer the following as another possible spin on Pinafore. Unlike the prior spin, this one is intended to be very off the wall and is presented in the heavy tongue-in-cheek mode. We will call this the St. Petersburg Pinafore, a vile perversion in one act.

A fancy carriage pulls up to the dock and a bejewelled woman steps out. It is Buttercup. She sings "I'm called little buttercup, dear little buttercup, and I always know why, I'm always called buttercup, rich little buttercup, smart little buttercup I. I've snuff and tobaccy and excellent jacky, I've scissors, and watches and knives; I've ribbons and laces to set off the faces of Officers, sweethearts and wives. I've whips and I've chains, to inflict pain, on sailors who never behave,.. She has arrived to bring food and entertainment to the officers. Some of the sailors ask for a little bread, and she tells them to eat cake, and that they should know that their station in life if to serve the privileged few. At this point a badly beaten sailor is brought up on deck. It is Ralph Rackstraw. He tries to sing, but is too weak from hunger and overwork. Deadeye tells the crew this is because Ralph dared to approach the Captain's daughter.

Captain C. arrives on deck. He sings "My worthless crew good morning. (sir good morning) I hope you're all quite sober (quite sober, and you sir) I am slightly drunk and ready to provide my orders today (We obey sir)... I am the Martinet of the Pinafore (and a very nasty martinet too) You're very very lazy and be in understood, I command a quite poor crew. (We're very very poor, and be it understood, he commands a quite poor crew) As a member of the Duma I can oppress almost anybody, I have never been to sea, like most of the Russian Navy, since we lost all those ships at sea.. (How Many) Very Many (How Many) Almost all... (The Navy lost lots of at sea....)

Buttercup and the Captain discuss their concerns. His daughter, Josephine, has been promised to the third cousin of the Czar, the administrator for St. Petersburg Yet, she has been seen at all sorts of strange meetings with low class individuals. She sings a rather traditional version of "Sorry her Lot". Josephine tells her father that she is in love with a member of the proletariat, a member of his crew.

The carriage pulls up carrying Joseph Porter, he is accompanied by a group of low level bureaucratic functionaries. He sings "I am the Monarch of St. P, third cousin to the Czar d'ya see, whose praise Mother Russia loudly chants (And we are the bureaucrats and sycophants)" He then sings "When I was a lad I served a term as office boy to an importing firm. We took the gold for very little bread, and didn't care who ended up dead. (and didn't care who ended up dead) I cared so little they rewarded me by making me the leader of Old St. P (He cared so little they rewarded he by making him the ruler of Old St. P.)

Sir Jos. reviews the crew and, just for the fun of it, has Captain C. beat Ralph Rackstraw... As he is leaving, he gives the crew a song and he orders them to sing it so that they can learn their place in life. The crew sings "A Russian Man is a trapped soul, working for the good of a few, His emaciated frame should be ready to give in to a dictatorial word..."

Soon Josephine comes out on deck and finds the beaten body of Ralph. She props him up and they sing a duet. (Well actually they try to sing a duet, but Ralph has been so badly beaten that he can not sing. Another advantage of this version is that the tenor never actually sings...) It is essentially the first verse of the song, without the redemptive second verse.

Ralph calls the crew and tells them that he has decided to end it all. Suddenly, the Boatswain bursts on the scene and says that a riot has broken out in the city and that it is time to overthrow the hated yoke of the oppressor. The crew drags out Sir Joseph, Buttercup, the Captain and other Officers, and the bureaucrats out on deck. As they are getting ready to execute them, Buttercup pleads for her life, and also for the life of her lover, the Captain. She claims that she was forced into this by the oppressive rulers and reveals that the Captain and Ralph were switched at birth. As I was not involved in the casting of this show, Ralph is clearly only 21 (and unlikely if the abuse continues to live to 22) and the Captain is clearly 55, the crew therefore does not believe Buttercup, and she and the Captain are the first two to be put to death, followed soon thereafter by the rest of the oppressors.

The show ends with the lowering of the Old Imperial Ensign from the Mast and the raising of the Red flag of the New People's Government as the Sailors sing the Internationale. (While Deadeye, who has managed to escape sings a counterpoint as to why Capitalism will eventually win...)

Page created 25 October 1997