Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

Pinafore at 33

by H. L. Mencken

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, 1911.

"PINAFORE" made a hit in New York the other night -- for the twentieth or thirtieth time in 33 years. How well that tripping Sullivan music wears; how fresh those Gilbert jokes seem after a third of a century! The operettas of Johann Strauss II are as dead, in this country, as the parlor melodramas of Bronson-Howard and Augustin Daly; Milloecker and Lecocq are forgotten; even Offenbach's devilish tunes are heard no more. But once a year, at the very least, we have a grand revival of "Pinafore" or "The Mikado", with lesser revivals between, and almost always the manager who makes the venture gets his money back, and a few extra banknotes for his pains. "The Mikado" was here last winter -- badly sung, but still drawing crowds. And the innumerable Aborn companies fall back upon it or upon "Pinafore" whenever "The Bohemian Girl" grows stale and folks tire of "Robin Hood."

"Pinafore" had its first performance on any stage at the Opera Comique in London, on May 25, 1878. It made an instantaneous and colossal success, but not until late in the following autumn did it reach the United States. The first American performance was at the Old Boston Museum, on November 25, 1878, with Marie Wainwright as Josephine and Saide Martinot as Hebe. During Christmas week the late John T. Ford presented the piece in Baltimore, with Blanche Chapman as Josephine. At the start Baltimore viewed it coldly, but soon crowds went flocking to hear it, and by and by it became so amazingly popular that there was profitable patronage, in this one town, for two companies -- and the whole United States for a hundred!

Before or since, the American stage has never seen another such success. "Florodora" was a hit in its day, and so was "The Merry Widow", and so was "The Belle of New York", but the hit of "Pinafore" was greater than all of these rolled together. The wheezes of the libretto passed into the common speech; the music was upon the air of the country from dawn to dawn. At one time, it is said, no fewer than 160 performances were given in one night -- by pretentious companies of good singers, by companies of children, by troupes of amateurs. Every fourth church choir tried the game. Pinafore threatened to become a separate trade -- a profession within a profession -- like Uncle-Tomming. Scores of fair warblers, later to delight us in other roles, made their bows as Josephine; scores of actors, male, not forgetting Richard Mansfield, got their starts as Dick Deadeye.

After a while, of course, the craze died down. "The Pirates of Penzance" and "Patience" followed quickly, with "Iolanthe." After them, in 1885, came "The Mikado", and another smashing hit. But "Pinafore", through all the years, has held the palm. No other comic opera ever written -- no other stage play, indeed, of any sort -- was ever so popular. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" may have more performances to its credit in the United States, but "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has never crossed the seas. "Pinafore", however, has been given, and with great success, wherever there are theaters -- from Moscow to Buenos Aires, from Cape Town to Shanghai; in Madrid, Ottawa and Melbourne; even in Paris, Rome, Vienna and Berlin.

Updated 23 Sept 1996