Launched in a stifling heatwave, denounced by "the better sort of person" and cause of an ungenteel theatre fracas, HMS Pinafore survived all the odds to become the first runaway success for Gilbert and Sullivan and their eminence gris, Richard D'Oyly Carte in London and New York.To this day it almost never off the stage - amateur or professional. Why?
It is perhaps now a commonplace that the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan remain as perhaps the most recognisable and enduring products of the Victorian Age. More than a century after their first appearance on the London Stage they remain popular across the globe and have large followings in the most unexpected of places - I was quite surprised to discover, on my first visit to Romania, just how large a following they have there. Sullivan's tunes are instantly recognisable and not a day goes by in the British or American without some reference or, unconscious or no, from Gilbert's libretti. It has been well said that, except for the plays of Shakespeare, no other English works have been so often performed or are still so often performed as the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. (Frederic Woodbridge Wilson in his Introduction to the Folio Society's edition of the libretti in 1994.)
HMS Pinafore was first produced at the Opera-Comique on May 25th 1878. I have written elsewhere that" it was the first runaway success Gilbert and Sullivan were to have, both in England and America. It remains one of the most popular pieces in the canon". Whilst this remains true, we must not lose sight of the fact that the project came close to floundering several times before its ultimate triumph and, the sign of musical success par excellence in the Victorian period, its translation into sheet music for the drawing room pianoforte.
The following review was published On June 1st 1878 in The Illustrated London News: "The promised new work by Mr. W. S. Gilbert and Dr. Arthur Sullivan was produced, with much success, at this theatre on Saturday; when, after a very long run, "The Sorcerer," the joint production of the same gentlemen, was replaced by "H.M.S. Pinafore; or, the Lass that Loved a sailor," a comic opera in two acts. The plot is merely a slight sketch, which serves, however, as a vehicle for that caustic humour and quaint satire in which Mr. Gilbert is such a proficient. A caricature First Lord of the Admiralty, the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., who has risen from small beginnings, seeks the hand of Josephine, daughter of Captain Corcoran, commander of the ship Pinafore, the young lady being secretly beloved by Ralph Rackstraw, one of the ordinary seamen.
The First Lord visits the ship (with a boatload of female relations), and harangues the crew on the equality of men and officers, a sentiment which emboldens the sailor to declare his love to Josephine, who at first refuses him, but ultimately consents to elope with him. The plan is betrayed to the Captain by one of the crew, Dick Deadeye, a grotesque version of a misanthrope. Ralph is seized and is about to receive punishment, when a bumboat woman, nicknamed Little Buttercup, discloses the fact that the Captain and Ralph had been changed by her when intrusted as infants to her charge. On this announcement the changelings enter in reversed costume, the lovers are united, the quondam Captain, now a common seaman, pairs off with Little Buttercup, and Sir Joseph mates with Hebe, one of his cousins. There is so much that goes beyond the province of farce and enters the region of rampant burlesque, but there is also much to call forth hearty laughter in the occasional satirical hits, as, for instance, when the First Lord narrates the fact of his elevation, and gives the advice to
Stick close to your desks, and never go to sea
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee;
and when he avows that
When the breezes blow,
I generally go below,
And seek the seclusion that a cabin grants.
This and similar terminal rhymes are followed, with ludicrous effect, by a choral refrain,
And so do his sisters and his cousins and his aunts
Dr. Sullivan's music is as lively as the text to which it is set, with here and there a touch of sentimental expression, as in Josephine's ballad, Sorry her lot; her scena, The hours creep on; Ralph's ballad, A maiden fair to see; the duet for these characters, Refrain, audacious tar; and a well-written octet Farewell, my own, for the principal characters. In a sprightlier style are the Captain's song, I am the Captain of the Pinafore; that for Sir Joseph, When I was a lad (encored); the very effective Ensemble at the end of the first act (the last part encored); the duet for the Captain and Little Buttercup, Things are seldom what they seem; and a capital trio, Never mind the why and wherefore, for Josephine, the Captain, and the First Lord, the concluding portion of which had to be repeated; another repetition having been that of a travestie of the style of the old nautical ballad, sung by the boatswain's mate, to the lines:-
For he himself has said it
And it's greatly to his credit
That he is an Englishman!
For he might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations,
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman.
The piece is well performed throughout. Miss Howson, as Josephine, sang with much purity of voice and refinement of style, and acted very gracefully; Miss Everard gave a very quaint rendering of the part of Little Buttercup; Mr. Power, as Ralph, displayed an agreeable tenor voice and good cantabile phrasing; Mr. G. Grossmith, jun., was well made up, and acted and sang with quiet humour as the First Lord; and Mr. Barrington was a very efficient representative of the Captain, and gave his music with good effect, considering that he was suffering from a cold, for which an apology was made. subordinate characters were also well filled, including those of Hebe by Miss J. Bond, Dick Deadeye by Mr. R. Temple, Bill Bobstay the Boatswain's Mate by Mr. Clifton, &c. The quarter-deck of the ship, with distant view of Portsmouth, is admirably represented, the scene-painters being Messrs. Gordon and Harford. The costumes are good, and the band and chorus well selected and thoroughly efficient. Dr. Sullivan conducted on the first night, and he and Mr. Gilbert, as well as the principal performers, were called forward."
Transcribed 9 November 2000 by Helga J. Perry
However, it was not very long before they were playing to decreasing houses. There is no doubt but that this was a combination of several weeks of heatwave in the Capital and a whispering campaign of disapproval which thought it rather poor taste to lampoon the Royal Navy, one of Britain's most hallowed institutions. At the time, Sullivan was conducting a series of popular promenade concerts at the Royal Opera House and he decided to take their case directly to the public. He began to include a nightly pot-pourri of music from the opera and it was not long before Pinafore became a craze and was playing to packed houses.
The Impresario who had initially persuaded Gilbert and Sullivan to team up was Richard D'Oyly Carte and it is no exaggeration to say that much of the success of the canon, both initially and in terms of their endurance, was because of his skills. During the first run of HMS Pinafore, Carte and his fellow investors had a bitter dispute about the viability of the work and he decided to throw his lot in with Gilbert and Sullivan in what is arguably the most successful triumvirate in musical history. Together they decided to exploit their works to the full on both sides of the Atlantic.
Carte's erstwhile fellows however had a change of heart as they watched Pinafore turn into a veritable gold-mine. They decided to mount a rival production, first at the Aquarium Theatre and, later, at the Olympic. They arrived at the Opera-Comique with horse-vans and an army of men with the intention of claiming the scenery. The fact that a performance was in progress when they arrived proved no deterrent. According to an eye-witness:
The actors on the stage were startled in the middle of their performance by cries of 'Come on! Now's the time!' They heard a rush of many persons down the stone steps which led to the stage, and immediately afterwards saw a number of roughs at the prompt entrance ... The ladies on the stage became panic-stricken and too much praise cannot be given to Miss Everard (playing Little Butercup, the stout Portsmouth Bumboat woman) for her presence of mind and the struggles she made to proceed with her part in the ordinary way. The ladies and gentlemen began to rise hurridly and leave the stalls ... The uproar behind the scenes increased and loud cries were heard.The fracas led to long drawn-out litigation between the rivals and Gilbert arranged for sandwich-board men to patrol the streets notifying the public that the HMS Pinafore at the Opera-Comique was the only authorised production.
That production went on to achieve a run of 617 performances which was by far the record then for any English musical work. These included forty-six performances of The Children's Pinafore which opened at the Opera-Comique on December 16th 1879 and which featured a cast entirely composed of children.
HMS Pinafore went on to take America by storm. The first performance of a version of the opera there had taken place on the January 15th 1879 and, as a precaution against the many pirated versions playing in America since then (there was no copyright at the time) the three partners formed their own company late in 1879. Their "official" Pinafore at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, directed by Gilbert and conducted by Sullivan and using leading artists from England was hailed as a revelation. To this day the works of Gilbert and Sullivan command a very large and loyal following in the North America.
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Note: To find out more about HMS Pinafore visit the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive page at:Pinafore Archive
There is also an exhaustive and informative discography at:Pinafore Discography