H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan
There is a canard that the English do not “get” jokes. In my family (I am at least one-eighth English, a plurality over any other ethnicity), someone who misses the point of a joke is accused of showing his/her “English”. The English, in fact, do have a substantial sense of humor– most especially, a taste for satire and parody; and nothing demonstrates their attachment to- and mastery of– that form of wit so well as the operettas of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan.
“Pinafore” was the fourth of those dramas– and the first real blockbuster– when it opened in London at the Opera Comique in May 1878. It also became a nearly instantaneous success in the US, where, in addition to “official” productions, a wild variety of plagiarized versions, parodies, and slapped-together imitations appeared, much to the discomfiture of G & S and their business partner, Richard D’Oyly Carte. We in the US have always smugly mocked our English heritage; we would not have an admiral who had never been to sea (but we have had Secretaries of Defense who have never been in uniform!). There were some very pointed jabs in the plot- Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., had a real counterpart who had gained a top military command via influence, rather than seamanship- but most of the libretto originated from the fertile imagination of William S. Gilbert. Gilbert was a polymath, as skilled at other literary pursuits as at operetta libretti, and in many respects a moody, perfectionist creator who involved himself deeply in the production as well as in the construction. He often attended rehearsals to be certain that the actors did not change words or insert anything. He also insisted that the scenes be acted soberly and with great emphasis; it was his view that any appearance of empathy with the aroused audience would cause the humor to fall flat.
Gilbert apparently had a difficult childhood, although we know very little about it. He traveled in Europe with his parents, but it is not clear that he had any affection for either one, and some biographies say a great-uncle, John S. Schwenk, in whose honor he received his middle name, and his wife (who was Gilbert’s godmother) were largely responsible for his upbringing. He tried his hand at government service and at law, but quickly left both behind to write. His output was prodigious: In the 1870’s, he wrote 37 plays- seven in 1871 alone- and another 11 in the 1880’s (seven of which had music by Sullivan). In addition to poetry, prose, and criticism, he also directed plays: He was in fact the director for the first of the G & S collaborations, Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old.
Gilbert’s ability to provide satirical plots and libretti amused audiences, but, as one might expect, did not sit well with the powers of English society- most notably Queen Victoria. One of his plays, The Happy Land (1873) was in fact banned briefly because it caricatured Prime Minister Gladstone and some of his ministers. (Victoria had little love for Gladstone herself- she much preferred his acid-tongued rival, Benjamin Disraeli- but her well-developed sense of propriety was obviously offended by the satire.) While Arthur Sullivan was knighted by Victoria in 1883, with the collaboration still active, Gilbert was not knighted until 24 years later, in 1907- by Victoria’s son and successor, King Edward VII (the fun-loving regent of whom you have already read).
“Pinafore” (which, like most of the G & S plays, bears a subtitle, The Lass That Loved a Sailor), lampoons the English love of class. (Americans like to think that class is a peculiarly Old-World problem; of course we often fail to recognize our own class distinctions, which are perhaps less permanent but no less real!) The plot hinges upon the love of a rank midshipman, Ralph Rackstraw– the alliterative names were a favorite Gilbert device– for Josephine, daughter of the Pinafore’s Captain Corcoran, who is already promised to Sir Joseph Porter via an arranged marriage. This dilemma is resolved by a typical Gilbertian device, a mistaken identity situation (which we will not reveal here, in case you read in advance of the performance– always a good practice!). That the Captain, his crew, bystanders (represented by the Chorus), and Sir Joseph- and of course the audience- accept on-the-spot correction of this situation as part of the play’s denouement, is testimony to Gilbert’s masterful manipulation of topsy-turvy worlds: This one may be of his own creation, but it highlights the absurdity of what is socially, and/or administratively, proper.
One word of caution: Much has been written about the tension between Sullivan, who preferred to avoid conflict, and Gilbert, who fomented it. In fact, there was probably less of that than has been hypothesized. At least one Gilbertian plot was abandoned on Sullivan’s objection; moreover, Gilbert, after Sullivan’s death in 1900, paid him this compliment: “…Savoy opera was snuffed out by the deplorable death of my distinguished collaborator, Sir Arthur Sullivan. When that event occurred, I saw no one with whom I felt that I could work with satisfaction and success, and so I discontinued to write libretti.”
J. R. Fancher, Feb. 2007