Opera: Pinafore – Sir Arthur Sullivan

“Her Majesty’s Ship, Pinafore,” or, “The Lass that Loved a Sailor,” “an entirely original, nautical comic opera,” written by W. S. Gilbert and composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was first presented May 28, 1878, at the Opéra Comique, London, and ran for seven hundred nights with an enthusiasm probably never before equaled.


The Right Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K. C. B., First Lord of the Admiralty. Captain Corcoran, commanding H. M. S. Pinafore. Dick Deadeye. Ralph Rackstraw, an able seaman. Bill Bobstay, a boatswain. Bob Becket, a carpenter’s mate. Tom Tucker, a midshipmite. Tom Bowlin. Josephine, the Captain’s daughter. Little Buttercup (Mrs. Cripps), a Portsmouth bumboat woman. Hebe, Sir Joseph’s first cousin. First Lord’s sisters, his cousins and his aunts, sailors, etc.

The action begins on the quarter-deck of the ” Pinafore,” which is lying in the harbor of Portsmouth. The sailors are busily cleaning brass work, splicing ropes and engaging in other like tasks. The first important actor to appear is Little Buttercup, the fat, jolly bumboat woman, who suggests at once, in characteristic fashion, that under a round and rosy exterior may be lurking a canker-worm. Dick Deadeye, the villain, comes on board and is followed by the fine young sailor, Ralph Rackstraw, who is sighing over the fact that he loves a lass above his station, the lass in question being Josephine, the daughter of Captain Corcoran of the ” Pinafore.” The Captain has ambitions for his daughter and is deeply grieved that the young lady ” does not tackle kindly ” to the attentions of Sir Joseph Porter, K. C. B. The fair Josephine arrives to confess to her father that she loves a common sailor but assures him that her pride will prevent his ever knowing it. Sir Joseph accompanied by ” all his sisters and his cousins and his aunts ” comes to press his suit. An abundance of satire directed against the British navy, snobs, the national self-complacency and other important institutions is wrapped up in the character of Sir Joseph, who early explains that a British sailor is any man’s equal, excepting his. Josephine, declaring that Sir Joseph’s attentions nauseate her, smiles on Ralph until he is encouraged to make a declaration. She then conceals her real feelings and haughtily bids him seek some village maiden for a mate. He draws a pistol and is holding it to his head, when she prevents his taking off by the timely confession that he possesses her heart. They plan to elope and are overheard by Dick.

In the second act, the Captain is discovered singing to the moon and very much out of sorts. Little Buttercup, who has remained on board, offers to soothe his aching heart and becomes alarmingly sentimental. He tells her that owing to the difference in their stations, he can be only a friend and she, at once nettled, warns him that her gypsy blood enables her to see that a change is in store for him. Sir Joseph enters to complain of Josephine’s indifference and her father hastily suggests that perhaps her modesty makes her feel unworthy of him. This tickles the suitor’s vanity, and when Josephine appears, much worried over her approaching elopement, he bids her

Never mind the why and wherefore, Love can level ranks, and therefore–

This is exactly the assurance she has been craving for her hesitating heart. She promises to follow his advice and her parent is delighted that he is to be the father-in-law to a Cabinet minister. As Josephine and Ralph are leaving the ship to seek a clergyman, Dick Deadeye discloses their plan and they are confronted by an angry papa. Ralph is interrupted in the midst of the pretty metaphors expressive of his love and ordered to be loaded with chains and sent to a dungeon cell. At this, Little Buttercup demands a hearing and confesses that ” many years ago ” she ” practised baby-farming ” and that, in her own words,

Two tender babies I nussed One was of low condition, The other upper crust, A regular patrician.

She further explains that they were Captain Corcoran and Ralph and that she purposely mixed them up. This highly probable explanation is at once accepted. Sir Joseph declares a union with Josephine impossible under the circumstances ; her marriage with Ralph takes on a new aspect; and Corcoran, now a common seaman, gives his hand to Little Buttercup.

” Pinafore ” is probably the most popular of all the Gilbert-Sullivan operas. It met with enormous success, not only at home but abroad. It was hummed ; it was whistled ; its catching phrases were heard on the street and in the home ; contemporaneous literature teems with allusion to it. Its satire is keen but friendly and, in music as in text, it is gay and amusing. Sullivan, who has been called the English Offenbach was very fortunate in having Gilbert for a co-worker, for his librettos have distinct literary value. One critic claims that Sullivan has not quite succeeded in ” writing down ” to the popular taste, for the most of his music is ” too graceful in melody and too refined in harmony to be appreciated by the absolutely uncultivated,” but adds that it is “exactly adapted to the very large class which knows a little.”

Among the many popular numbers are the recurring chorus ” We sail the ocean blue and our saucy ship’s a beauty; ” the song “I’m called Little Buttercup;” Josephine’s, ” Sorry her lot, who loves too well ; ” Sir Joseph’s ” I am the monarch of the sea ” and ” When I was a lad I served a term; ” the trio, ” A British tar is a soaring soul; ” Corcoran’s song to the moon ; the duet between the Captain and Little Buttercup, ” Things are seldom what they seem ; ” Dick Deadeye’s ” The merry maiden and the tar ; ” the octet, ” Farewell my own” and Buttercup’s recountal “A many years ago.”