If you told a friend that you were going to see a performance of HMS Pinafore — or better yet, that you were going to be in such a performance — your companion might or might not have a clue whom or what you were talking about. But chances are no one today would blurt out, “Pinafore! Isn’t that some kind of girls’ clothing? What kind of cockamamie name is that for a play about a navy ship?”
In truth, ships in the Royal Navy were more likely to be called Avenger, Defiance, Impregnable, or our personal favorite, HMS Dreadnought instead of Pinafore. It would be like a cruiser today patrolling the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iran called the USS Mini-skirt.
It is hard for us today to imagine what the audiences who came to the Opera Comique in London to see HMS Pinafore in 1878 expected to see and hear. The team of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had just begun their celebrated collaboration, having written only a Christmas entertainment, Thespis, in 1871 and the forty minute one-act Trial By Jury four years later. In fact, the kind of English language comic opera which these two men were to create was unknown at the time. But the title, HMS Pinafore, must have been a sure tip-off that what would be going on on-stage would bear little if any relationship to anything which actually occurred in the real British Navy. (Much like a number of American TV sit-coms from decades ago, which purported to be about life on an army base, a P.O.W. camp, or an army hospital.)
So when the curtain went up on Pinafore’s opening night to the rousing “We Sail the Ocean Blue,” in which a bunch of ‘British sailors’ prance around the stage reaffirming that they are “sober men and true,” the audience must have gotten the joke. Drinking water being hard to obtain and keep fresh, the most common beverage on board any HMS of the time was grog: diluted rum with a little bit of lemon or lime juice — served twice a day. So much for sobriety!
Following an interlude in which Buttercup, a most mysterious character, announces that she has a secret, which, if the audience is patient and pays attention, she will divulge in due time (meaning near the end of the second act when a denouement is required), the cast of characters and what passes for a plot is revealed: there is the young sailor, Ralph Rackstraw, who is intent on marrying Josephine, the daughter of the captain, a most pompous fellow in his own right, who “never uses a big, big, D — except that he does — when he finds his daughter trying to elope with the common sailor! Then there is the meddling Dead-eye Dick, determined to maintain class distinctions and thwart the lovers’ plans. Finally, there is the First Lord of the Admiralty, who is himself eager to marry the beautiful, charming, and musically gifted Josephine — and his gaggle of sisters and cousins and aunts, who join him on board the Pinafore. Needless to say, the sailors are more than eager to “welcome ladies most politely.” Generally speaking, as we can be sure the audience was aware, the kind of women who were usually ‘welcomed’ aboard a ship in port were unlikely to be anybody’s sisters and cousins and aunts. As a result, venereal disease was a common occurrence among the sailing men.
Now most of these characters, stock figures from the world of melodrama, were created from whole cloth by W.S. Gilbert, except for the First Lord of the Admiralty. Here is an early example of the biting satire for which the librettist would soon become renowned. His hapless victim was one W. H. Smith (actually W. H. Smith, Jr., the son of W. H. Smith, whose family name survives in the eponymous British chain of book stores.) the qualifications of the second-generation purveyor of novels and periodicals to become the First Lord of the Admiralty (from 1877 to 1880) had eluded most of his countrymen, and there was probably no one sitting in the Opera Comique who couldn’t figure out who the inconsequential figure on stage who kept being rewarded until he became ” the ruler of the queen’s navee” was based on. Smith never lived it down; virtually every time he appeared in public thereafter, he was rewarded with a rendition of “When I Was A Lad….”
Fortunately for audiences today, Gilbert’s humor has outlasted the butts of his jokes. We all know about people who somehow rise to the top of the heap without any visible qualifications. Likewise, we are all too familiar with the “sisters and his cousins and his aunts” syndrome, the claques of hangers-on, whose only importance is that they themselves know someone important. And the kill-joys, whose main source of pleasure is by being a constant wet blanket. Gilbert and Sullivan’s magic has outlasted the specific foibles they were originally lampooning: the rigid class system, Victorian morality, and a pride in one’s country of origin taken beyond the point of absurdity The witty and at times subversive lyrics, the tenderness and vigor of the music along with its wonderful harmonies still have the power to amuse and enchant audiences today. Which is why we, at Encore, keep doing G&S — because we know that you will have almost as much fun watching a winner like Pinafore as we have performing it — singing music which is not at all easy, all the while, moving effortlessly (?) about the stage.
Given the zany mad-cap nature of what passes for a plot in a typical G&S endeavor, there is a natural tendency to camp it up, to inject a wink here and a smirk there; to let the audience know that the actors are in on the joke. We will have none of that. We perform it straight (and quite well too). What makes Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music so endearing is that the characters are not in on the joke. They are — unwittingly — the joke, for us to enjoy over and over again. Even if we are not always certain what is going on!