In December, 1877, after the moderately successful production of The Sorcerer had begun, W. S. Gilbert offered his musical collaborator, Arthur Seymour Sullivan, a libretto for a new comic opera, with a note appended: “I have very little doubt whatever but that you will be pleased with it.” Sullivan was indeed pleased, and although he was suffering intense pain from a kidney disorder, he composed the music rapidly. On the evening of May 25, 1878, three nights after The Sorcerer completed its run, the Comedy Opera Company presented H.M.S. Pinafore, which was to become one of the great triumphs of the musical theater.
The opening performance of H.M.S. Pinafore was nearly a failure. Some scandal attached to the character of Sir Joseph, who was clearly a satirical portrait of Sir William H. Smith, a publisher appointed by Queen Victoria as First Lord of the Admiralty. The first season of the production languished during the June heat. Most affluent Londoners vacationed outside the city, and the cast and chorus, threatened with cancellation of the whole production, agreed to accept a cut of one-third of their salaries. Eventually, however, H.M.S. Pinafore began to attract a following. The Savoy Company, under D’Oyly Carte, performing at such theaters as the (English) Opéra Comique, the Imperial, and the Olympic, enjoyed a London run of two years.
Almost concurrently, H.M.S. Pinafore was performed in pirated and often poorly staged versions in America. To secure American royalty rights and correct misconceptions about the quality of the work, William Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan, Alfred Cellier (another composer for the Carte company), and selected members of the original cast mounted an impressive production of the comic opera at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York City, starting December 1, 1879. The authorized version of H.M.S. Pinafore was widely hailed, and touring companies performed it throughout the United States as well as England.
Reasons for the popularity of Gilbert’s comedy are not difficult to identify. Apart from Sullivan’s tuneful score, the book is delightfully arch, bubbling over with high spirits and clever invention. Gilbert satirizes, with wit but little malice, pretensions of social superiority in class-conscious Victorian England. In the pecking order of rank, Sir Joseph Porter is superior to Captain Corcoran, and the captain in turn lords it over his crew. Even the lowly British tar is snobbish about his rank. After all, every sailor on the Pinafore is an Englishman, and his national pride, for which he feels superior to seamen of other nations, makes him better than “a Roosian, a French or Turk or Proosian.” Even the revelation by Buttercup that the captain is of lowly birth and Ralph Rackstraw is of high birth scarcely disturbs the Victorian audience’s sense of social justice. Sir Joseph, who likes to think of himself as democratic but who is really a snob, has to marry his cousin Hebe instead of Josephine, who, finding herself the daughter of a humble sailor, falls in class, At the same time the former Ralph, elevated in rank to the captain of H.M.S. Pinafore, can claim Josephine. As for the onetime captain, he is free to marry at his own social level and wisely chooses the buxom Little Buttercup.
Buttercup was slightly addled when she was “young and charming.” She mixed up the infant Ralph and the infant captain, a worrisome mistake, perhaps, but no serious harm is done. No matter what his social caste, each Englishman (and Englishwoman, too, including sisters, cousins, and aunts) knows what is the proper duty and decorum for his prescribed caste. Gilbert’s satire does not bite too deep: It ultimately affirms the existing order.