H.M.S. Pinafore

by W. S. Gilbert

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Pinafore. Warship of the Royal Navy that is tied up at Portsmouth in southern England. The operetta is set on the ship’s open quarterdeck and poop deck. Stage directions indicate that the curtain rises to show sailors polishing the ship’s brasswork, splicing ropes, and engaging in similar busy work. Prominent in the stage set are the rigging and the bulwarks of a man-of-war of the Napoleonic era. Before designing his stage set, W. S. Gilbert, who was always interested in things nautical, visited Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory in Portsmouth harbor, making sketches of the ship to familiarize himself with every physical detail. This realism, like the perfect seriousness that Gilbert required of his actors, gives piquancy to the whimsy of the play’s topsy-turvy satire, which is exemplified most strikingly in the ship’s distinctly non-bellicose name, taken from a word for a dress for a young girl.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, Britain’s Royal Navy had been exceptionally class conscious. The details of the ship, typical of the era of the Napoleonic Wars, make the Pinafore distinctly obsolete in the rapidly evolving naval milieu of the later nineteenth century and suggests that its Captain Corcoran’s ideas about strict naval discipline and rigid class structure are equally outmoded. Warships were normally male domains, their quarterdecks reserved for officers; however, to the Pinafore’s quarterdeck Gilbert brings not only the entire crew but a female peddler, who is at the low end of the social scale, and the First Lord of the Admiralty and his large coterie of female relatives, who are at the other end. Thus the ship becomes a microcosm in which Gilbert can explore the absurdities of both the rigid British caste system and the extremism of social levelers who wanted to do away with all class distinction.


*Portsmouth. Major British naval base on the English Channel. Pictures of H.M.S. Pinafore’s original stage set show a backdrop depicting the buildings of Portsmouth. The great mutiny of the British fleet at nearby Spithead in 1797 was put down from Portsmouth—a circumstance that for knowledgeable audiences adds to the irony of Sir Joseph’s naval reforms in the play.


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Bailey, Leslie. Gilbert and Sullivan and Their World. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1973. Examines the original production of H.M.S. Pinafore and its antecedents in The Bab Ballads (1869). Photographs and sketches of early productions of the operetta.

Cellier, François, and Cunningham Bridgeman. Gilbert and Sullivan and Their Operas. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1970. Considers the original production of H.M.S. Pinafore. Explores Gilbert’s role as stage manager and traces improvisations and changes in the script. Examines the history of the operetta in England and the United States.

Dunn, George E. A Gilbert & Sullivan Directory. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971. A comprehensive dictionary that includes references to Gilbert’s many allusions. Shows correlations among various Gilbert and Sullivan works.

Heylar, James, ed. Gilbert and Sullivan: Papers Presented at the International Conference Held at the University of Kansas in May, 1970. Lawrence: University of Kansas Library, 1971. Contains a study of rank and station in H.M.S. Pinafore, a consideration of the American reception of the work, and the connections between French theater and the operetta.

Moore, Frank Ledlie. Handbook of Gilbert and Sullivan. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. Gives an overview of H.M.S. Pinafore and examines the role of Richard D’Oyle Carte in the success of the operetta.

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Critical Essays