HMS Pinafore

or "The lass that loved a sailor"

Potted Plot | History | First Night Critics | Did You Know? | Behind the Scenes | Original Cast

Picture of first night programme

First performed at the Opera Comique, London, on the 25th May 1878

The quarterdeck of HMS Pinafore.

Little Buttercup, a buxom bumboat woman, attempts to sell her wares to the crew. Among the ship's hands is a handsome sailor called Ralph Rackstraw who seems to cause great concernation to Little Buttercup.

The ship's Captain, Corcoran, arrives and when alone with Buttercup he expresses his sadness that his daughter, Josephine, appears far less than enthusiastic over her impending marriage to Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Josephine's heart is in fact given to a humble sailor on board her father's own ship.

Sir Joseph enters accompanied by the female chorus of Sisters, Cousins and Aunts. Captain Corcoran and Sir Joseph discuss the respect that must always be given to the crew. Any request made by the Captain must be accompanied by an "if you please".

Alone with Josephine, Ralph declares his love to her. However Josephine is true to the dictates of class distinction and rejects his love although her true feelings are not voiced except in asides to the audience.

The finale to Act One opens with Ralph announcing that the only thing left is to blow his head off. But before the fatal shot is fired, Josephine stops him declaring that she does in fact love him. They plan to steal ashore that night to be married.

In Act Two we find Sir Joseph becoming more and more irritated at Josephine's lack of response to his offer of his hand in marriage. Captain Corcoran points out that probably his exalted rank has dazzled her and he must be assured that love, in fact, levels all ranks.

The unscrupulous sailor, Dick Deadeye (the villain of the Opera) reveals to the Captain of the plan for the elopement of Ralph and Josephine that night. Corcoran stops the escape and Ralph declares his love for Josephine. All confusion reigns only resolved when Little Buttercup explains that when she was a nurse a many years ago she mixed two babies up. One upper class, the other lower class.

"In time each little waif
Forsook his foster-mother,
The well-born babe was Ralph -
Your Captain was the other!"

Ralph appears dressed as a Captain and Corcoran as an ordinary seaman.

Ralph embraces Josephine, Corcoran turns to Buttercup and Sir Joseph settles for first cousin, Hebe.

Click here for a complete libretto to H.M.S. Pinafore

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Pinafore Theatre Poster

Gilbert was in his element roaming the decks of H.M.S. Victory. He made many notes and sketches and in his mind's eye he could already see the staging for his next opera. Gilbert's diary shows that during that day at Portsmouth - April 13th, 1878 - he 'lunched on board Thunderer with Lord Charles Beresford. Went round ship. Went on board Victory and St. Vincent, making sketches, then pulled ashore to station'

From the sketches made on board the Victory Gilbert was able to prepare a complete model of the Pinafore's deck. With the aid of this model and with coloured blocks to represent the principals and chorus he was able to plan all movements well before rehearsals began.

Gilbert was nervous about H.M.S. Pinafore. He frequently sat up rewriting until two or three in the morning. Gout had begun to trouble him. He rehearsed so intensively that on the day before the production he was at the theatre all day and nearly all night as well.

H.M.S. Pinafore was produced on May 25th, 1878

The critics were kind except the Daily Telegraph who stated that the production would "soon subside into nothingness."

Within days it looked as though the Telegraph was right. Receipts dropped. The most apparent cause was an unexpected May/June heat wave.

Sullivan decided to include an orchestral selection from the opera at the Promenade Concerts he was conducting nightly. This was a tremendous success. The charming tunes started people talking about the opera and business immediately picked up at the box office. By the end of August the theatre was full at every performance. D'Oyly Carte started organising touring companies as England developed Pinafore Mania!

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First night critics


The Times

"The performance - conducted on the first night by the composer himself - was received by a crowded audience with every sign of satisfaction."


"So perfect a quarter-deck as that of H.M.S. Pinafore has assuredly never been put upon the stage. Every block and rope to the minutest detail is in its place, in fact it is an exact model of what it represents; and thanks no doubt to the untiring diligence of the author the piece is admirably represented all round. Here we fid that marvel of marvels, a chorus that acts, and adds to the reality of the illusion."

The Times

"Few theatres can boast of such a trio of genuine humourists as are Mr. G. Grossmith (Sir Joseph Porter), Mr. Rutland Barrington (the philanthropic captain), and Miss Everard (Little Buttercup). The vocal achievements of these are not of the highest order, but their parlato style does full justice to the humorous sallies of Mr. Gilbert."


"Miss Emma Howson, who made her first appearance in this country, is one of the brightest, liveliest little ladies imaginable. She has a voice of charming quality, pure, sweet, and admirably in tune. Her singing at once established her in the good graces of the audience, and her acting was full of intelligence and comic talent. Her debut was a complete success."


"The curtain fell amidst enthusiastic applause and Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan and the principal performers were called to the footlights, and greeted most heartily, a compliment most thoroughly deserved, for the success of the comic opera and the genuine enjoyment the audience had derived from it was unquestionable. The performance was for a first night, capital."

The Times

"With Mr. Gilbert a plot is seldom more than a lay figure which he delights in dressing in the fantastic garb of his wit and imagination. We hardly become conscious of the absence of any kind of human interest. The audience, therefore, have little reason to complain of Mr. Gilbert. But the musician has. His true field of action is after all genuine emotion...The manner in which Mr. Sullivan accepts the difficult position thus prepared for him by his collaborator is worthy of the highest commendation. whenever he finds that Mr. Gilbert's humour cannot be aided by musical means he lets well alone and retires to modest recitative. On the other hand, he loses no opportunity to emphasize comic points or to indicate hidden irony by a slight touch of exaggeration. A very unsophisticated audience might accept, for instance, Ralph's ballad, 'A maiden fair to see,' as a real sentiment of which it is an admirable caricature..."

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

"(Mr. Sullivan's music) is not likely to enhance his fame, yet it is not entirely unworthy of his pen...Mr. Sullivan is capable of infinitely better things."

Click here to check out the reviews for the first Australia production.

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Did you know?

Even at this early stage in his career Sullivan was continually sick. He was already suffering from a kidney ailment which would reoccur the rest of his life. He was in pain much of the time he was composing the lively melodies of Pinafore. But this was not yet sufficiently serious to cause, as it did later, interruptions to rehearsals. The score was ready in time for the opening performance, and the cast was well trained.

In the original production Hebe was to have had a much larger part than the present one. There would be at least one solo and various "turns" of her own. When Jessie Bond took on the role she stipulated that she would do no talking, only singing parts. As Hebe's dialogue was cut out along with it went any "turns" and impromptus that were to have helped out the play. Because of this Pinafore was a lot shorter than originally intended.
In the original productions in Australia there were several interpolated songs for both Dick Deadeye and Hebe. These remained in the Antipodean productions until well into the turn of the century.

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Behind the scenes

The success of "H.M.S. Pinafore" having proved an established fact, it entered into the mind of the stage-manager, Richard Barker, that a performance of the opera by a company of children might prove attractive. The suggestion met with hearty approval of Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte.
Barker made search for available juvenile talent, and eventually succeeded in forming a full company to man the "Pinafore " and a bevy of charming little ladies all under the age of sixteen to represent the "sisters, cousins, and aunts."
Under a sullen, frowning exterior, Richard Barker hid a very kind heart. With his strict discipline the little ones became willing and happy pupils of a tutor whose love of children was one of his chief characteristics.
The vocal score had to be re-orchestrated throughout to suit the vocal capabilities of the youthful singers. The production was a triumph. A leading critic remarked:
"We have no hesitation in describing it as the most marvelous juvenile performance ever seen in the metropolis. So well have these children been taught, and so thoroughly do they comprehend their characters, that it becomes a source of the keenest enjoyment to the spectator to follow their wonderfully attractive performance."

Jessie Bond developed an abscess in her leg just before the company went to America with Pinafore. This never healed and would be with her throughout her stage career.
In her biography she says:
"The abscess in my ankle was painful and persistent. Surgical science had not then reached its present state of efficiency, and owing to faulty treatment and want of rest my ankle became perfectly stiff, as it is to this day. Of course, I said as little as possible about it, for even partial lameness would spoil my chances on the stage. I doubt if the management ever knew; the public certainly didn't; and those who saw me dancing and capering light-heartedly about the stage for twenty years little thought under what difficulties I did it, and the pain I often suffered."

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