I couldn’t pass Oscar Wilde without some sort of mention of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor (I blame Patience; or, Bunthorne’s Bride). When I was in elementary school, I think in third-grade, a troupe of sixth-graders performed the comic opera on the stage in the cafeteria.

The extravaganza was highly anticipated by the entire school, and not only because summer recess would start three weeks later. I can hardly remember anything about the production other than being star-struck, in those last few weeks, by the kid who played Captain Corcoran.

Scene from 1886 Savoy Theatre souvenir programme

CAPT. I am the Captain of the Pinafore;

ALL. And a right good captain, too!

CAPT. You’re very, very good,
And be it understood,
I command a right good crew,

ALL. We’re very, very good,
And be it understood,
He commands a right good crew.

CAPT. Though related to a peer,
I can hand, reef, and steer,
And ship a selvagee;
I am never known to quail
At the furry of a gale,
And I’m never, never sick at sea!

ALL. What, never?

CAPT. No, never!

ALL. What, never?

CAPT. Hardly ever!

ALL. He’s hardly ever sick at sea!
Then give three cheers, and one cheer more,
For the hardy Captain of the Pinafore!

etc., etc., etc.

Yay! The synopsis of the two-acts (on the Wiki link above) ends happily: The former Captain’s now-humble social rank leaves him free to marry Buttercup. Sir Joseph settles for his cousin Hebe, and all ends in general rejoicing.

Poster illustration from original 1878 production

Factually, H.M.S. Pinafore opened at the Opera Comique in Westminster, London in May 1878 and ran for 571 performances. It was Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourth operatic collaboration and their first international sensation.

Over 150 unauthorized productions sprang up in America alone, but because American law then offered no copyright protection to foreigners, Richard D’Oyly Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan were not paid royalties or able to control content.

To head off American piracy of their next opera, Pirates of Penzance, Carte and G & S opened an “authorized production” in New York in December 1879, prior to its 1880 London premiere. They scheduled the tours before it could be copied, and delayed publication of the score and libretto.

Guess which opera was after that. Yep. Patience; or Bunthorne’s Bride. It opened at the Opera Comique in April 1881 and was another big success. To popularise the opera in America, Carte sends Oscar Wilde on a lecture tour in 1882  to explain to Americans what the Aesthetic Movement was all about.


SIDEBAR: Pinafore at 33

by H.L. Menken, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1911 

PINAFORE made a hit in New York the other night — for the twentieth or thirtieth time in 33 years. How well that tripping Sullivan music wears; how fresh those Gilbert jokes seem after a third of a century! …

 No other comic opera ever written — no other stage play, indeed, of any sort — was ever so popular.