Category Archives: Gilbert and Sullivan

Opera Comique

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.


Platt’s Hall

Fast forward from previous post to 1882. Oscar Wilde is now the embodiment of the Aesthetic Movement. He is sent to America on a lecture tour by his talent agent, Richard D’Oyly Carte, a theater promoter who built the Savoy Theatre (in London’s West End) to host the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Aestheticism was so in vogue by this point that Patience was G&S’s very popular caricature of the movement. It’s been said that the main character, Bunthorne, a “Fleshly Poet,” was intended to satirize Wilde.

1881 Programme for Patience

Carte was promoting the U.S. tour of Patience through “this most charming aesthete.” Wilde arrives in New York in January 1882 and criss-crosses the country by train. The tour was supposed to last four months but he stayed a year because  it was so popular.

“Wilde was well received in diverse settings across America; he drank whiskey with miners in Leadville, Colorado and was fêted at the most fashionable salons in every city he visited.”

But Wilde and aestheticism were mercilessly caricatured and criticised in the press. The cartoon below is from The Wasp in San Francisco. Guess who works there at the time. Yep. Ambrose Bierce.

The Virtual Musuem of San Francisco is absolutely amazed (or appalled) by Bierce:

Ambrose Bierce’s stinging denunciation of Oscar Wilde appeared in the March 31, 1882, edition of “The Wasp.” Wilde had spoken in San Francisco on March 27, 1882, though there is no record of what Wilde thought of Bierce’s comments. Bierce’s invective was contained in his weekly column “Prattle.”

This is how his column starts:

That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it—says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.

The rest of Bierce’s stinging denunciation continues here.

“The Modern Messiah” G.F. Keller cartoon from the Wasp of San Francisco depicting Wilde on the occasion of his visit.

Now here’s the weird part. The museum says there’s no record of what Wilde thought about Bierce’s comments, but I found a story of them meeting (with dialog and everything). It’s written by Don Swaim. He begins with a synopsis of the stinging denunciation, then continues…

… Outside of the above, Bierce had no quarrel with the flamboyant Irishman, self-proclaimed genius, rage of London, master of the facetious, and champion of the aesthetic movement. In fact, Bierce had never even heard a lecture, nor had he read a syllable written by Wilde, So when Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who was nearing the end of his North American lecture tour, placed his card on the Prattler’s desk, Bierce was more amused than annoyed, especially at the Irishman’s outlandish costume.

He wasn’t exactly nearing the end of his tour because it got extended, so that part isn’t right. I’m sure the rest of Love and Kisses: Ambrose Bierce and Oscar Wilde is, though, but it’s too long for this post. I’ll move it along.

“You must come to my lecture tonight, Mr. Bierce. Let me present you with a ticket for a seat in the loge. And join me backstage before the lecture. You’ll find that I’m a man who can speak on any subject at a moment’s notice. Name one.”

 “The Queen.”

 “Ah, but she’s not a subject.”

Bierce goes to Platt’s Hall and joins Wilde backstage. The audience is not impressed with Wilde’s appearance. “Dear people, some of you, no doubt, would like to put me to death,” Wilde said. 

He is pummeled with rotten tomatoes. Mayhem ensues. Several men jump the stage. One grabs Wilde’s cloak. Bierce strides from the wings and punches him. Then he pulls out a gun and the attackers run away, while Wilde is running around in circles. He collapses in Bierce’s arms and he leads Wilde out to the alley. They take a cab to the waterfront because “they wanted to taste the sea and breathe the night.” I don’t know how Swaim knew that, but the story ends the next day. Wilde gives Bierce a silver cigarette case before leaving for Salt Lake City.


NOTE: Don Swaim worked as editor, writer, producer, reporter and anchor at WCBS (AM) in New York and CBS in Baltimore. He had a syndicated radio show called Book Beat, too.

The Ambrose Bierce Site (



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