THE MAKING OF H.M.S. PINAFORE
by François Cellier
NOTE: This article consists of two chapters from the book "Gilbert and Sullivan and Their Operas" by François Cellier & Cunningham Bridgeman, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1914.
To find a foundation for the libretto of the next opera to follow The Sorcerer, Gilbert determined on plagiarizing from his own past work. That is to say, he turned to his "Bab Ballads."
Readers of those irresponsible yet immortal rhymes will not have forgotten [from the Bab Ballad Captain Reece]
- ". . . the worthy Captain Reece
- Commanding of the Mantelpiece"--
who was so devoted to his crew that there was no conceivable luxury he did not provide for their comfort; for example:
- "A feather bed had every man,
- Warm slippers and hotwater can,
- Brown Windsor from the Captain's store,
- A valet, too, to every four."
It will be remembered how the Captain's coxswain, William Lee, "the nervous, shy, lowspoken man," made so bold as to suggest to his commanding officer that" it would be most friendlylike " if his (Captain Reece's) daughter, "ten female cousins and a niece, six sisters, and an aunt or two," might be united to the "unmarried members of the crew." Further, how the kindhearted Captain, in order to oblige, consented to marry his faithful coxswain's widowed mother, who took in his washing.
Here, then, was a comic plot already cut and dried, with readymade dramatis personae. All that remained to adapt the story to the stage was for our author to embody his eccentric characters, add one or two to their number, train them all to sing and dance, and make them the mouthpieces of his playful, uptodate satire on sundry authorities and institutions of the day.
Gilbert began, then, by renaming the "Mantelpiece" "H.M.S. Pinafore." Captain Reece became Captain Corcoran; William Lee, coxswain, was promoted to the rank of boatswain's mate and given the name of Bill Bobstay; the widowed laundress was transformed into that "plump and pleasing person" to be known henceforth and famed throughout Christendom as "Little Buttercup," the Portsmouth bumboat woman, "the rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead." But the ship's complement was not yet complete. There must be a sailor youth upon whom the conventional love interest should devolve; and so Ralph Rackstraw, a leading A.B., was duly appointed to that billet - whilst, as a foil to the handsome young hero, another ablebodied seaman, a veritable anomaly, was brought to light in the ugly, distorted form of Dick Deadeye, the one bête noire of the Pinafore's jovial crew.
But the most important addition that Gilbert made to his dramatis personae was the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., First Lord of the Admiralty. To this distinguished personage were bequeathed "the sisters and cousins and aunts" who, in the "Bab Ballad," had belonged to Captain Reece.
Thus, by a wave of his magic wand, Gilbert transformed the stanzas of a humorous ballad into a still more excruciatingly funny operalibretto. To set to music such a strange conglomeration of unreasonable ideas and unrecognizable individuals as those comprised in Gilbert's book was severely to test the ingenuity of any musician. Was it possible that the composer of such profoundly ambitious works as "The Tempest," "The Light of the World," and "The Prodigal Son" could descend from such lofty heights to the depths of flaring frivolity?
The weird, supernatural atmosphere of "The Sorcerer" was not less calculated to afford inspiration to Sullivan than " Tristan and Iseult" to inspire Wagner, or " Elixir d'Amore " Donizetti.
There are no bounds to supernatural elements. The poet or the musician can give loose rein to his imagination as he rides through Idealland and none may call him "Halt!" But the deck of H.M.S. Pinafore, if not governed strictly by the customary discipline of the British manofwar and manned, as it came to be, by a caricature crew, nevertheless retained some semblance of real life, and so required musical setting in harmony with its environment. But Sullivan had already, notably in "Trial by Jury," proved himself a born humorist, fully capable of entering into the spirit and essence of his colleague's fun.
Such was his versatility that he was able to express in tonewords of equal eloquence the Soliloquy of Shakespeare's Prospero, the grunt of Caliban, the song of Captain Corcoran, or the patter of Sir Joseph Porter.
Moreover, Gilbert's "Pinafore" was essentially English, and Arthur Sullivan's natural tone was English to his last demisemiquaver.
Musical London had learnt all this. The British public now knew what they might reasonably expect from the collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan. Thus it came to pass that on Saturday, May 25th, 1878, three days after the withdrawal of "The Sorcerer," the doors of the Opera Comique were besieged for many hours by eager playgoers, pushing and praying for seats or at least for standingroom.
One press critic, describing the opening night of "H.M.S. Pinafore," wrote thus:
- "Seldom, indeed, have we been in the company of a more joyous audience, more confidently anticipating an evening's amusement than that which filled the Opera Comique in every corner. The expectation was fulfilled completely. Those who believed in the power of Mr. Gilbert to tickle the fancy with quaint suggestions and unexpected forms of humour were more than satisfied, and those who appreciated Mr. Arthur Sullivan's inexhaustible gift of melody were equally gratified. The result, therefore, was 'a hit, a palpable hit' - a success in fact, there could be no mistaking, and which, great as it was on Saturday, will be even more decided when the work has been played a few nights."
The reception accorded Arthur Sullivan on his appearing in the conductor's chair proved, more emphatically than ever before, in what high esteem the English musician was held by his compatriots.
With a view to the record of interesting and authentic data, it is proposed in this volume to republish the cast of each of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas in the chronological order of their production.
The following is the list of the original dramatis personae of-
H.M.S. PINAFORE, OR THE LASS THAT LOVED A SAILOR
- The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. (First Lord of the Admiralty)
- MR. GEORGE GROSSMITH
- Captain Corcoran (Commanding H.M.S. "Pinafore")
- MR. RUTLAND BARRINGTON
- Ralph Rackstraw (Able Seaman)
- MR. GEORGE POWER
- Dick Deadeye (Able Seaman)
- MR. RICHARD TEMPLE
- Bill Bobstay (Boatswain's Mate)
- MR. F. CLIFTON
- Bob Becket (Carpenter's Mate)
- MR. DYMOTT
- Josephine (The Captain's Daughter)
- MISS EMMA HOWSON
- Hebe (Sir Joseph's First Cousin)
- MISS JESSIE BOND
- Little Buttercup (A Portsmouth Bumboat Woman)
- MISS EVERARD
In the above company notable newcomers were Mr. (now Sir George) Power, Miss Emma Howson, an American soprano whose debut was pronounced "a complete success," and Miss Jessie Bond, the delightful soubrette who afterwards became one of the most popular of Savoyards.
George Grossmith and Jessie Bond from the original production.
George Grossmith, Rutland Barrington, Richard Temple, and Miss Everard reappeared to add fresh laurels to those earned in "The Sorcerer."
Author and composer alike, having taken the measure of their respective capabilities and personal characteristics, had succeeded in fitting each performer to a part which was found to fit like a glove.
The perfect state of preparedness in which " H.M.S. Pinafore" was launched showed Gilbert to be the Masterabsolute of stagecraft. From rise to fall of curtain, there was evidence that every situation and grouping, every entrance and exit, had been studied, directed, and drilled to the minutest point.
Gilbert was a clever draughtsman, as witness his delightful thumbnail illustrations of "Bab Ballads" and "The Songs of a Savoyard"; and so he always designed his own stagescenes. For the purpose of obtaining a perfectly correct model of a British man-ofwar, he, accompanied by Arthur Sullivan, paid a visit to Portsmouth and went on board Nelson's famous old flagship, the Victory. There, by permission of the naval authorities, he made sketches of every detail of the quarterdeck to the minutest ring, bolt, tholepin, or halyard. From these sketches he was able to prepare a complete model of the Pinafore's deck. With the aid of this model, with varied, coloured blocks to represent principals and chorus, the author, like an experienced general, worked out his plan of campaign in the retirement of his studio, and so came to the theatre ready prepared to marshal his company.
Gilbert was by no means a severe martinet, but he was at all times an extremely strict man of business in all stage matters. His word was law. He never for a moment adopted the methods and language of a bullying taskmaster. Whenever any member of the company, principal or chorister, either through carelessness, inattention, or density of intellect, failed to satisfy him, he vented his displeasure with the keen shaft of satire which, whilst wounding where it fell, invariably had the effect of driving home and impressing the intended lesson. It was, in fact, a gilded pill that our physician administered to his patients, for his bitterest sarcasm was always wrapped in such rich humour as to take the nasty taste away.
As an instance of Gilbert's humorous instinct, let me recall how, during a rehearsal of "Pinafore," when the piece was revived at the Savoy, our author was instructing the crew and the visiting sisters, cousins, and aunts as to their grouping in twos. When they had paired off one sailor was found with two girls. Gilbert, impatient at what he thought was some irregularity, shouted out, " No-no-go back-I said Twos." They went back with the same result, simply because one male chorister was absent from rehearsal. When, accordingly, Gilbert discovered he had been too hasty, he promptly turned the situation into a joke. Addressing the sailor with the two girls he said, "Ah, now I see; it is evident you have just come off a long voyage"; then, turning to our stagemanager, remarked that if the ship's crew remained incomplete the only thing to do was to employ a pressgang.
Most remarkable was Gilbert's faculty for inventing comic business. He would leave nothing to the initiative care of the comedians. Not only was a "gag" disallowed, being looked upon as profanation, but the slightest sign of clowning was promptly nipped in the bud, and the too daring actor was generally made to look foolish under the lash of the author's sarcasm.
At the same time, Gilbert was never above listening to, and sometimes adopting, a suggestion for some useful " bit of business" which any principal ventured to whisper to him.
This "strict service" method was observed, not only at rehearsal, but was religiously adhered to throughout the run of the piece. The stagemanager was always held responsible, and was required to report to headquarters any member of the company violating the Gilbertian "articles of war." Most religiously did Mr. Richard Barker carry out his chief's orders. In evidence of the stagemanager's eagleeyed watchfulness, Miss Julia Gwynne, who had not yet emerged from the chorus, tells a true story. During a performance of the "Pinafore " Barker called her up to him and said: "Gwynne, I saw you laughing!-what have you got to say?" "Really-Mr. Barker," replied Miss Gwynne, "I assure you-you must have been mistaken-I was not laughing-it was only my natural amiable expression that you saw." "Yees, I know that amiable expression!" Then, turning to the callboy, Barker pronounced sentence thus: "Gwynne fined halfcrown, for laughing!"
Such was the undeviating discipline that marked D' Oyly Carte's management throughout, and there can be no question that without it the sterling value of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas could never have been so thoroughly tested and proved as it was.
Whilst on the subject of rehearsals, it must not be supposed that an opera was presented to the public precisely in the state in which it was brought to the theatre from the desks of the author and the composer. Far from it. The main hull of the ship, so to speak, was made ready for the launch, but there yet remained the fitting and rigging to render it seaworthy. Both libretto and music were subjected to scissors and spokeshave until every rough edge had been removed.
When the opera was placed in rehearsal, after Gilbert had read his book to the assembled company, the teaching of the choral music was first taken in hand. This occupied many days, after which came the principal singers in concert with the chorus. The trial of the solo numbers followed later in order. Then, if any song appeared to the composer to miss fire, Sullivan would never hesitate to rewrite it, and in some instances an entirely new lyric was supplied by Gilbert.
The author invariably attended the music rehearsals, in order to make mental notes of the style and rhythm of the songs and concerted numbers to assist him in the invention of the "stagebusiness" to accompany each number.
Like his colleague, Arthur Sullivan was most strict and exacting as regards the rendering of his music. There must be nothing slipshod about it. If an individual departed from the vocal score to the point of a demisemiquaver or chose his own tempo, the chorus was at once pulled up and the defaulter brought to book. It was sometimes ludicrous to see some nervous chorister, whose ear was not sensitive and whose reading ability was limited, called upon to repeat again and again, as a solo, the note or two upon which he had broken down. It was a trying ordeal, but the desired end was always attained. Thereupon the blushing chorister thanked the smiling composer for having taken such pains to perfect his singing.
Long and trying as were those rehearsals, there was seldom a sign of tedium or impatience on the part of any member of the company. They loved their work, and, whenever Sullivan came to the theatre with a fresh batch of music, every one appeared eager to hear it and hungry for more study. As with the chorus, so with the principals. There were occasions when a singer would, with full assurance of his own perfection, give forth some song hardly recognizable by the composer, whereupon Sullivan would humorously commend the singer on his capital tune and then he would add- "and now, my friend, might I trouble you to try mine?"
I remember one instance when a tenor, as tenors are wont to do, lingered unconscionably on a high note. Sullivan interrupted him with the remark- "Yes, that's a fine note-a very fine note-but please do not mistake your voice for my composition."
"How rude!" I fancy I hear some amateur remark. Yes, but Arthur Sullivan's rudeness was more winsome than many a lesser man's courtesy. His reproach was always so gentle that the most conceited, self-opinionated artist could not but accept it with good grace.
In what I have written on the subject of stage rehearsals I may have somewhat anticipated my own personal reminiscences in their proper chronological sequence. But, it may be said, the managerial methods of procedure, the "orders of the day" which governed the early productions at the Opera Comique, continued in force to the end of the history of the Savoy. Accordingly it may not appear premature to have offered in an early chapter some description of Gilbert and Sullivan operarehearsals which, in their main features, were, from first to last, all alike.
It was in July 1878, whilst "H.M.S. Pinafore" was in full sail on its prosperous voyage, that I was appointed, on the nomination of Arthur Sullivan, to succeed Alfred Cellier as Musical Director of the Opera Comique, my brother having, for the time being, vacated the post to join Sullivan in conducting a season of Promenade Concerts at Covent Garden Operahouse, and subsequently to accompany D'Oyly Carte to America.
In the summer of 1879 "H.M.S. Pinafore" found itself in troubled waters. Affairs at the Opera Comique took a very unhappy turn. The Agreement originally entered into between the Comedy Opera Company and Mr. D'Oyly Carte as manager and lessee of the theatre terminated on July 31st, when Carte, having arranged to carry on the concern on his own sole account, secured a renewal of the sublease from the Earl of Dunraven, the lessee of the Opera Comique, his lordship's agent and holder of the Lord Chamberlain's licence being Mr. Richard Barker, who, at the time, held the post of stage manager under D'Oyly Carte. This departure created a serious casus bells on the part of the Directors of the Comedy Opera Company.
Mr. Carte had recently gone to America, and, by consent of the Company, had appointed Mr. Michael Gunn, by a power of attorney, to act as his substitute in the management of the theatre.
In Carte's absence the Directors, on the ground of dissatisfaction with Gunn's management, passed a resolution dismissing him. A notice was also posted in the theatre stating that Mr. D'Oyly Carte was no longer manager, and on July 21st, 1879, a motion was heard in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice to restrain Mr. Michael Gunn from retaining possession of the Opera Comique Theatre and from receiving the moneys of the Company and otherwise interfering with their management of the theatre. The motion failed, and Mr. Gunn continued to act as Mr. Carte's locum tenens. Following this judgment, a few evenings later, on Thursday, July 31st, the date on which the company's tenure of the theatre expired, the 374th representation of "H.M.S. Pinafore" was disturbed by a disgraceful incident. As the performance of the opera was drawing to a close a cry of "Fire!" was raised by some one in the flies, followed by scuffling and tumult. Several of the performers were alarmed, and the feeling of insecurity rapidly spread through the audience, who began hurriedly to leave the theatre.
My brother Alfred, who happened on that night to be deputizing for me in the conductor's chair, turned round to the occupants of the stalls and assured them there was no cause for alarm, and begged them to remain seated. But the uproar behind the scenes was so great that it was impossible to continue the performance; so the band was stopped, and then George Grossmith, with commendable presence of mind, appeared before the curtain and announced that a determined attempt had been made by a large gang of roughs, acting under the inspiration of the Directors, to stop the performance and seize the scenery and properties. Grossmith's remarks, though scarcely audible above the din of riot and disorder, had the effect of restoring confidence in the auditorium. Behind the curtain the battle continued to rage furiously. The gallant crew of "H.M.S. Pinafore," assisted by loyal stage hands, soon proved too much for the enemy, and the invaders were quickly driven off the premises. During the engagement several of the First Lord's sisters and cousins and aunts had fallen in a swoon, but "Little Buttercup," the stoutbuilt Portsmouth bumboat woman, distinguished herself greatly in "repelling boarders." Chief amongst numerous casualties were the foreman fireman, who had been severely bruised and trodden underfoot, and Mr. Richard Barker, who was thrown violently down the steep flight of stone steps before referred to. With the aid of a strong force of police, order was at length completely restored and the programme brought to a peaceful conclusion with the operetta "After All."
As a result of this fracas the Directors of the Comedy Opera Company were summoned to appear at Bow Street Police Court to answer a charge of assaulting Mr. Richard Barker and creating a disturbance at the Opera Comique Theatre. In the end D'Oyly Carte and Barker won the day and their actions at law, and after Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte had issued a manifesto, making known to the public all the facts of the case, the whole lamentable affair was soon forgotten.
Seeing that the Directors of the Comedy Opera Company had put down only £500 each and drew £500 weekly, the vanquished party had not done badly over their deal in Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
And now to turn to more agreeable reminiscences. Under the new regime of Carte's sole management, "H.M.S. Pinafore" continued its successful course. Our worthy chief, accompanied by Gilbert and Sullivan, had gone to the United States with the special object of countermining the plots of American pirates who had been guilty of privateering the "Pinafore" and who would be ready, if no preventive measures were adopted, to steal in the same flagrant manner the next Gilbert and Sullivan opera produced.
Such was the lawless state of affairs existing previous to the passing of the International Copyright Act that, so far as regards stageplays, there was no distinction recognized betwixt meum and tuum. But there was, certainly, a vast distinction between "H.M.S. Pinafore" of England and the American pirate ship sailing under its false title and colours. In order to make this fact quite evident, our author, composer, and manager staged the piece for a week's run in New York on the orthodox lines of the Opera Comique production. After that week the pirates happily found but poor market for their contraband version of the "Pinafore." With the further view of protecting their interests by securing American copyright, the Triumvirate produced in New York the new opera which they had got ready for their next venture in London. This was "The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty." A simultaneous representation of the piece was given in England on December 31st, 1879, at the Bijou Theatre, Paignton, Devon. Thus the copyright in both the United Kingdom and America was secured.
In the meantime, at the Opera Comique, "H.M.S. Pinafore" continued to sail along briskly before the favouring gales of public applause, and in due course logged the 500th performance.
Familiarity, instead of staling, seemed to add to the popularity of the piece. Hackneyed as its tunes became, they ceased not to arrest and delight the public ear.
To Gilbert's play might have been applied the remark of the novice theatregoer who declared he liked "Hamlet" chiefly because it contained so many quotations. For instance, the phrase "What never?--Hardly ever"--became a British proverb more familiar to all sorts and conditions of men and women than the Prince of Denmark's famous "To be, or not to be."
The jingo jingle--
- "In spite of all temptations
- To belong to other nations,
- He remains an Englishman"--
may be declared to have rivalled in popularity, for the time being, the National Anthem.
The success of "H.M.S. Pinafore" having proved an established fact, it entered the mind of Richard Barker that a performance of the opera by a company of children might prove attractive. The title "Pinafore" may, probably, have first inspired this novel idea. Be this as it may, the suggestion met with the hearty approval of Gilbert, Sullivan, and D' Oyly Carte, and with their full sanction Barker made search for available juvenile talent, and eventually succeeded in forming a full company to man the "Pinafore," and selecting 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. By some "grownups," until they came to know him, he was looked upon as a harsh, bullying taskmaster, but in truth he was by nature as by name a Barker--not a biter. The little ones learnt, by the instinct of youth, the true disposition of "Uncle Dick," and under his strict discipline became willing and happy pupils of a tutor whose love of children was one of his chief characteristics.
It was raw and rough material to work upon; at the same time, since none of the juvenile corps could boast of any stage experience, there was nothing for them to unlearn.
As a matter of course, the vocal score had to be reorchestrated throughout to suit the vocal capabilities of the youthful singers. This interesting task was entrusted to my hands, and, as it was necessary that I should be in close and constant touch with Mr. Barker during the rehearsals, Arthur Sullivan very kindly placed his London residence at my disposal whilst he was absent in America.
As may readily be imagined, it was no child's play to transpose the key of every song to fit each individual child's voice; the choruses necessitated entire rearrangement, especially of the string parts, and in the unaccompanied numbers orchestral accompaniment had to be substituted for the support of male voices. Nevertheless, despite all difficulties, the labour involved was far from uncongenial, and, I would add, was more than recompensed by the generous commendation of the composer and the compliments of the critics. The production of the children's "Pinafore" took place at the Opera Comique on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 16th, 1879, and, after running concurrently with the evening performances by the adult company until February 20th, continued to hold the boards until March 20th, when it was withdrawn in order to clear the stage for the final rehearsals and production of the new opera, "The Pirates of Penzance."
Gilbert, Sullivan, and D'Oyly Carte, having returned to England in time to witness the performance, were so delighted with the children that they advised the members of the elder company to go and take lessons from their junior rivals.
Those of my readers who witnessed the children's performance of "H.M.S. Pinafore" will, I am sure, share with me the very delightful memories I cherish of that remarkable exhibition of youthful talent. To others who were not equally privileged it may be interesting to learn what the press and public thought of the performance. To enable them to do so, I cannot do better than quote the words of a leading critic, written after the first production. Thus some knowledge may be gained of the triumph achieved by Richard Barker and his clever little crew.
" Delighted as we were with the extraordinary display of talent we witnessed on the occasion of the rehearsal of the children's 'Pinafore,' at the Opera Comique, our admiration was even increased when we saw the actual performance on Tuesday last. We have no hesitation in describing it as~ the most mar vellous 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. Many wellknown members of the theatrical world who saw them at the rehearsal declared it to be the most remarkable performance they have ever attended, and one and all expressed the utmost astonishment at the marvellous talents of the children. It was not merely that one or two were possessed of unusual gifts; the entire performance was complete, finished, correct, and diverting in the extreme. Anything more whimsically comic than the Dick Deadeye of Master William Phillips could not be easily imagined. But Master Pickering, as the First Lord, was quite as funny in his way, and the Captain of Master Harry Grattan was absolutely first rate. Other parts were equally well filled by the young gentlemen, and the young ladies were in no respect inferior. For example, the little Buttercup of Miss Effie Mason completely took the house by storm. The little lady was admirably made up, and was as excellent in her singing as in her acting. Nothing could be better, either, than the manner in which the difficult text was delivered. Every word was clear and distinct, and, what rendered the representation more amusing than all, was the original conceptions of several of the characters. This gave the performance a freshness and individuality of the rarest kind. The choruses were sung with great precision, and it was delightful to listen to the clear, belllike voices. The greatest praise is due to Mr. R. Barker, under whose superintendence the children's 'Pinafore' was produced. He taught the youthful artistes all their stage business, and has spared no pains in order to make the ensemble as perfect as possible; in teaching the little ones their music, Mr. François Cellier has been singularly successful. Finally, we may again declare that it is impossible to praise too highly the children's 'Pinafore' at the Opera Comique."
The following is the cast of the children's "Pinafore":
CAST OF CHILDREN'S PINAFORE, 1879
- Sir Joseph Porter
- MASTER EDWARD PICKERING
- Captain Corcoran
- MASTER HARRY GRATTAN
- Ralph Rackstraw
- MASTER HARRY EVERSFIELD
- Dick Deadeye
- MASTER WILLIAM PHILLIPS
- Boatswain's mate
- MASTER EDWARD WALSH
- Carpenter s mate
- MASTER CHARLES BECKER
- MISS EMILIE GRATTAN
- MISS LOUISA GILBERT
- MISS ETTIE MASON
With the paying off of the juvenile crew, "H.M.S. Pinafore" was put out of commission and laid up in reserve; but, unlike her prototypes, the old wooden walls of England, the "Pinafore" was not condemned as obsolete. The day would come when the gallant "threedecker" would be recommissioned for another cruise. And now, just five and thirty years after her launch, "H.M.S. Pinafore" is as seaworthy as ever, and bids fair to rival in longevity her parent ship, the old Victory, from which she was modelled.
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