What is HMS Pinafore?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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HMS Pinafore, or The Lass That Loved a Sailor is an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. Sir William Schwenck Gilbert wrote the libretto, and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan composed the music. HMS Pinafore was their fourth operetta together, following after Thespis, Trial by Jury, and The Sorcerer. It premiered in London at the Opera Comique, Richard D’Oyly Carte’s theatre, on 25 May 1878. The libretto is based on several different stories that Gilbert had developed earlier in his Bab Ballads.

HMS Pinafore is set on a ship that is anchored at Portsmouth Harbor. The ship, HMS Pinafore, is under the command of Captain Corcoran, who is expecting a visit from the admiral, Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. As they prepare, Ralph, one of the sailors, tells his colleagues that he has fallen in love with the Captain’s daughter, Josephine. Another sailor, Dick Deadeye, points out that they are separated by rank. The Captain arrives for inspection prior to the admiral’s arrival, ending discussion for the time being.


The Captain, finding Josephine looking mournful, mentions that she has won the heart of Sir Joseph. She replies that she has already fallen in love with a sailor, which offends the Captain’s sense of propriety. Josephine promises that the sailor will never know of her feelings, and they part as Sir Joseph’s barge arrives, she to go to her cabin with a photograph of Sir Joseph that her father gives her to see if she can learn to love him.

Sir Joseph boards HMS Pinafore accompanied by his many sisters, cousins, and aunts. He wishes to see the sailors well treated, even when being given orders, on the premise that “a British sailor is any man’s equal.” While Sir Joseph and the Captain go off to discuss the marriage, Ralph comes upon Josephine and tells her of his love. True to her word, she rejects him, although it pains her deeply to do so.

Ralph is heartbroken and takes his case to the assembled sailors and relatives of Sir Joseph, and then announces his intention to kill himself. But he is saved from this fate by Josephine’s admission that she does, in fact, love him. All present, except Dick Deadeye, join in a scheme for Ralph and Josephine to escape to shore during the night and find a clergyman to marry them.

As Act II opens, the Captain says to Buttercup, the bumboat woman who sells to the sailors, that he can never be more than a friend to her, while admitting in an aside that he has feelings for her. She, in turn, warns him cryptically of a change in his fortunes. Sir Joseph enters to complain of Josephine’s reception, and the Captain suggests that she may be overwhelmed by Sir Joseph’s rank. Determined to convince her that “love levels all ranks,” he succeeds, without knowing it, in confirming her commitment to Ralph.

Dick Deadeye then comes to the Captain to reveal the elopement plan, and together they lie in wait and catch the couple. Sir Joseph hears the confrontation and, in defiance of his early comments about equality, has Ralph dragged off to a dungeon cell for daring to love Josephine. Buttercup enters and reveals that she was a nursemaid who once had charge of two baby boys and mixed them up. The two were the Captain and Ralph. As everyone can clearly see, this means that Ralph should have charge of HMS Pinafore, and the Captain should be a common sailor. The switch is immediately effected, allowing a union between the Captain and Buttercup (despite the age difference), as well as Josephine and Ralph. Sir Joseph determines to marry one of his cousins, and everyone ends happily.


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