H.M.S. Pinafore: Plot Summary and Analysis
The H.M.S. Pinafore, also known as The Lass That Loved a Sailor, is a comic opera which was first presented at London’s Opera Comique on May 25th, 1878. It should be relevant to discuss how successful this play was during its original running, having exactly 571 performances before fading off the stage – making it the second-longest running of a musical theatre piece at the time. The fourth collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore was their first international sensation and eventually becoming one of the most intriguing plays of the era.
The story takes place aboard a ship known as Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore, signified by British nomenclature as H.M.S. Pinafore. The Pinafore, a warship, is anchored off Portsmouth as the sailors do their daily duties around the quarterdeck. While they sing in fashion, a dockside vendor – then known as a “bumboat woman” – by the name of Little Buttercup enters the stage to sell her wares to the crew.
She is briefly described as the “rosiest, roundest, and reddest beauty in all of Spithead”. With quick succession comes Ralph Rackstraw, the so-called smartest lad among the fleet, who begins declaring his love for the Captain’s daughter, a fine girl by the name of Josephine.
His dreams are temporarily destroyed by Dick Deadeye, the grim realist of the Pinafore’s crew, who remains the only sailor to give no sympathy for the protagonist sailor’s love. While the other members of the crew smile and give their best wishes for his heart, they attempt to let it be known that his love couldn’t possibly be returned. Within a few moments of the first scene, at least two songs and the theme of a class caste-system is apparently obvious.
Introduce another character, Captain Corcoran, who enters stage to greet his crew. We’re introduced to Corcoran as a handsome, gentlemanly official who is incredibly popular with the men aboard the Pinafore. He never (hardly ever) uses foul language, being a typical higher level of social status who appreciates politeness and respect over sailor’s mouths. After greeting the sailors through his own tune, the sailors leave to finish their duties elsewhere. Corcoran then makes his way over to Little Buttercup, whom to he confesses that his daughter – the aforementioned Josephine – is being “rebellious” in a way by becoming reluctant to consider a marriage proposal from the First Lord of the Admiralty, a man by the name of Sir Joseph Porter.
Another theme is given to us, loving in vain. As the vendor leaves, the Captain is greeted by his daughter, Josephine. To his dismay and shock, she admits that she loves a “humble sailor” that just so happens to be among his own crew. However, as an elitist member of society would, she promises to never reveal her love to the sailor – who goes unnamed in her speech but is a bit of a conditional bit of foreseeable irony for the audience.
Introduce Sir Joseph Porter, the…interesting at best elitist that serves as a somewhat antagonistic force in the soon-to-be relationship between Josephine and Ralph. He is accompanied by a crowd of his female relatives, labelled as his “sisters, cousins, and aunts”, introducing a bit of flare to the character as he is introduced via song. He reveals, through two different songs of course, that he is the “ruler of the Queen’s Navee” despite having absolutely no qualifications. One of the songs, “When I Was a Lad”, is perhaps one of the most interesting moments in the song, which informs the audience that Sir Joseph Porter basically did nothing and still got somewhere in life, highlighting significant class differences during the era.
This song resonates, honestly. It sets the stage for the conflict between a working class of sailors and laborers and a man of some caliber – whether it be through luck or through name – who worked his way to the top by doing menial and unrelated tasks rather smoothly. As he states, he was a member of Parliament at one point in his career – never voting for what he actually believed in and becoming a bit of an empty shell for established party politics.
“When I Was a Lad” ends with him encouraging people to do just that, if you read between the lines. Stick close to desks, never do what your job desires you to understand, do as society perhaps wishes, and find yourself making great success. Basically, sell off your morals and ideas for a life of progression in a social scale. He uses his “golden rule” for his own profession, in a method to express how anyone can make it to the top if they do as he does. Climbing the social ladder by somehow having the luck or name that he did.
After finishing his musical number, Sir Joseph Porter slightly humiliates the popular Captain Corcoran through a lesson on etiquette concerning the term “if you please”. The royal admiralty claims that “A British sailor is any man’s equal”, although he vaguely admits his own status is much higher than any “British sailor”. Thus, a lesson in “equality” is given by the man of social clout. Ralph, thrilled with hearing the elevated man’s views on social equality, decides to declare his love for Josephine.
His other shipmates are excited, but Dick Deadeye – the horrid realist of the group – declares that “people have to obey people’s orders, [thus making it so] equality’s out of the question.” Deadeye seems to have a terrible viewing on society, using his own lowlife position as an example of why Sir Joseph Porter’s reasoned “equality” isn’t true at all. Another song goes by and suddenly everyone exits, leaving Ralph alone. To continue the plot, Josephine enters and Ralph declares his love. Josephine is touched, but says it is “her duty” to marry Sir Joseph Porter rather than “a common sailor”. It is seen through her tone that this pains Josephine, but she rejects Ralph’s love before leaving set.
Ralph, in agonizing emotional torment, summons his shipmates to tell them that he is suicidal. Everyone except Dick Deadeye, of course, gives their sympathy. Ralph pulls out a pistol, plastering it to his temple, and just as he’s about to pull the trigger – Josephine arrives once again. She admits that she loves him after all, and the two plan to sneak ashore to elope the very same night. And then…Dick Deadeye steps in again. He warns them to, quote, “forbear, nor carry out the scheme”. He is left in the dust as he crew ignores him.
End of Act One.
The scene makes its way to Captain Corcoran, reviewing his pivotal concerns under a full moon aboard the ship. He compares his kindly crew to rebels, that his “daughter to a tar is partial”, that his friends have all deserted him, and that Sir Joseph Porter has threatened a court-martial upon him. He finds company with Little Buttercup, who offers significant sympathy.
This is where the topic of social classes come back into frame: Captain Corcoran says that if they were in the same social standing, he would return her affection. She prophesies, in a rather ominous way, that things “are not what they seem” and that a “change” is in store. He doesn’t understand, and she Little Buttercup exits.
Sir Joseph Porter returns, complaining that Josephine has not yet agreed to marry him. Captain Corcoran, seemingly desperate to get his boss off his back, claims that his daughter is just “dazzled by [his] exalted rank”. He goes on to tell Sir Joseph that if he could persuade her that “love levels all ranks”, she will graciously accept. Kind of…concerning…considering how he denied the loving affection of Little Buttercup.
The comedic effect occurs, rather briefly, when Josephine enters. She speaks to the audience, feeling guilty about her planned elopement with the lowly sailor and rather fearful when it comes to mind that she would be giving up a life of luxury. She bumps into Sir Joseph Porter, who, taking Captain Corcoran’s advice, tells her that “love levels all ranks”.
Josephine, delighted, proclaims that she will hesitate no longer. The Captain and The Admiral become incredibly happy, but Josephine is more determined than ever to marry Ralph Rackstraw. Sir Joseph Porter begins to leave with his relatives.
Cue the realist, the antagonistic crew member that has been irritating everyone since the very beginning, Dick Deadeye. He runs in, telling the Captain of Ralph and Josephine’s plans. The Captain is furious, and he screams that “Why damn, it’s too bad [if you love him]!” A flashback to how the Captain “never uses bad language”. Sir Joseph Porter overhears him, shocked to hear him swearing on board the royal battleship, and orders him to lock himself within his cabin.
Sir Joseph asks what had provoked such an outrage, to which Ralph responds that it was his declaration of love for Josephine. Now it’s Sir Joseph’s turn for an outrage, and he orders than Ralph be “loaded with chains and taken to the ship’s dungeon”.
Thus enters Little Buttercup, the hidden savior of this entire story! She reveals that she cared for two babies many years prior, one “of low condition” and the other a “regular patrician”. She confesses that while the two babies were in her possession, she “mixed [them] up…” and that “The wellborn was Ralph; [the] Captain was the other.”
In a strange change in events, he realizes that Ralph should have been the Captain of the H.M.S. Pinafore and Captain Corcoran should have been in Ralph’s position as a lowlife, common sailor. He summons both – with each wearing the other’s uniform. Sir Joseph, despite his social idea of “love crossing social standings”, declares that his marriage with Josephine is one hundred percent out of the question. He revises his original statement, claiming “love levels all ranks…to a considerable extent; but it does not level them as much as that.”
He hands her to Captain Rackstraw, the new Captain of the H.M.S. Pinafore. The former Captain’s newest humble rank leaves him free to marry the fair. Sir Joseph settles to marry his cousin Hebe. And Ralph Rackstraw gets to marry the love of his life, Josephine.
End of Act Two, with everyone rejoicing.
All in all, the themes of class inequality and incompetent authority remain relevant are present throughout the entire comic opera. It’s an interesting story with incredible meaning to it.