Although the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan rarely receive the intense scholarly attention garnered by Shakespeare, their canon does have some commonality with that of the Bard, in their lasting appeal and longevity on the stage. This is not to say that Gilbert’s libretti bear any strong resemblance to Shakespeare’s plays, but more generally, “the richness of Shakespeare is what makes his works endure, and the same is true of Gilbert and Sullivan” (Gayden Wren, A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], 5).
While no one is likely to confuse Gilbert’s writings with Shakespeare’s, more than one critic has noted a literary kinship between Gilbert and the great Athenian dramatist Aristophanes. Edith Hamilton draws this very comparison: “The two men fooled in the same way; they looked at life with the same eyes. In Gilbert’s pages Victorian England lives in miniature just as Athens in Aristophanes’. . . . But the freedom Aristophanes enjoyed was not [Gilbert’s], and his deft, clear-cut pictures of dishonesty and sham and ignorance in high places are very discreet and always nameless. . . . They saw beneath the surface of the passing show. They wrote of the purely ephemeral, and in their hands it became a picture not of the ‘Follies and Foibles’ of a day and nation, but of those that exist in all nations and all ages and belong to the permanent stuff of human nature” (“W.S. Gilbert: A Mid-Victorian Aristophanes,” in W.S. Gilbert: A Century of Scholarship and Commentary, ed. John Bush Jones [New York: New York University Press, 1970], 114-15).
Like Aristophanes, Gilbert takes aim at the great institutions of his society. In H.M.S. Pinafore, this institution is, as the title suggests, the British navy. The title itself is an important aspect of the comedy, pairing this ultra-masculine establishment with an ultra-feminine bit of children’s apparel. Building upon this incongruity is Captain Corcoran’s “exceedingly polite” attitude toward his crew. In his first song, he boasts, “Bad language or abuse, / I never, never use, / Whatever the emergency; / Though ‘Bother it’ I may / Occasionally say, / I never use a big, big D—” (W.S. Gilbert, Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, ed. Isaac Asimov [New York: Doubleday, 1988] 155).
While Gilbert’s particular target is the navy, he also takes a few potshots at the British class system and inept, social-climbing bureaucratic hacks. Though Edith Hamilton describes Gilbert as “very discreet” in his ridicule (115), none of his contemporaries had the least difficulty in identifying the real-life counterpart of Sir Joseph Potter.
Isaac Asimov notes that “The actual First Lord of the Admiralty at this time was William Henry Smith (1825-91)” and that in general quality, if not in particular detail, Smith’s qualifications for and rise to this lofty position were suspiciously similar to the fictional Sir Joseph’s (Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, 163). “Like Sir Joseph Porter, he had no experience with ships at all. There is no doubt that Gilbert was taking direct aim at Smith and, in view of the astonishing popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore, it is perfectly understandable that poor Smith became known as ‘Pinafore Smith’ and that the name stuck to him for the rest of his life” (Asimov, 163).
In order to drive home his message about the failings of the British class system, Gilbert uses the vehicle of Victorian melodrama. Gayden Wren describes the conventions of this popular genre: “Long-held secrets, concealed identities, and switched babies were, of course, standard in Victorian melodrama. The discovery of long-lost noblemen hidden among the peasantry was also a staple, serving the Victorians’ desire to allow change yet keep things as they were: They could cheer a noblewoman’s right to marry a peasant, but it was much neater and less disruptive of social norms if, after ringing declarations of equality, it turned out that the peasant was himself a nobleman all along” (65).
Gilbert is faithful to these plot elements, but he carefully and subtly weaves in new threads. Ordinarily the Victorian melodrama reinforces the mores of that society, bolsters the idea that there is more to being an aristocrat or a peasant than an accident of birth. “The Victorian creed believed 100 percent in nature, 0 percent in nurture” (Wren, 65).
A cursory examination of H.M.S. Pinafore might suggest that Gilbert endorses this belief—after all, Ralph and the Captain naturally gravitate to their “proper” social spheres. However, a closer look reveals that Gilbert is, in fact, poking fun at these attitudes. His characters stubbornly refuse to look beyond the most superficial qualities of the individuals around them. Theytake one another at face value, defining each other almost entirely by appearance and position in society.
This is most painfully apparent in the character of Ralph, who is superior to his fellows in both intellect and ability. When, in Act 1, he waxes eloquent with Josephine (“Driven hither by objective influences—thither by subjective emotions—wafted one moment into blazing day, by mocking hope—plunged the next into the Cimmerian darkness of tangible despair”), Josephine dismisses his language as “simple” (170). Like the other characters, she recognizes none of his excellent qualities, but sees him only as an “audacious tar,” and a “common sailor.” Only Sir Joseph—hardly a reliable source—acknowledges Ralph as a “splendid seaman” and “a remarkably fine fellow” (165).
This blindness to true character also extends to the characters of Dick Deadeye and Sir Joseph Porter. The misshapen Deadeye, alone among his shipmates, is firmly anchored in mid-Victorian common sense, but, as he mournfully explains, “From such a face and form as mine the noblest sentiments sound like the black utterances of a depraved imagination” (150). Sir Joseph, on the other hand, is lauded as a fount of wisdom, despite a serious dearth of qualification and intelligence.
Gilbert further satirizes Victorian attitudes about social rank in his treatment of the “switched-baby” plot element. Much of H.M.S. Pinafore’s absurd humor is derived from the characters’ obstinate adherence to the traditional social order, and from their unquestioning—even simple-minded—acceptance of Buttercup’s “switched-baby” story and the instantly switched status of Ralph and Captain Corcoran.
Not content with dismissing the merits of noble birth and political ascent as qualifiers for high social rank, Gilbert seems to suggest an alternative. As Gayden Wren explains, “The option Gilbert prefers and implicitly endorses in H.M.S. Pinafore is predictably that which applies to both himself and Sullivan: status-by-talent. . . . What makes H.M.S. Pinafore a comedy rather than a dark satire is that the perverse machinations of politics and status-by-birth unpredictably bring the right person to the top. The ship is safe with Rackstraw at the helm, because he’s clearly the best qualified for the position” (70).
Just as the Pinafore is safe in the hands of Rackstraw, theatre-goers are always secure in the hands of Gilbert and Sullivan. While H.M.S. Pinafore—Gilbert and Sullivan’s first real “hit”—may not be quite as sophisticated or polished as their subsequent operettas, it is nevertheless both complex and appealing. Sullivan’s music, effervescent and comical, never fails to delight, and Gilbert’s libretto, full of absurdity and satire, simultaneously comforts and tickles.