Gilbert & Sullivan: Masters of Satire

In their nearly 30 years of collaboration, the creators of HMS Pinafore and other iconic works such as The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance took every opportunity to poke fun at British society. Librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) saw art as a way to entertain the masses while also engaging them in political critique. Some of their most memorable characters and plots could easily be connected to real things happening in Britain, and their commentary on these events was often scathing or at least sarcastic.

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W.S. Gilbert

William Schwenck Gilbert, born in London in 1836, was the son of a retired naval surgeon. After finishing his military training as a young man, Gilbert worked in a government bureau job until he received a nice inheritance from an aunt. He decided to study law but didn’t have much success with it, quitting his law practice after just a few years.

Gilbert was known for his biting humour and sarcasm, which made his contributions to a British magazine named FUN quite popular. He also made cartoons to appear alongside his writing, which were often signed “Bab”. Many of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are based on these “Bab” characters.

Gilbert was knighted by Edward VII in 1907 and died in 1911, at age 74, while attempting to save a drowning woman.

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Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London, in 1842 to a very musical family. His father was a bandmaster at the Royal Military College and before age 10 Sullivan had mastered all of the wind instruments in his father's band. He won competitions, earned scholarships, and even went to Germany to present his thesis in front of Franz Liszt.

For the next ten years Sullivan was a professor of music, a teacher, and an organist. As one of the leading composers of the day, Sullivan had many influential friends in every circle of society including many monarchs in Europe. He composed several major choral works including The Light of the World, The Martyr of Antioch, The Golden Legend, and his lone grand opera, Ivanhoe.

From 1872 until his death in 1900, Sullivan suffered from extremely painful kidney stones and it is said that his most beautiful music was composed while he endured great pain. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883.

Satire in HMS Pinafore

Gilbert & Sullivan took aim at the Royal Navy in this delightful operetta, pointing out British society’s silly obsession with class. The characters most obviously barred by their different ranks are lovers Ralph Rackstraw, a lowly sailor, and Josephine, the Captain’s daughter. They spend most of the operetta pondering ways to be together, seeing as Josephine’s hand had already been promised to the old Sir Joseph, a high-ranking officer in the Navy.

Sir Joseph is a hilarious caricature, based on a real British politician of the time, who gloats about how he came to achieve such a high rank without having any talent whatsoever. He sings about all the schmoozing that got him where he is and emphasizes the greatness of bureaucracy. He also scolds the Captain of the Pinafore and tells him to treat his crew as equals. In that moment, Sir Joseph completely disavows the class system, which earns him some favour with the audience.

But his love of equality doesn’t last long. When Josephine and Ralph are caught trying to elope, Sir Joseph is livid and has Ralph imprisoned on board.

The biggest joke about class comes in at the very end, when the librettist creates a completely unexpected reversal of fortunes just for the sake of a happy ending. As the Pinafore descends into chaos, with Ralph imprisoned, Sir Joseph throwing an angry fit, the Captain trying to win back his favour, and Josephine defiantly declaring her love for Ralph, it looks as if the audience should expect a sad ending. That is, until Little Buttercup enters the scene and tells everyone she has a confession to make.

Buttercup confesses that many years ago there were two baby boys in her care — one of high birth and the other of low birth. She switched the two before handing them to their parents, which means both boys grew up in a class they didn’t originally belong to. She then reveals the identities of these two boys: Ralph Rackstraw and The Captain!

On account of his newly discovered rank, Ralph is released from prison and becomes the new captain of the Pinafore, in accordance with his high birth. Since class is no longer a barrier, Ralph is free to marry Josephine, who has lost her previous rank. As well, the Captain, who is now a mere sailor, can finally admit his true feelings for Little Buttercup and marry her without any hesitation.

The whole crew celebrates this reversal of fortunes and everyone shouts their love of Britain in a delirious display of patriotism. Gilbert & Sullivan write this over-the-top finale to be tongue-in-cheek about national identity. Just a few minutes ago class differences were unraveling and conflict was heated, but now that love is aligned with the proper social ranks, we can once again sing about how truly great it is to be an Englishman!