The Satire of W. S. Gilbert

Frances Yue

The Satire of W. S. Gilbert

In nineteenth century Great Britain, theater was a very important form of entertainment. Undoubtedly, one of the most popular playwrights of the late eighteenth century was Sir William S. Gilbert who collaborated with Arthur Sullivan to create operas, which are still performed today.

H. M. S. Pinafore or The Lass that Loved a Sailor

Ralph Rackstraw is an able seaman who is in love with the daughter of the captain of his ship, Josephine. The captain, however, does not approve of the match and wants his daughter to marry an admiral, Sir Joseph. Josephine loves Ralph, and the two plan to elope. She rejects Sir Joseph. The captain tells the admiral that his "exalted rank dazzles her," which prompts him to sing that "love can level ranks." When the captain learns of Ralph and Josephine's plan, he throws Ralph into prison. At this time, Buttercup, a woman who sells tobacco and candy to the sailors reveals that she had been a nurse to two babies many years before. One was wealthy, the other poor. She secretly switch the babies who were none other than Ralph and the captain. Ralph was actually the captain of the ship, and the captain was really a sailor. Thus, Ralph and Josephine can marry, for the admiral refuses to marry her, because though love levels all ranks, "it does not level them as much as that." The former captain marries Buttercup, and all is well.

Dark and Grey describe this opera as "a satire of the popular nautical shiver-my-timbers drama, of the type of the Black-Eyed Susan." The opera was enormously successful, and some of this success may have been due to the fact that Prime Minister Disraeli had just appointed W. H. Smith, who had no naval experience to head the navy. The character of Sir Joseph Porter was supposed to parallel Smith. The opera also pokes fun at snobbery of the upper class.

The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty

Frederic is a boy who was apprenticed to pirates by accident because his nurse, Ruth, misheard his father. The father had wanted him to be apprenticed to a pilot, but she thought he said pirate. She joined the pirate band as a maid to help bring him up. The story begins at the end of Frederic term of apprenticeship, when he is twenty-one. He has been planning to marry Ruth, because she is the only woman he has ever seen, and she told him she was beautiful. Then he sees a group of young girls who are the adopted daughters of a Major-General. He wants to marry one of them, but most refuse him. One of them, Mabel, falls in love with him. Since he is no longer bound to be a pirate, Frederic plans to become a policeman who catches pirates and to betray his old band. Meanwhile, the pirates have discovered that since Frederic was born on the twenty-ninth of February, his apprenticeship is not over and, indeed, will not be over until 1940. There is a battle between the pirates and the police, and the pirates almost win, but then the Sergeant of the police tells them "to yield, in Queen Victoria's name!" The pirates do, because, as the king explains, "because with all our faults we love our queen." In the end the pirates are forgiven, because, as Ruth reveals, they are not commoners, rather they were noblemen who went wrong. The General says that "with all our faults, we love our House of Peers." So the pirates marry the adopted daughters of the Major-General, and all is well.

Like H. M. S. Pinafore, this opera makes fun of the upper class. Through the character of the Major-General, Dark and Grey suggest that Gilbert satirizes the pretentiousness of the nouveaux riches. It was one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular operas.