HMS Pinafore, or The Lass Who Loved a Sailor, is a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The libretto was written Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, and the music was composed Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. After Thespis, Trial Jury, and The Sorcerer, HMS Pinafore was their fourth operetta together. On May 25, 1878, it premiered in London at Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Comique. The libretto is based on a number of stories that Gilbert had previously developed in his Bab Ballads.
HMS Pinafore takes place on a ship docked in Portsmouth Harbor. Captain Corcoran is in command of the HMS Pinafore, which is expecting a visit from Admiral Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. Ralph, one of the sailors, informs his colleagues that he has fallen in love with the Captain’s daughter, Josephine, as they prepare. Dick Deadeye, another sailor, points out that they are separated rank. Prior to the arrival of the admiral, the captain arrives for inspection, putting an end to the discussion for the time being.
When the Captain notices Josephine’s sad expression, he informs her that she has won Sir Joseph’s heart. She responds that she has already fallen in love with a sailor, which the Captain regards as impolite. As Sir Joseph’s barge approaches, Josephine promises that the sailor will never know her feelings, and they part ways, she going to her cabin with a photograph of Sir Joseph that her father has given her to see if she can learn to love him.
Sir Joseph and his many sisters, cousins, and aunts board HMS Pinafore. On the premise that “a British sailor is any man’s equal,” he wants to see the sailors treated well, even when they are being given orders. While Sir Joseph and the Captain discuss the marriage, Ralph approaches Josephine and declares his love for her. She keeps her word and rejects him, despite how painful it is for her to do so.
Ralph is heartbroken and presents his case to Sir Joseph’s assembled sailors and relatives, after which he announces his intention to commit suicide. Josephine’s admission that she does, in fact, love him saves him from this fate. Except for Dick Deadeye, everyone on board joins in a plan to get Ralph and Josephine to shore during the night and find a clergyman to marry them.
As Act II begins, the Captain tells Buttercup, the bumboat woman who sells to the sailors, that he can never be more than a friend to her, while admitting to having feelings for her in passing. She, in turn, foreshadows a shift in his fortunes in a cryptic message. Sir Joseph enters to express his dissatisfaction with Josephine’s reception, and the Captain speculates that she may be intimidated Sir Joseph’s rank. He succeeds in confirming her commitment to Ralph without realizing it, as he tries to persuade her that “love levels all ranks.”
The Captain then tells Dick Deadeye about the elopement plan, and the two of them lie in wait for the couple. Sir Joseph overhears the argument and has Ralph dragged away to a dungeon cell for daring to love Josephine, despite his earlier comments about equality. Buttercup walks in and reveals that she was a nursemaid who once had two baboys in her charge and had them mixed up. The Captain and Ralph were the two. This means that Ralph should command HMS Pinafore, and the Captain should be a common sailor, as everyone can see. The switch is activated right away, allowing the Captain and Buttercup (despite their age difference) to marry, as well as Josephine and Ralph. Sir Joseph makes the decision to marry one of his cousins, and everything turns out well.