The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger
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The Pirates of H.M.S. Pinafore

The mystery man in the Crocodile Mystery image is the Englishman W.S. (William Schwenck) Gilbert, the librettist and playwright, in costume as King Claudius. Gilbert, along with composer Arthur Seymour Sullivan, created during the 19th century some of the most beloved and enduring works of comic opera, such as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and Ruddigore. In this scene, illustrated by Ralph Cleaver for an issue of The illustrated sporting & dramatic news for town and country (July 30, 1904), Gilbert performs as the star of his Hamlet travesty called Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.1



Special matinee by amateurs at [the] Garrick Theatre July 19–, in aid [of] Bushey Heath Hospital, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by W.S. Gilbert,” 1904. Folger call number: ART Box C623 no.2 (size L).



“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Garrick Theatre, July 30, 1904, special matinee by amateurs in aid of Bushey Heath Hospital,” 1904. Folger call number: ART Box C623 no.3 (size S).

In the play, Claudius (Gilbert) has a terrible secret—he once wrote a 5-act tragedy so bad that it caused everyone in Elsinore to laugh at it, leading him to ban its performance. Ophelia and her true love, Rosencrantz, plot to induce the ever-soliloquizing Hamlet into starring in Claudius’s terrible play so that the King will become so enraged as to murder the melancholy Dane. The piece originally appeared in print in Fun magazine in 1874 but was not performed until 1891, after a couple of failed attempts to stage it. The performance recorded in these images was in aid of the Bushey Heath Hospital, of which W.S. Gilbert was the honorary Secretary.

Early in his career, W.S. Gilbert most frequently contributed humor pieces to magazines, many of which later inspired the librettos for the fourteen Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations. One piece from 1882 stands out for its serious tone in arguing that his fellow citizens do not appreciate Shakespeare enough because they do not read him:2

But of those who go to a theatre at which a Shakespearian play is presented, how many are aware that the play is not Shakespeare’s, but a trimmed and docked and interpolated and mutilated and generally desecrated version of his play? How many are aware that the tragedy of Hamlet, as Shakespeare wrote it, contains about four thousand five hundred lines, of which only about two thousand two hundred are usually delivered on the stage? I shall be told that that is quite enough, and perhaps it is, but how is this sentiment to be reconciled with the enthusiastic veneration in which all people profess to hold the works of Shakespeare?

As someone whose words in performance shaped his career and legacy, Gilbert sympathizes with Shakespeare as author. We’ll soon see that Gilbert and Sullivan had a practical interest in the argument that creative works should be presented the way the creators intended.

Gilbert and Sullivan and Folger

Gilbert’s published interest in Shakespeare led to the inclusion of the above materials in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. But Henry Folger’s interest in Gilbert and Sullivan pre-dated his well-known interest in Shakespeareana and theater history. In June 1879, Henry Clay Folger performed as Dick Deadeye in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore—the first full-length Amherst College theater production.3 The Amherst College Glee Club performed the operetta in collaboration with various local singers from Springfield, Massachusetts in aid of the Amherst Public Library.

Advertisements for the Amherst College production of H.M.S. Pinafore. (Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection MA.00146 Box 56 folder 12. Courtesy of Amherst College Special Collections and Archives.)

Henry Folger was a great success in the role of the detested Dick Deadeye and was particularly praised for the way his bass-baritone voice carried—surprising many audience members due to his 5’4” stature.4 Emily Folger also enjoyed a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore before meeting her husband, keeping the program from a Princeton performance in her scrapbook. We also know that Emily nicknamed Henry “Dick,” in reference to his Pinafore role.5

Top: Cast photograph from 1879 production of H.M.S. Pinafore. Do you think the performer in the red square could be Henry Folger? I certainly hope so, but it’s too hard to say for certain.
Bottom: Back of cast photograph, listing “Dick Deadeye-H.C. Folger ’79.”
(Both images from Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection MA.00146 Box 56 folder 12. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.)

When I first began researching Gilbert and Sullivan materials in the Folger collection, it seemed unremarkable to me that a 19th century Glee Club would perform H.M.S. Pinafore. I have attended a couple of college productions myself, so it seemed to me to be standard fare. The more I researched, however, I quickly realized that Henry Folger and the “Amherst Library Company” performed during the heyday of one of the biggest cultural juggernauts in United States history.

The Fleet of Pinafores

The first U.S. production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore was 25 November 1878 at the Boston Museum, six months to the day after its London premiere. The only problem? H.M.S. Pinafore had been taken over by bands of pirates!6 Gilbert and Sullivan had not filed for a separate U.S. Copyright for their work, so when the score made its way to the States in late 1878, publishers reprinted it with wild abandon. Any acting company from the most highly regarded to the most amateur could stage the show without permission and without royalties to the creators. By the time Henry Folger and the Amherst College Glee Club mounted their production in June 1879, over 150 individual Pinafore companies had blanketed the United States.

It is hard to find a modern analogue to how popular H.M.S. Pinafore became in the U.S. in such a short amount of time.7 Newspaper reports from across the country and Great Britain give some insight. Many critics called it Pinafore-mania and others likened its spread to a contagion: “H.M.S. Pinafore fever…when will [it] be quarantined?”8 (Too soon!?) Others hit hard the nautical theme, calling the operetta’s spread a “flotilla” or “fleet.”9 Juvenile productions grew in popularity, productions took place on ships on water (including one that sank!),10 and three different Pinafores were staged in Boston in one night (at the Globe, Gaiety, and Boston Museum) where “good audiences being present at each of these establishments, not a few attempted to ‘do’ all three of these shows during the evening.”11

To me, the jokes about the plethora of Pinafores show just how pervasive the operetta had become. From The Evening Journal, 8 April 1879:

“The ruins of a Roman theatre, once capable of seating 10,000 persons, have been discovered at Trigueres, near Montargis, in France, and seventeen different Pinafore companies have begun negotiations to secure the place at once.”12

From The Labour League Examiner comes from my favorite “report” of Pinafore-mania, which is worth reproducing in full:

“As a sign of the remarkable popularity enjoyed by the English comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore at New York, writes a correspondent, the catchwords from its dialogue are occasionally introduced in the most unexpected of places. The other day, in a New York police court, the magistrate, on the point of sentencing a prisoner, asked him whether he had ever been convicted before, and received for reply an emphatic “Never!” “What, never?” questioned the magistrate, on which there was such a general titter in court that he felt it necessary to add “If anyone says, ‘hardly ever’ I shall commit him for contempt.”13

Despite its popularity in the United States, Gilbert and Sullivan did not “sail the ocean blue” to claim copyright until they premiered the official D’Oyly Carte production in New York City on 1 December 1879—six months after Henry Folger and the Amherst Glee club did! By this point, H.M.S. Pinafore had so saturated the U.S. market that it forced the sumptuous D’Oyly Carte production to close at the end of December, even though Gilbert performed in the chorus and Sullivan conducted the show himself.14

Gilbert and Sullivan did not want to lose out on their opportunity to capitalize on their productions in the United States again, so they staged The Pirates of Penzance on 31 December 1879 in both America and Britain before they left for home. As Gilbert later announced, “never again would he let a libretto of his be produced anywhere if the Americans were to be allowed to steal it. ‘It’s not that I need the money so much,’ he explained, ‘but it upsets my digestion’.”15

I shall trust you, of course, to guard the music

W.S. Gilbert was not the only member of the duo to feel burned by Pinafore piracy. In a series of letters from Arthur S. Sullivan to New York City theater manager Augustin Daly in 1891, now held at the Folger, it is evident that Sullivan had learned his lesson from the piracy of 1879.16 In these letters, Sullivan works to negotiate his involvement in composition and performance of incidental music for Daly’s production of The Foresters, or Robin Hood and Maid Marian by Alfred Lord Tennyson, starring Ada Rehan and John Drew Jr.



Ada Rehan in “The Foresters” painted by C.R. Grant; engraved in mezzotint by G.W.H. Ritchie. Folger call number: ART File R345 no.57 PHOTO (size S)

Throughout the correspondence, Sullivan raises the issue of his rights as a creator four times out of these eight letters regarding The Foresters, which signals he was more than a little cautious after the Pinafore debacle. Initially, Sullivan merely mentions that he and Daly will need to hammer out the details of copyright and payment for both English and American performances (emphasis mine): “[I]…will ask you only the same terms as I have received before for similar work. Viz. Five guineas a/full performance in England and a separate arrangement for America. There are of course certain conditions with regard to run, copyright &c. which can be settled afterwards” (27 Oct. 1891, Folger MS Y.c.5047 (3)).

Two days later, Sullivan writes again to ensure that the manuscript score stays protected from piracy while in Daly’s possession, “I shall trust to you of course to guard the music (whilst it remains in manuscript) from all dishonest efforts to attain & perform it” (29 Oct. 1891, Folger MS Y.c.5047 (4)).

Official U.S. Copyright protections for his work were at top of mind for Sullivan because the International Copyright Act of 1891 had just taken effect on July 1, shortly before Daly and Sullivan began their correspondence about The Foresters. For the first time, creators who were not United States residents could register printed works for copyright (although the works had to be printed using American type in the United States). Before the new law, foreign creators would work with U.S. partners to secure copyright for their works, which suggests that Sullivan collaborated closely with Daly to cover his bases. In this postscript, Sullivan specifically describes his understanding of the new order of business (again, emphasis mine): “What do you intend to call the play? As I must know soon in order to Register the Copyright of the music in the United States Library. I have suggested ‘Maid Marian’ to Lord Tennyson, as it is obviously the best name in every respect, but I have not yet heard from him definitively” (17 Dec. 1891, Folger MS Y.c.5047 (6)).

After the premiere of The Foresters on 17 March 1892, Sullivan writes to Daly from his sick bed in southern France, suffering from terminal renal disease. After celebrating the success of the play and particularly good reviews of his music, Sullivan closes his letter by discussing the business of intellectual property ownership. In this passage, Sullivan both reiterates the importance of obtaining U.S. Copyright for himself in the present, but as his health fails, he also reveals his anxiety to secure the rights for the future (emphasis mine):

About the business part…I shall be quite content with our verbal agreement and the letter you wrote to me confirming the arrangement. But we have to think of executors, trustees &c, when it may pass out of our hands. I propose therefore to send you an agreement, in the form that I have always made with managers in similar cases, embodying our arrangement in a few clear sentences. If there is anything you would wish altered, mark it & send it back to me. If not, then sign it & return it to me & I will send back to you a copy signed by myself. Another reason for having a proper agreement is that you cannot without a legal assignment take any steps to defend your rights in America, should they be infringed. (27 March 1892, Folger MS Y.c.5047 (7)).

Their success in the United States was not all positive for Gilbert and Sullivan, but the intricacies of guarding their intellectual property did not keep them from the U.S. market, or the U.S. from loving them. I wonder what the duo would think of their works enduring so long in the United States, continuing in the forms of Gilbert and Sullivan societies, amateur performances, and copious cultural references.

O joy, O rapture unforeseen!

I’ve got a little list17 for you of some of the cultural adaptations that showcase the rich afterlife of H.M.S. Pinafore in the U.S.A.—enjoy!

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performing his famous stair dance as Pilot Meriwether in Memphis Bound! In Redbook (New York), vol. 85, iss. 4 (August 1945), p. 12.)
  • Memphis Bound! (1945, souvenir program), original cast production starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Avon Long. Starring one of the most talented tap dancers of all time, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, this play within a play takes place on a show boat that features a production of H.M.S. Pinafore with an all-Black cast.
  • H.M.S. Pinafore in Jazz” (1955) starring Perry Como, Kitty Kallen, Pat Carroll, Bill Hayes, Buddy Hackett, Danny Scholl, and Jack Russell. What can I say about this jazzy Pinafore? Watch it and be dazzled by the talent on display, while also scratching your head in confusion as to why anyone would do this.
  • Allan Sherman, “When I Was a Lad” on My Son, the Celebrity (1963). Allan Sherman, who I’ve branded the “original Weird Al Yankovic,” updates Sir Joseph Porter, KCB’s patter song for the Yale crowd.
  • I Am the Evil Pirate Captain Mel/I Am the Captain of the Pinafore” in “H.M.S. Yakko.” Animaniacs (Episode 3, 15 September 1993). In keeping with the Looney Tunes mission to bring classical music to all audiences (ha!), the Animaniacs sing multiple Gilbert and Sullivan songs in this episode.
  • Selections from H.M.S. Pinafore in “Cape Feare.” The Simpsons (Season 5, Episode 2, 7 October 1993) featuring Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob.
    Bart: “I was wondering if you could sing the entire score of the H.M.S. Pinafore.”
    Sideshow Bob: “Very well, Bart. I shall send you to heaven before I send you to hell.”
  • A British Tar” in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) featuring Sir Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, and Michael Dorn. Enjoy this delightfully sung rendition of “A British Tar,” which Captain Jean-Luc Picard uses to bring Data back from the brink. The most lasting impact of this scene, however, seems to be a huge number of amateur Pinafores set on the Starship Enterprise.
  • And It’s Surely to Their Credit.” The West Wing (Season 2, Episode 5, 1 November 2000) with guest stars Emily Proctor and John Larroquette. Absent of singing, this scene emphasizes the motivation that comes from a sense of duty.
  • New York Gilbert and Sullivan Society at South Street Seaport, New York City (2014). One of the many flash mobs that took over the U.S. around this time, the best part of this commercial is the closing comment by one of the spectators: “New York, baby!”
  • When I Was a Lass” sung by Lauren Vogel and Erik Schroeder of Gilbert & Sullivan Unplugged: A Modern Twist on the Major Hits at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Click the link for wonderful singing, stay for the banjo.
  1. Read the full script on the Gilbert and Sullivan archive site, it’s worth it! Some of you noticed that the style of the drawing looks like others from our collection and elsewhere. Cleaver specialized in this type of monochrome ink drawing, done in shades of grey, for photographic reproduction, with a group of vignettes and insets around a central image.
  2. “Unappreciated Shakespeare” in Illustrated sporting & dramatic news, vol. XVIII, nos. 466-467 (1882), p. 295.
  3. Much thanks to Margaret Dakin and her colleagues at the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections for assisting me with procuring these images.
  4. Grant, Stephen H. Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger. JHU Press: 2014, p. 21-22. Watch this clip of “Kind Captain, I’ve Important Information” from 1982 film adaptation, featuring Peter Marshall and Alan Watt, to see Dick Deadeye’s feature song.
  5. Grant, Collecting Shakespeare, p. 22.
  6. This was not technically piracy, but Gilbert and Sullivan viewed it as such.
  7. Although as I write this, I’m also singing in my head on a loop: “give three cheers and one cheer more for the well-bred captain of the Pinafore”—so maybe that has something to do with it.
  8. Weekly Louisianan (New Orleans), May 3, 1879.
  9. Sunday Mercury (New York), vol. XLI no. 6. February 9, 1879 and The Boston Herald, March 4, 1879, respectively.
  10. Topeka State Journal (Kansas), November 1, 1902.
  11. The Boston Herald, March 4, 1879.
  12. Jersey City, NJ, vol. XII no. 287.
  13. “Facetiae” Boston, England, vol. IX iss. 259, December 20, 1879. Listen to “My Gallant Crew” to make sense of this tale.
  14. “The Drama in America,” from The Era, 21 December 1879. Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. Accessed 28 July 2021.
  15. Azoy, A.C.M. “Bon Savoyage” in Town and Country; New York, vol. 91, iss. 4167, (Oct. 1936): 66-67.
  16. My sincerest thanks to my colleague William Davis for providing me images of these letters to work with for this post.
  17. We couldn’t let The Mikado feel left out, now could we?

One Comment


  • Aw, I could have sworn I’d left a comment to that effect but apparently I did not post it. Although I was free-associating Princess Ida/Love’s Labour’s Lost rather than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (which is very funny and worth reading).


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