H.M.S. Pinafore’s Metafictional Layers

The performance of H.M.S. Pinafore was easily the highlight of the course for myself, partially due to my love of musicals, but mostly due to the way it was staged and performed. Pinafore is a nautical performance originally performed in the 1870s, so having it open in a house known as Portsmouth Manor in 1917 is an unusual choice, to say the least. It becomes clear what this is, however, when a nurse on the set (Lisa Horner, who also plays Buttercup) announces that scripts for Pinafore are being distributed; it’s an acting company, and we’re about to see them put on a performance to celebrate the New Year of 1918.

This primes the audience for the rest of the performance, and has them ask what knowing that we’re watching an acting company put on a performance means, and what it means for the most distinctive members of the cast, particularly Dick Deadeye (played by Brad Rudy).  Compared to the rest of the cast, Deadeye has a unique perspective on the world– while the rest of the sailors go along with Sir Joseph’s notion that anyone can be equal, Deadeye tries to point out the inherent nonsense of this, as being equal to someone giving you orders is impossible. Throughout the production, he’s derided for this attitude, and Brad Rudy does an amazing job of conveying Deadeye’s misanthropy brought on through the actions of his crew and on the state of the world.

Deadeye also serves as the ship’s photographer, an invention of this production. His photographs afford a unique viewpoint, as he is capable of capturing evidence of reasons for his misanthropy, and viewing them later, such as is the case with Josephine. Another invention of this production is Deadeye’s affection towards Josephine, as he is seen with several photographs of her, and embraces a photograph near the climax.

Finally, Deadeye’s photographs have another use in the play, as notepaper used by the sailors during Sir Joseph’s song “When I was a lad”; the sailors take notes as to how an unqualified man became captain of the navy by defacing images of the very man they are admiring.

Then there is the matter of Lisa Horner’s portray of Buttercup. Due to her role in the story, concealing the true identities of the captain and Ralph Rackstraw, she is the reason the narrative happens in the first place, and frames the entire piece, giving it context. She also instigates the performance proper in the opening scene by handing out scripts for the play, emphasizing her importance as a character. Unfortunately, Horner is the weakest link in the production, due to her grating accent and inability to carry a tune in said accent, as well as the fact that her character brings the plot to a resolution that leads me to see why, in The Pirates of Penzance, Major General Stanley refers to Pinafore as “That infernal nonsense”.

The production ends back at the manor, with the ship transforming back into the stage seen at the rise of the curtain. We’re reminded, for a final time, that this was put on for the sake of a New Year’s party, and with a final photograph from Dick Deadeye, the production closes on a high note. In her director’s notes, Lezlie Wade talks about the timelessness of Pinafore, and how issues present in the production at the time of its original performance remain true in 1917, as well as 2017. The acting company who put on Pinafore were also in a time of great change, with WWI having ended barely a month prior, and were able to find certainty in a production of a beloved work where inequality is resolved and enjoyment is had by all. In doing so, perhaps they hoped to help their audience find some grounding and certainty as well.