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BILL BOBSTAY (THE BOATSWAIN)
Note: Gilbert’s libretto underwent several revisions from the original submitted to the Lord Chamberlain through to the 1914 version. Vocal scores reflect these changes, as well as containing some historical misprints, so singers should not assume that an old score is a good score! The author suggests performers check with their production company exactly which vocal score they intend to use before learning the roles: whilst the changes are often minimal, they are infuriatingly difficult to unlearn once lodged in the brain! This, of course, also applies to the spoken dialogue, where extra lines (and business) have become ‘traditional’, but are not in the printed libretto.
FACTS: Although never addressed by his name, Bill Bobstay is the Boatswain.
“The crew member who first greets Buttercup, and who has been supervising the work of the sailors on deck, is the boatswain (pronounced 'bosun'). He is the warrant officer in charge of sails, rigging, anchors and cables and with direct responsibility for all work carried out on deck. It is, in fact, slightly unclear whether Bill Bobstay of H.M.S. Pinafore is a full-fledged boatswain or merely a boatswain's mate. He appears in both guises in different editions of the libretto and even in different places in the same edition. We may as well give him the benefit of the doubt, particularly as Gilbert refers to him as boatswain both in his letters about producing the opera and in the early libretto sent to the Lord Chamberlain to be licensed … Bill Bobstay takes his name from the rope used to draw down the bowsprit of a ship and keep it steady, counteracting the upward force of the foremast stays.”
From “The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan”
introduced and edited by Ian Bradley, Oxford University Press.
(Where stage directions are quoted, they appear in ‘italics’. Dialogue and music libretto are both quoted in “speech marks”, but the original poetic punctuation of the sung words has been retained, e.g. “A maiden fair to see, The pearl of minstrelsy, A bud of blushing beauty.”)
CHARACTER EVOLUTION: The Boatswain is the first to welcome Buttercup on board, and thinks she is “The rosiest, the roundest, and the reddest beauty in all Spithead.” He may not much like Dick, but he does have some sympathy for him and explains, “Well, Dick, we wouldn't go for to hurt any fellow creature's feelings, but you can't expect a chap with such a name as Dick Deadeye to be a popular character?” Whilst Ralph may love the Captain’s daughter, the Boatswain sees the reality: “Our worthy captain's child won't have nothin' to say to a poor chap like you.”
When Captain Corcoran celebrates Sir Joseph’s arrival with extra grog, the Boatswain cannot resist pushing his infuriated Captain for a polite “If you please” at the end of the order. When Deadeye tries to undermined their new-found equality, he slaps the sailor down again:
Dick: When people have to obey other people's orders, equality's out of the question.
All: (recoiling) Horrible! Horrible!
Boatswain: Dick Deadeye, if you go for to infuriate this here ship's company too far, I won't answer for being able to hold 'em in. I'm shocked! that's what I am--shocked!
He is eager to join in singing the song Sir Joseph gave them. (Trio: A British tar is a soaring soul)
When Ralph determines to take his life when Josephine rejects him, it is the Boatswain who has the solution. ‘During Chorus the Boatswain has loaded a pistol, which he hands to Ralph.’ When Josephine declares she loves Ralph, the Boatswain is already planning the elopement:
Josephine: A clergyman
Ralph: Shall make us one
Boatswain: At half-past ten
When, later that night, the planned elopement is foiled by the sudden appearance of Captain Corcoran, the Boatswain leaps to his fellow sailor’s defence, since Ralph is “An Englishman.” After all, “He might have been a Roosian, A French, or Turk, or Proosian, Or perhaps Itali-an!” (Solo: He is an Englishman!)
When the unfortunate Ralph is wrapped in chains and imprisoned, the Boatswain sympathises with him: “He'll hear no tone Of the maiden he loves so well! No telephone Communicates with his cell!”
At the happy ending, the Boatswain’s sentiments that after all, Ralph is “An Englishman” are taken up by the entire cast to close the operetta.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT: The Boatswain is an important voice in the operetta, quite literally. His lower tones add weight to several ensembles and his loyal sentiments are a central theme to the operetta. The audience may not realise just how crucial he is, but they’d miss him horribly if he wasn’t there, in the thick of the action at every turn.
GILBERT’S VIEW: “Bill was a boatswain’s mate, who, besides being busily occupied in embroidering his name in red worsted on a canvas nighty case, generally took the lead in all the amusements of the dog-watch.”
From “The Story Of H.M.S. Pinafore” by Sir W. S. Gilbert,
a book for children published in 1913.
© 2005 Kirsty Young
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