The Pirates of Penzance



  • Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera about a band ofsoft-hearted plunderers. It was first produced in 1879 at the RoyalBijou Theatre, Paignton, Devon, and then a day later at the FifthAvenue Theatre, New York; the first London production was in 1880at the Opera Comique. The work is full of larger-than-life comic characterswho owe a great deal to the English music hall tradition.The songs include 'I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General','Oh, Dry the Glistening Tear', and 'With Cat-like Tread'. Modern revivalsinclude the celebrated New York production of Joseph Papp (1980).

    The story's hero is the well-meaning Frederick. When he wasa boy, his father had instructed a servant to ensure that hewas apprenticed as a sea pilot: unfortunately, the slightly deaf servantthought the word was 'pirate'. As a result Frederick, now 21, is arather reluctant novice pirate. When the gang attacks a Major-General'shouse, Frederick defends it until the Pirate King reminds him thathe is bound by the terms of his apprenticeship. However, when theprostrate Sergeant of Police calls, "We charge you yield, inQueen Victoria's name!" the pirates suddenly recall their lovefor Queen and country and surrender; they subsequently settle downand marry the Major-General's daughters.

    The opera's subtitle, The Slave of Duty, highlightsGilbert's malicious pleasure in poking fun at this most Victorianof virtues. When the Pirate King reminds Frederick of his obligationto continue in his calling, he sees no way out:

    Well, you have appealed to my sense of duty, and my dutyis only too clear. I abhor your infamous calling; I shudder at thethought that I have ever been mixed up with it; but duty is aboveall - at any price, I will do my duty!