About the play
Gilbert and Sullivan’s fifth collaboration, The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty, premiered not in London, but in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1879. The first (and only) of their operas to premiere in America, it was hailed an instant success by audiences and critics alike. Pirates followed closely on the heels of their enormously popular HMS Pinafore, which was playing to packed houses all across America. And therein lies a bit of historical intrigue – the great majority of those productions of Pinafore were “unauthorized.” American copyright law at the time offered authors no protection from “pirate” productions of their work. Once a musical score or libretto was published, anyone was free to perform the work without having to pay royalties to the composer or author. Pundits have suggested that the pirates in their new opera may be an oblique reference to these “pirate” productions. By opening Penzance in New York, Gilbert and Sullivan were able to retain their profits as well as launch successful “authorized” touring companies in the United States before returning home to open their new hit in London. A few short weeks before the Broadway premiere Sullivan had penned a note to his mother regarding Pirates - "I think it will be a great success for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching."
The Pirates of Penzance is the story of Frederic who, as a young lad, was mistakenly apprenticed to a band of pirates. On this, his 21st birthday, with his apprenticeship complete, he is compelled by a “sense of duty” to forsake the piratical life and, with his nanny, Ruth, ventures out into the world. He soon encounters a bevy of beautiful maidens, all of them daughters of Major-General Stanley, and is instantly smitten with one in particular, Mabel. The pirates arrive, seize the girls and threaten them with immediate marriage. But the Major-General begs for their release, claiming that he is an orphan and that, without them, he would be left all alone. The pirates, orphans themselves, are sympathetic to his plea and relent. The Major-General, deeply troubled by this ruse (he is not an orphan) fears the consequences. Frederic arranges for a police force to defend the Major-General against the avenging pirates. Unfortunately Frederic soon learns that, being born on February 29 in a leap year, he has really only had five birthdays and is now bound to fulfill his apprenticeship for another 63 years. Against Mabel’s ardent pleas, “sense of duty” compels him to rejoin the pirates. A battle ensues. The pirates appear victorious until they are charged to yield “in Queen Victoria’s name.” Love of queen trumps piratical prowess and soon all are set on the path to happy ever after.
For over 130 years the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in England has continued to perform and celebrate the canon of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. In 1981 The Pirates of Penzance, retooled for the Broadway stage and featuring Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt and Angela Lansbury, won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. In 1983, the Broadway production was further remodeled, filmed and released as a major motion picture.
"Modeled upon the Pinafore pattern, and following the same vein, it is far more artistic and finished; filled with delicious strokes of satiric humour; absurd impossibilities following each other in the gravest and most commonplace fashion, startling ingenuity and bold inventiveness sustained throughout in the conduct of the story. The melodies are fresh and sparkling, and wedded with singular felicity to the words."
-Review from The Era, January 18, 1880
About the authors
W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, in the early 1870s, revolutionized musical theatre. Their operettas were filled with wit, satire, comedy and sparklingly fresh music. Gilbert had given up an unsuccessful law practice to publish comic poems, which led him to playwriting and directing. Sullivan, who trained at the Royal Academy of Music, was composing serious music to much acclaim as well as writing lighter pieces to pay the bills. Both had written minor musicals with other collaborators without any serious intent. A producer invited the two to write a mythological spoof, which caught the attention of budding producer Richard D'Oyly Carte. Carte’s interest led to Gilbert and Sullivan's first operetta Trial By Jury in 1875. With the show's profitable success, the new writing team was easily convinced to join forces again with D'Oyly Carte and create a full-length piece, The Sorcerer, a send up of Victorian propriety and class distinction, a theme that was to become a key component in much of their work. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a total of 14 shows between 1871 and 1896. Their most popular were, and remain, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Their shows always presented surprising twists and bizarre events turning the world on its head by blending the surreal with the real. As one director noted, "…with great fluidity and freedom, continually challenging our natural expectations…they tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way." In 1881 D'Oyly Carte built the Savoy Theatre to be the primary home for Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, which were to become known as the Savoy Operas. Even at the height of the duo's popularity, Sullivan's deep interest was in composing symphonies, concertos and opera. And while he and Gilbert were often at odds over their work, the relationship broke down over such trivialities as the expense of replacing the carpet in the Savoy. Sullivan wrote to Gilbert, "I have lost the liking for writing comic opera, and entertain very grave doubts as to my power of doing it." The writing partners went their separate ways but after four years were convinced to reunite and create Utopia, Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896). Collaborative difficulties notwithstanding, the legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan, ever zany and effervescent, lives on in theatres and opera houses the world over.