Pirates Of Penzance

or "The Slave of Duty"

Potted Plot | History | First Night Critics | Did You Know? | Behind the Scenes | Original Casts

Picture of first night programme

A single 'copyright' performance was staged at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, Devon on 30th December, 1879

First performed at the Fifth Ave, Theatre, New York, on 31st December, 1879

First performed in London at the Opera Comique on 3rd April, 1880

Act One is set on a rocky sea-shore on the coast of Cornwall. A group of Pirates are discovered celebrating that Frederic has just turned 21 and has just completed his apprenticeship to their trade.

Ruth, the elderly pirate maid-of-work, explains that his presence with this wild band was due to an error.

Being hard of hearing she thought that she thought that his father had wanted him to be apprenticed to a pirate, when, in fact, he had actually said pilot.

The Pirate King says that piracy does not seem to pay. Frederic points out that they are too tender-hearted and being orphans themselves they never capture orphans - word had got around and all the ship's in Britain's mercantile navy are all recruited solely by people from orphan asylums.

Having completes his apprenticeship Frederic is now free to leave the band. The Pirates suggest he take Ruth with him. Frederic, not having ever seem another woman since the age of eight, agrees. The pirates leave and suddenly Frederic sees a bevy of very attractive young women climbing along the coast-line. Ruth, knowing she is lost, departs back to the pirates.

As the girls are about to bathe, Frederic reveals himself. The girls are frightened by his costume and the news that he is a pirate. He assures them that he has renounced his profession. He appeals to them.

"Oh, is there not one maiden here
Whose homely face and bad complexion
Have caused all hopes to disappear
Of ever winning man's affection?"

Mabel suddenly enters and it is clear that the two of them are mutually attracted.

The pirates creep in and suddenly each seizes a girl. Mabel warns them that they are Wards in Chancery and their father is a Major-General.

Major-General Stanley arrives and delivers his famous "model of a modern Major-General" patter song.

Knowing that they are all in danger, Major-General Stanley has a sudden inspiration. He admits that he is an orphan and the pirates have no option but to let them all go.

The second act opens on a ruined chapel by moonlight. The Major-General is plunged into despair at the thought that his false description of himself as an orphan has brought shame on his ancestors. He is not comforted when Frederic points out that as he had only bought the property a year ago they are not even is own ancestors.

They prepare an attack on the pirates and the forces arrive - the police looking decisively nervous.

Left alone for a moment Frederic expresses satisfaction at having at last the opportunity of atoning for his piratical past. Ruth and the Pirate King enter and explain that as he was born on leap year his apprenticeship does not end until 1940!

Frederic tells Mabel the truth about his age and says that when his apprenticeship is eventually completed he will return and claim her. Mabel says that it seems so long but she swears to be true to him.

The police and the pirates prepare to battle.

The Major-General appears, with his daughters, in his dressing gown. The pirates rush out and seize him. The police give battle and are immediately defeated. The Sergeant-of-Police then draws his trump card. He charges them to yield in Queen Victoria's name. Because they love their Queen the pirates yield.

Ruth bursts in and explains that the pirates are, in fact, all noblemen who have gone wrong.

The Major-General hands over his daughters to the ex-pirates and the operetta draws to a close.

Click here for a complete libretto to The Pirates of Penzance

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Pirates Theatre Poster

As international copyright was in such a state of chaotic uncertainty the partners tried many expedients to protect their rights on both sides of the Atlantic. One idea was that the next Opera would be simultaneously produced in England and the U.S.A.

Plans were then set to debut their next Opera at Paignton, in Devonshire, simultaneously with the New York premiere.

A month before the opening the music for The Pirates was not nearly finished.

Sullivan and Gilbert had landed in America with about half the work done. Then Sullivan made an appalling discovery.

Sullivan found that he had left all his sketches for the last act at home, in England. In his hotel he set about the stupendous task of writing long into the night. He was not helped by a reoccurrence of his old illness.

On the night of December 30th, after the final dress-rehearsal, Sullivan returned to his hotel and began work on the overture, finishing it at five o'clock on the morning of the 31st, and rehearsing it six hours later.

Sullivan was not well enough to eat that day, so went to bed in the afternoon and tried to sleep. More dead than alive he made his way to the theatre, took his place in the orchestra, lifted his baton, and The Pirates of Penzance swept New York off its feet!

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First Night Critics


Sun (New York)

"The Pirates of Penzance received what may be considered as essentially its first representation at the Fifth Avenue Theatre last evening, for though it was played once on Monday afternoon of the present week at a little obscure theatre in an out-of-the-way English town, that was done simply to preserve to the authors an English copyright in their play, which would have been sacrificed by its prior performance in this country...

The two questions that would naturally be asked by those who were not present at the first representation would be, first, whether the piece was successful, and, secondly, is it as good as Pinafore? Both of these inquiries we should be inclined to answer affirmatively.

Its success with the audience was instantaneous...the performance was constantly stopped by the laughter and applause that attended the humorous parts. As for the comparison with 'that infernal nonsense, Pinafore'...it can fairly be made.

Gilbert's share of the present work is even brighter than in his former opera...As for Mr. Sullivan, he has evidently spared no pains to prevent himself from falling behind his previous reputation, and has given to The Pirates even a more elaborate and carefully written score, and a more broader and more scholarly treatment, than he brought to the composition of the Pinafore."

Herald (New York)

"The opera was received with marked approval and made a palpable hit last evening, though the question of its permanency in public favor was not established.
It is a great improvement on Pinafore in the fineness of its texture; it is brighter, prettier and more artistic, and the quality of the work is of a much better standard than was the nautical opera we had from these gentlemen.

(But on the other hand) the music of the Pirates is hardly of that character which may be termed strikingly popular, and there are few bright, brisk airs or flowing melodies such as abound in Pinafore and which quickly took the popular ear...the opera has not the popular musical ring of Pinafore and will not, in all probability, be whistled by every boy or ground out upon every organ in the land."

Herald (New York)

"The opera is beautifully and richly costumed and set upon the stage...The set in the second act is well worthy the prompt acknowledgment it received."

Tribune (New York)

"Mr. Talbot would perhaps have done better things with Frederic if he had taken the trouble to learn his part. He has a version of the text considerably different from Mr. Gilbert's, and such as it is, he stumbles over it in a most disquieting way. We shall suspend criticism upon his performance until he knows his lines."

Click here to check out the reviews for the first Australian production.

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Did you know?

The copyright performance took place in Paignton, by the sea in South Devon. It was the middle of winter. Costumes were not ready; the actors had to improvise from what they had - mainly bits and pieces from their wardrobes for Pinafore. The policemen wore sailor's garb. The music was incomplete, as was the script. There was time for only one rehearsal. The singers had to carry their music with them on the stage. However there was at least one London critic present who approved of the opera.

There are several instances in the various operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan where certain numbers were cut after the opening performance, either because the said number was controversial or just to speed up a 'dragging' production.
In The Pirates of Penzance one number, the 'Hymn to the Nobility' was peformed only once, in the performance given at Paignton.
Let foreigners look down with scorn
On legislators heaven born
We know what limpid wisdom runs
From Peers and all their eldest Sons:
Enrapt the true born Briton hears
The wisdom of his House of Peers

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Behind the scenes

Arthur Sullivan had an amusing story to tell of his experience in association with American bandsmen. These gentlemen were all under the strict control of a musical trade union. A scale of charges was laid down for every kind of instrumentalists according to the nature and degree of his professional engagement. For example, a member of a Grand Opera orchestra must demand higher pay than one who was engaged in Musical Comedy.
The announcement went forth that England's most famous composer, Mr. Sullivan, would conduct the opening performance of "The Pirate of Penzance". The bandsmen showed their appreciation by demanding from the management increased salaries on the Grand Opera scale.
As there appeared to be ructions Sullivan with characteristic tact addressed the men in modest terms. Disclaiming any title to the exalted honours they would trust upon him, he protested that, on the contrary, he should esteem it a high privilege to conduct such a fine body of instrumentalists. At the same time, rather than become the cause of any dispute or trouble among them, he was prepared to cable home to England for his own orchestra. He hoped, however, that such a course might be avoided. The Americans promptly took the gentle hint, and agreed not to charge extra for the honour of being conducted by Mr. Arthur Sullivan.

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