“The Pirates of Penzance! I have often heard of them.”
The Pirates of Penzance
The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty
April 4 to 20, 1986
The Pirates of Penzance, first performed in 1880, is one of the most popular of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. It is highly theatrical in concept because there are so many characters acting roles or assuming postures – and succeeding in various degrees. The Pirates, we are told in the Act II Finale, are all “noblemen who have gone wrong.” Destined for somewhat dreary careers in the House of Lords, these game gentlemen are having one last rebellious fling (though a rather extended one for some). They are enthusiastically playing at being pirates, though in practice they fall a bit short: their sense of duty toward all orphans trips them up, as does their inherent gentility.
The Police, likewise, are playing at being courageous and staunch upholders of the law. At the least sign of any real threat, however, “the obvious course is … to hide.” Like the Pirates, they also have a little too much sympathy for their adversaries, as we hear in “When a Felon’s Not Engaged in his Employment.”
Our women act as the foils for these men. They are spunky, willful and watchful of their independence. Not caught in role-playing, they are nevertheless intrigued by the sentimental histrionics of the Pirates, and eventually by knowledge of their status!
Pirates is subtitled The Slave of Duty, and its satire is highlighted by the romantic leads, Mabel and Frederic, whose senses of duty bring them perilously close to disaster. Their duty almost destroys their love, in a send-up worthy of Oscar Wilde, and not too far from The Importance of Being Earnest, written about this time. Mabel and Frederic take their dutiful roles seriously, but with ultimately comic consequences. The Finale of Act II, with the help of a last-minute revelation and the ultimate appeal to duty in Victorian England, brings together the pirates and the women in a comic triumph of dance and marriage.
Two excellent internet resources for information about The Pirates of Penzance: