The Pirates of Penzance

From Academic Kids

The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty, is a Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta in two acts. Music by Sir Arthur S. Sullivan, libretto by Sir William S. Gilbert. After the copyright problems associated with unauthorised performances of HMS Pinafore in the United States, it was resolved that its first American performance should follow its first British performance as soon as possible. Consequently, it was first performed in Paignton, Devon, on December 30, 1879, then in New York on December 31, 1879. The New York performance was the first full performance. The Paignton performance was perfunctory since its purpose was to establish copyright in the UK; the same cast and crew had performed Pinafore the previous night, and they carried onto the stage scripts to read from. The first full performance in the UK was on April 3, 1880, at the Opera Comique. The title of the operetta was enough to instill laughter, as Penzance was so comparatively docile at the time that the very idea of criminal activity in the vicinity was ridiculous.

Act I

Frederic, a young man with a strong sense of duty, is seen celebrating his twenty-first birthday in the company of a group of pirates ("Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry"). His nurse Ruth appears and reveals that she had apprenticed Frederic to the pirate band by mistake, many years ago ("When Frederic was a little lad"). Because Frederic has never seen any women other than Ruth, he believes her to be beautiful, and agrees to marry her later that day. Although Frederic is sympathetic to his pirate friends (they being all orphans whose gentle natures make their piratical careers difficult) his sense of duty nonetheless compels him to leave the band upon the completion of his apprenticeship and, then destroy them. He invites the Pirate King to give up piracy and go with him, but is refused ("Oh! better far to live and die"). Upon leaving the pirates, Frederic sees a group of beautiful young girls on the shore, and realises that Ruth lied to him about her features ("Oh false one! You have deceived me!"). He hides before the girls arrive. The girls enter the stage singing ("Climbing over rocky mountain"). Frederic reveals himself ("Stop, ladies, pray!") and appeals to them for affection ("Oh! is there not one maiden breast") to help him reform; one of them, Mabel, responds to his plea ("Poor wand'ring one"). The other girls contemplate whether to eavesdrop, or leave the new couple alone ("What ought we to do?"), and eventually decide to sing about the weather ("How beautifully blue the sky"). Frederic warns the girls of the pirates nearby ("Stay, we must not lose our senses"), but they are interrupted by the arrival of said pirates, who wish to capture all the girls for wives ("Here's a first rate opportunity"). Mabel warns the pirates that the girls' father is a Major-General ("Hold, monsters!"), who soon arrives and introduces himself ("I am the very model of a modern Major-General"). The pirates attempt to kill him and take his daughters, but he appeals to them for clemency on the grounds that he's an orphan ("Oh, men of dark and dismal fate"). The soft-hearted pirates are sympathetic, and release the girls.

Act II

The Major-General sits in his family mausoleum, surrounded by his daughters. He laments his tortured conscience at the lie he told the Pirate King, while they attempt to console him ("Oh dry the glist'ning tear"). The Police Sergeant and his policemen enter to announce their readiness to go forth and arrest the pirates ("When the foremen bares his steel"). Frederic, who is to lead the group, pauses for a moment's reflection ("Now for the pirate's lair"), at which point he encounters Ruth and the Pirate King. They inform him that his apprenticeship was worded so as to bind him to them until his twenty-first birthday – and, because that birthday happens to be on the extra day of Leap Year, that means that technically only five birthdays have passed ("When you had left our pirate fold"). Frederic is convinced that he must rejoin the pirates by this logic, and thus he sees it as his duty to inform the Pirate King of the Major-General's lie ("Away, away, my heart's on fire").

He meets Mabel ("All is prepared") and she bids him to stay ("Stay Frederic, stay"), but the he dutifully returns to fulfil his apprenticeship with the pirates. Mabel consoles herself ("No, I am brave"), The police and their Sergeant are told they must go alone ("When the foreman bares his steel" (reprise)"), and they lament their fate ("When a felon's not engaged in his employment"). They hide on hearing the approach of the pirates ("A rollocking band of pirates we"), who have stolen onto the grounds, meaning to avenge themselves for the Major-General's lie ("With cat-like tread"). The police and the pirates prepare for the fight ("Hush, hush! not a word"). The Major-General himself appears, sleepless with guilt ("Sighing softly to the river"), and his daughters follow him. The pirates, of course, leap to the attack, and the police to the defense; but the police are easily defeated. The Sergeant plays his trump card, demanding that the pirates yield "in Queen Victoria's name"; the pirates, overcome with loyalty to their Queen, do so. Ruth appears and reveals that the orphan pirates are in fact noblemen; all is forgiven, Frederic and Mabel are reunited, and the Major-General is happy to marry his daughters to the noble pirates after all.

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