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Pirates of Penzance Program Cover (1881)
Pirates of Penzance Program (1881) (Wikimedia Commons)

NOTE: This In Performance broadcast (10 June 2012) will begin at 3pm, one half hour earlier than usual.


W S Gilbert began writing plays when he was still in school, but after he graduated, he set his sights on a military career. As it turned out, though, the military didn’t need him. So he tried civil service as an assistant clerk.

He despised the job. When a bit of an inheritance came his way in 1863, he decided to try his hand at legal work. His career as a barrister was more satisfying, but not very successful. Gilbert averaged five clients per year.

Gilbert soon realized that such niceties as food and shelter were going to require a bit more income than law was bringing him, so he turned back to writing. Initially he used it as a supplement to his legal income, penning (often scathing) theatre reviews, magazine stories, and poems.

Gilbert’s Bab Ballads were named for his childhood moniker. He illustrated them himself. It was here that Gilbert developed the topsy-turvy style that would serve him so well in the theatre – taking an utterly absurd premise and following it faithfully to its logical conclusion. These publications would later provide feedstock for Gilbert’s plays and operettas.

At a rehearsal for his 1869 play Ages Ago, Gilbert was introduced to a young composer.

There was never any doubt that Arthur Sullivan would become a musician – he was composing for band when he was eight years old! His father tried to divert the hurtling freight train, thinking that a music career wasn’t apt to produce a son who could support him in his old age. It was all to no avail. Sullivan became a choir boy and soon was composing anthems. A scholarship cleared his way to the Royal Academy of Music and eventually to the Leipzig Conservatory.

After his 1861 graduation and a return from Leipzig, Sullivan dug into composing in earnest. His father’s warning quickly returned to haunt him, though. He found that composing music – even when it was amply salted with briskly-selling parlor songs and hymns – wasn’t much of a living. Fortunately, steady work and a stable income came with a gig as a church organist. Over the next decade Sullivan composed a good-sized catalog of moderately successful works, including a cello concerto, a symphony, an oratorio, overtures, ballet, and opera.

In 1869, Sullivan’s fellow composer Frederic Clay was working with a poet and author on a musical, Ages Ago, and introduced Sullivan to the librettist.

Two years later, Arthur Sullivan and W S Gilbert joined forces for the first time to create Thespis. It was a parody of grand opera in general, and of the then-popular Offenbach comic operas such as Orpheus in the Underworld in particular. I’d like to say that they immediately hit it off – but that didn’t happen. In fact, it was another 4 years before Gilbert and Sullivan teamed up again.

In 1875 producer Richard d’Oyly Carte was managing the Royalty Theater, and was about to produce Jacques Offenbach’s La Perichole. He needed a companion piece, and brought Gilbert and Sullivan together to create Trial By Jury.

The filler piece became the hit, far outdrawing – and outlasting – the Offenbach. The stage was set.

It took d’Oyly Carte another two years to raise the cash, but his next collaboration with Gilbert and Sullivan, The Sorcerer, did rather well, thank you very much. Encouraged by that modest success, the team launched the H M S Pinafore barely half a year later. Pinafore became a huge hit – and the trio were off and running.

When Gilbert had begun writing plays, English theatre’s reputation hadn’t been any too good. One of his objectives had been to improve its image, and to make theatre more "family-friendly."

d’Oyly Carte agreed – he wanted to produce comic opera for families. Not for him the risque reputation of Vaudeville. The plays he produced with Gilbert and Sullivan were thoroughly entertaining – and utterly innocent. With these three men at the helm, never would evil gain so much as an inch of dramatic traction.

Gilbert and d’Oyly Carte’s reputation management extended from the characters to the people playing them. They rigorously corraled the performers to forestall any hint of scandal. They forbade such temptations to perdition as cursing, loitering, flirting, and gossip. Men’s and women’s dressing rooms were on opposite sides of the theatre; as the players left the stage they were summarily shooed to their strictly segregated warrens.

With the Savoy Theatre, newly built for Gilbert and Sullivan in 1881, they and d’Oyly Carte gave us theatrical traditions that persist today, from free programs to numbered seating. The Savoy was also the first theatre to be lit entirely by electricity.

There was one thing that Gilbert, Sullivan, and d’Oyly Carte had trouble managing, though: performance rights. Not in England, mind you; between their trademark "natural" acting style and their youthful performers’ energy, they effectively owned the market. And when they didn’t, they successfully worked England’s legal system to their advantage.

But America had a more freewheeling attitude and far less aggressive copyright laws (things have changed appreciably since then). HMS Pinafore was a huge international hit, and G, S & C found it nearly impossible to rein in the hundreds of unauthorized American performances.

Thus Pirates of Penzance became the first – and only – G&S opera to have its official premiere in New York, opening on New Year’s Eve in 1879. They were hoping to establish theirs as the official production. They did succeed in making a tidy profit on it, but in the end, they still couldn’t prevent a plethora of pirates pirating Pirates. (Sorry.)


Act 1 finds us with a rollicking band of brigands on the rocky Cornish coast of Britain. They’re drinking to Frederic, who is celebrating the completion of his pirate apprenticeship. At noon, just half an hour away, he will turn 21.

But Frederic has a secret. As his nurse Ruth explains, his apprenticeship is all a careless mistake. When Frederic was just a boy, his father sent Ruth with him to apprentice him to a sea pilot. But she misunderstood the boy’s father, and here he is with a band of sea pirates. Afraid to face up to her error, Ruth too signed on with the lawbreakers.

Frederic, ever the dutiful one, has faithfully served out the terms of his agreement. In 30 minutes, he’ll be free – and then it’ll be his obligation as a British citizen to betray the pirate band!

For this, the Pirate King compliments Frederic. After all, he’s only acting on his convictions when he resolves to exterminate his colleagues. But, the Pirate King points out, for the moment Frederic is still a pirate – and come to that, why haven’t they been successful pirates, anyway?

Frederic points out the problem: they’re just too nice. As orphans themselves, they feel a duty to release all the orphans they capture. And, somehow, curiously, these days every ship they capture is full of orphans.

The time comes and Frederic takes leave of his pirate friends, but not before trying to leave the long-suffering Ruth behind ("… yours is the only woman’s face I have seen … What a terrible thing it would be if I were to marry this innocent person and then find out that she is, on the whole, plain!"). Frederic even goes so far as to ask Ruth if she considers herself fair. Then he points out her advanced age and thoughtlessly renounces his companion of many years. In despair, she leaves him.

Just then Frederic spots a bevy of comely maidens. Their response is about what you’d expect: "A pirate! Horror!" Only one of them, Mabel, seems willing to accept Frederic as he is: "It’s true that he’s gone astray, but … why should you all be deaf to pity’s name?"

The young women soon find themselves surrounded by Frederic’s former pirate band. Just as the pirates are about to claim the maidens as their wives, the women reveal their identity. All are daughters of major-general Stanley – and here he is, "the very model of the modern major-general." Stanley knows the pirates’ secret, so he lies, claiming to be an orphan. Duty-bound, the pirates set the major-general and his daughters free.

Act 2 opens in a derelict chapel on major-general Stanley’s estate. Stanley, surrounded by his daughters, is racked with guilt for his falsehood. He has betrayed his ancestors’ honor – even if they aren’t really his ancestors. A crew of nervous policemen arrive. Frederic’s duty will be to lead them to the pirates’ lair.

Ruth and the Pirate King find Frederic alone in the chapel. They bring news – he’s still a pirate after all! It seems that his contract says he’ll be released on his 21st birthday. But Frederic was born on the 29th of February in leap year. So he’s celebrated only 5 birthdays, not 21. He still has another 16 "years" to serve in his pirate apprenticeship.

Duty calls yet again. Frederic will have to leave his beloved Mabel and return to the pirate life.

If there’s one thing Frederic knows, it’s duty. His duty now is to the Pirate King, so he reveals that major-general Stanley lied when he claimed to be an orphan. The Pirate King is livid. He vows "swift and terrible" revenge that very night.

Mabel, alone with Frederic, swears she will remain faithful to him until he has served out his full 21-leap-year term. The pirate band approaches and the fearful pirate-hunting policemen hide. Major-general Stanley appears with his daughters, and the pirates seize him. Despite all of Mabel’s entreaties, Frederic is powerless to help him – his duty is to the pirates, after all. The police try to save Stanley, but the pirates quickly repel the attack – "Don’t say you are orphans, for we know that game."

The police seargent, desperate, tries one last move: "We charge you yield, in Queen Victoria’s name!"

The words have a striking effect. Moments before, the pirates were standing over policemen with drawn swords. Now they are on their knees.

What is this? Ruth steps forward to explain. The pirates aren’t really orphans, she says. They’re "noblemen who have gone wrong."

Well then! "Peers will be peers," in major-general Stanley’s world. All is forgiven. Frederic and Mabel can wed. The pirates will return to their official duties in the House of Lords. And as a bonus, they’ll have the hands of Stanley’s daughters in marriage.

Frederic Stephen Faulk
Ruth Jacquely Kress
Pirate King Gary Moss
Mabel Karla Hughes
Major-general Stanley Nicholas Wuehrmann
Edith Lori Birrer
Kate Sarah Best
Isabel Natalie Ballenger
Sergeant Ted Christopher
Samuel David Kelleher-Flight
Artistic Director Steven Daigle
Conductor J Lynn Thompson
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