MUGSS will be performing The Pirates of Penzance in May 2010 at the RNCM Theatre in Manchester.
The curtain rises on part of the rocky coast of Cornwall (the dry part of course) where the Pirates with their King are celebrating the fact that Frederic, one of their number, has completed his apprenticeship to their trade, as he is now twenty-one years of age. However, Frederic surprises them all by announcing to the King that, although he did his best for them as an apprentice, now that he is free he proposes to leave them. His presence there with them anyway was all due to an error on the part of Ruth, the Pirate maid-of-all-work. She apparently misheard Frederic's father, who wished him to become apprenticed to a pilot. Obviously before the days of the National Health.
The King comments that piracy does not seem to pay very well, so Frederic, still under a sense of duty, points out to them that they are far too soft hearted, and that because they are all orphans, they will never molest any other orphan. Consequently the word has got round, and every ship they take claim to be manned entirely by orphans...
Now, Ruth is the only woman Frederic has seen since he went to sea at the age of eight, and so he has never had the chance of comparing her with any other, and, despite Samuel's "there are the remains of a fine woman about Ruth", neither Frederic or the Pirates really want her on their hands, or anywhere else for that matter. Faced with the prospect of having to exterminate the Pirates out of a sense of duty after midnight, Frederic suggests that the King come back to civilisation with him, but the King will have none of it "I'll live and die a Pirate King". Ruth pleads with Frederic to take her with him, but her case is lost when he sees a bevy of beautiful young women in the distance. Ruth departs in despair and Frederic hides to watch the girls who take off their shoes and socks to have a paddle. As a Victorian, page three did not exist, and the thought of these young ladies' bare feet was quite enough. These girls are all the daughters of Major General Stanley, and as you will see by the quantity of them he must have had a bicycle in his youth.
As the girls go to have their paddle. Frederic appears and frightens them somewhat by his 'effective but alarming costume', and by the news that he is a Pirate, although he assures them that he renounces his profession that very evening. He appeals to them, but there is no response until Mabel enters and sings the well known 'Poor Wandering One'. During this song it becomes clear that Mabel and Frederic have something going for them, so during the next song, whilst Frederic and Mabel go aside, the rest of the girls chatter about the weather - but still try to hear what the two lovers are saying. This is all very idyllic, but it does not last long.
Now Frederic, as he goes off with Mabel, tries to warn the other girls that the Pirates are coming back. The girls take the hint but too late! The Pirates have stealthily crept in and each one grabs a girl - their intention to marry them, I think..... This is all checked when Mabel points out that their father is a Major General. Cue for the patter song where the Major General explains who he is. The Pirates are determined to hold on to their captures but with a sudden inspiration the Major General asks 'Do you know what it is to be an orphan?' he turns the Pirates round. You will notice that even the Major General has heard of the famous Pirates. The first act ends with the Major General waving his Union jack, and the Pirates waving the skull and crossbones.
Act two commences in a ruined chapel in the grounds of Major General Stanley's property. The Major General sits pensively surrounded by his daughters. He is upset that he has deceived the Pirates by falsely describing himself to be an orphan, and has brought down shame upon his ancestors. Frederic (who is now a goody) points out that as he only bought the property some twelve months previously, they are not even his ancestors. With impeccable logic, the Major General informs Frederic that 'I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are.
The time for the attack on the Pirates is nigh, and he calls upon Frederic to summon the Police who march in and, with their Sergeant, sing 'When the foeman bares his steel'. After this and a lot of 'tarantaras' (singing 'tarantara' gives the Police courage) they eventually go leaving Frederic by himself - but not for long. Enter the Pirate King and Ruth who threaten Frederic: There is a new twist to the story: The King has discovered that Frederic's indentures are until his twenty first birthday, and as Frederic was born in leap year on the twenty-ninth of February - he would have been thirty-three last Monday, had he survived one hundred and thirty-two years - he has only had five birthdays so far, and so is still an apprentice Pirate.
Frederic's loyalties now have to return to the Pirates and so he then informs them that Major General Stanley was telling a lie when he said he was an orphan. This annoys the King who states 'He is doomed', and sets off with Ruth to collect the rest of the Pirates and go to attack Major General Stanley, leaving Frederic to explain this to Mabel, and she swears to be true to him, and wait until he comes of age - in nineteen forty, (when he will presumably be eighty four years old, and probably not a lot of use to her).
Frederic rushes away to rejoin the Pirates as the Police arrive. Mabel tells the Sergeant that as Frederic, out of his sense of duty, has rejoined his old associates, the Police will have to attack the Pirates without him. In the famous song (which put a quotation into our language) that follows, the Sergeant gives the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm for the job. After the song, the Police hear the approaching Pirates and so decide to hide (saying 'Tarantara' to give themselves confidence),and the Pirates come on to sing 'With cat-like tread' at the tops of their voices. They too go to hide - still not seeing the Police - as the Major General enters to sing his soliloquy. The girls hear this and come on in their night-dresses and carrying lighted candles For the more salacious among you, please bear in mind that this is not 1988, page 3 etc., but 1877 (work it out for yourselves).
A lot now happens quickly: The Pirates rush out of hiding and seize the General. The Police give battle, but are quickly defeated, the Pirates standing over them with drawn swords. Then the Sergeant plays his trump card 'We charge you yield in Queen Victoria's name'. This is too much for the Pirates 'We yield at once with humbled mien' declares the King, 'Because with all our faults we love our Queen'. The Police, in tears as this is so moving, prepare to lead the Pirates away, but are stopped by Ruth who, very conveniently, says 'They are no members of the common throng, they are all noblemen who have gone wrong' The General replies that we all love our House of Peers, and so he cheerfully hands over his daughters to the Pirates, and to the strains of 'Poor Wandering One' all ends happily ever after.
You will notice in the finale of Act Two, after the Pirates 'Yield in Queen Victoria's name' that there is a quartet 'To Queen Victoria's name we bow' and a quotation from HMS Pinafore. Although this is not in the current scores of the opera, it does appear in Sullivan's original manuscript, which is now in the Pierpont Morgan library in New York. Mike Harris, our president, has obtained a microfilm copy of this and has included it in our production. He also arranged the joining of the overture to the opening of Act one, and rearranged 'With cat-like tread'.
This was the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera to have had a virtually simultaneous UK/USA première, at the end of December 1879. The reason behind this was that any American production earned no money for the composers, since the British copyright laws did not apply there. HMS Pinafore was all the rage then, and there were playing at the time some 40 different productions, all pirated, and none paying the composers anything in the way of copyright fees. There only recourse was to have the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company themselves perform the first American performance of the next opera themselves. The UK performance, on the 30th, was solely to establish copyright, and was of all places at the Royal Bijou theatre in Paignton, Devon, with the cast wearing odd HMS Pinafore based costumes (since they were then playing that at the time), and some even holding their scripts, as they had had very little time to learn it. The two composers were in New York supervising the American première, and were sending over the songs as they were written. The Royal Bijou theatre, alas, is no more and the Gerston hotel was built on its site. All that now remains is the 'grand staircase' which is in the hotel . The first London performance, at the Opera Comique, was on the 3rd April 1880. As this opera did not have its first London performance at the Savoy theatre, which became the home of D'Oyly Carte, it cannot strictly be called a 'Savoy' opera.
It is ironic that the new 'New York' production of 'Pirates' by Joseph Papp is playing to packed houses still, as it did when it was on in London, and when it came to our Manchester Opera House some three or four years ago. Anybody who has seen this production will agree that although it is a modern show, Gilbert's lyrics have not been altered, and despite a complete rearrangement of the instruments in the orchestra, Sullivan's harmonies remain intact. I feel that Sir Arthur and Sir William would have approved. Since the G&S shows were written, hundreds of other productions have come and disappeared without trace. There is a lot of life left in Gilbert and Sullivan yet.
The Pirates of Penzance was the fifth opera written by Gilbert and Sullivan, the others being Thespis (1871), Trial by Jury (1875), The Sorcerer (1877) and 'HMS Pinafore' (1878), and was followed in quick succession by 'Patience' in 1881 and 'Iolanthe' in 1882.
This was the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera to have had a virtually simultaneous UK/USA première, at the end of December 1879. The reason behind this was that any American production earned no money for the composers, since the British copyright laws did not apply there. HMS Pinafore was all the rage there, (as indeed it was in England) and there were playing at the time some 40 different productions, all pirated, and none paying the composers anything in the way of copyright fees. The only recourse the composers had was to have the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company themselves perform the first American performance of the next opera themselves. The UK performance, on the 30th, was solely to establish copyright, and was of all places at the Royal Bijou theatre in Paignton, Devon, with the cast wearing odd HMS Pinafore based costumes (since they were then playing that at the time), and some even holding their scripts, as they had had very little time to learn it. The two composers were in New York supervising the American première, and were sending over the songs as they were written. The Royal Bijou theatre, alas, is no more and the Gerston hotel was built on its site. All that now remains is the 'grand staircase' which is in the hotel . The first London performance, at the Opera Comique, was on the 3rd April 1880. As this opera did not have its first London performance at the Savoy theatre, which was built and opened (by Richard D'Oyly Carte) during the run of 'Iolanthe' in 1882, it cannot strictly be called a 'Savoy' opera.
Gilbert used his play 'Our Island Home' - written in 1871 - as the basis for Pirates. He was often to be found recycling his old plots in this way. Sullivan was suffering from the kidney ailment that eventually killed him. On their way across the Atlantic, Sullivan realised that although he had all of Act Two with him, he had left the sketches for Act One in England. He would have telegraphed for them but had not the time. He managed to recall most of the numbers except the entry of the girls' chorus 'Climbing over Rocky Mountains', and as this situation was virtually the same as the entrance of a troupe of Thespians in 'Thespis', the whole number was transferred to Pirates, where it remains to this day. Sullivan seemed to work best when under pressure (which would not do his kidney complaint any good) and the fortnight before the American première was to work until 4 or 5 in the morning, and be at the theatre (or Theater, I suppose) for mid-morning.
Parts of the music were telegraphed back to England as and when they were finished. Due to its unusual start, Pirates has had several altered endings: If you look at some early vocal scores you can see them. The one we are doing has the chorus 'To Queen Victoria's name we bow' in the Finale of Act Two, as it does appear in the original manuscript, and nowhere else, although only as a sketch.
It seems to be a popular opera still with the Americans, and the 'New York' production of 'Pirates' by Joseph Papp played to packed houses, as it did when it was on in London, and the regions. It is now available for amateur production, but at a cost for there are royalties to be paid if you do this version. A film was also made with Kevin Cline and Linda Rondstadt as Frederic and Mabel which is most enjoyable. Unfortunately this is not available on video and has been seen (twice) on Channel 4 where it is arbitrarily punctuated with commercials. However, anybody who has seen this or the stage production will agree that although it is a modern show, Gilbert's lyrics have not been altered, and despite a complete rearrangement of the instruments in the orchestra, Sullivan's harmonies remain intact. I feel that Sir Arthur and Sir William would have approved. Our Society has been going now for over 40 years (it was started in 1951) and I have every confidence that it (although not necessarily we) will still be here in another 40. Enjoy.
MAH Feb 1995.