Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


General Thoughts about the Opera

1.1 Climbing over from Thespis to Pirates
1.1.1 Climbing over: The happy accident that wasn't
1.1.2 Historical Background
1.1.3 A Survey of the Literature
1.1.4 The Two Surviving Manuscript Libretti
1.1.5 The License Copy Text
1.1.6 Gilbert's Act I Manuscript Draft (MD)
1.1.7 Chronology of the Pirates Manuscript Libretti
1.1.8 The Chronology of the License Copy
1.1.9 Sullivan's Autograph
1.1.10 Gilbert's Letter Reconsidered
1.1.11 "Character" Arguments
1.1.12 Conclusions

1.1 Climbing over from Thespis to Pirates

[The following essay from Marc Shepherd is a superb summary of previous discussions on the inclusion of Climbing over the Rocky Mountains in Pirates. Members of SavoyNet who contributed to the earlier discussions are picked out in bold. There is a related discussion in the Thespis Archive compiled by Paul McShane.]

1.1.1 Climbing over: The happy accident that wasn't

Every 6-12 months or so, someone asks the Savoynet about the story of how "Climbing over rocky mountain" got into The Pirates of Penzance. Net veterans, remembering a protracted on-line war of words dating from the late summer of 1994, quickly squelch the thread, advising those who may be curious to consult the archives. Since it has now been nearly three years since that debate, and there are many new Savoynetters since then, OOTW Pirates seems an appropriate time to recapitulate the case pro and con. I have also done some new research that bolsters the position I took on this issue three years ago. Nevertheless, I shall attempt herein a balanced presentation and analysis of the facts.

The question, in brief, is whether the inclusion of "Climbing over" in Pirates was a "happy accident," brought about by necessity when Sullivan found he had left his Act I sketches behind in England; or whether the partners intended all along to recycle the number from THESPIS. To save space, I'll refer to these alternatives as "Happy Accident" and "Original Intent" respectively. The Happy Accident story is told in most of the G&S history books, but hard evidence for it traces back to a single letter Gilbert wrote over twenty years after the fact. Most writers have simply accepted the contents of that letter without further investigation. Of course, the author's own testimony should not be rejected without compelling justification.

As the following discussion shall show, there are a number of curious facts which strongly suggest that "Climbing over rocky mountain" was included in Pirates by Original Intent. The case falls short of a "smoking gun" that would prove Original Intent beyond all doubt, but the circumstantial evidence for it is very strong indeed. I believe it was Michael Walters who first put the case for Original Intent in writing, in articles published in GASBAG and THE SAVOYARD in 1979-81. In the intervening years, more evidence has come to light, all of it favoring Original Intent without absolutely proving it. Michael has also posted to the Savoynet on this subject, as have Ron Orenstein and Dan Kravetz. I owe to them much of the discussion to follow, though I have also added research of my own. The principal opponent of Original Intent on the Savoynet has been Bruce Miller. If I understand Bruce's position, he does not categorically reject Original Intent, but he is not prepared to consider one of Gilbert's own letters false without absolutely airtight evidence.

Though I am convinced of Original Intent, I'll also try to present the case for Happy Accident as I go. I'll begin with the historical background, then present a review of the existing literature, then review the evidence, and finally present some conclusions.

1.1.2 Historical Background

The circumstances of the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance must be well known to most readers, but on the chance that some are unfamiliar with it, I recite the facts briefly here. HMS Pinafore, the opera that preceded Pirates , caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, where copyright laws afforded the authors no protection, there were eight productions of Pinafore playing simultaneously in New York, to say nothing of countless others all over the country.

Frustrated that they were getting no compensation from any of these productions, Gilbert, Sullivan, and D'Oyly Carte decided to mount an "authentic" Pinafore in New York, and also to give the premiere of their next opera there, instead of in London. Work on Pirates had already begun when the triumvirate made the decision to head for America.

The New York premiere of the D'Oyly Carte Pinafore cast seemed at first a fabulous success, but reviews were mixed. One journal wrote, "We've seen it as a comedy, we've seen it as a tragedy, but the play these Englishmen have brought over is quite a new play to us, and very good it is." However, another wrote that it "did not materially differ from the Pinafore we are familiar with."

Good or bad, it was not remunerative. By the time they arrived, the Pinafore craze had begun to run its course, and audiences for the D'Oyly Carte production tailed off quickly. In haste, Gilbert and Sullivan readied the new opera, which they had incorrectly assumed they would be able to prepare at their leisure.

On December 10th, Sullivan wrote a letter to his mother that proves crucial to the present discussion:

"I told you about our magnificent first night of the 'Pinafore' here. We have been going fairly well since then, but the houses are not good enough to pay us, and so we are hard at work rehearsing the new piece, as that, we hope, will bring great houses. I am writing day and night at the 1st Act--the second is done and in rehearsal. I cannot really enjoy myself until it is produced, and I cannot go anywhere or do anything. I fear I have left all my sketches of the 1st Act at home, as I have searched everywhere for them. I would have telegraphed for them, but they could not have arrived in time. It is a great nuisance as I have to re-write it all now, and can't recollect every number I did. We hope to get it out in a fortnight from next Saturday--27th. I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching."

(Note that he was off by four days about when the new opera would open--it actually bowed on the 31st.) Much confusion has surrounded this letter, because some sources have transcribed "1st Act" as "last Act." We are left in no doubt that it was indeed the Act I sketches he left behind by another letter to his mother two days after the opening:

Dearest Mum,--

At last I am out of my penal servitude and find a little breathing time to look around me, and write home. Since I last wrote to you I have had the usual tremendous strain upon me before producing a new work, even more so. For I found that all my sketches for the 1st Act which I had made before leaving home had been left behind in England.

The 2nd Act I brought with me complete, so they set to work rehearsing that while I wrote the 1st Act. Then I had the whole opera to score, of course--so that the last three weeks have been imprisonment with hard labour, never going to bed before 5:30 in the morning, sometimes later. However it was finished at last, even the Overture, and brought out the night before last with a success unparalleled in New York as our telegram will have told you.

As an aside, I must point out that what Sullivan describes as his "sketches" were, in all likelihood, only the barest shorthand describing his conception of the work. This is suggested by his sketches for Trial by Jury (the only ones to survive, unfortunately), which for the entire opera run to only four manuscript pages. When he says that "[t]he 2nd Act I brought with me complete," we must take this with a grain of salt, as his diary indicates that the Act II trio for Ruth, Frederic, and the King, was not written until December 17th, making it one of the last numbers to be composed.

The Pirates of Penzance made its triumphant premiere at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York on New Year's Eve, 1879. However, the partners still needed to secure British copyright. Under the laws of the time, this required an actual "performance". To prevent details of the new opera from becoming widely known, the first performance was given at the tiny Royal Bijou Theatre in the seaside town of Paignton. Originally announced for Monday, December 29, it was postponed by a day because the performing materials -coming from America on the ship BOTHNIA -had only just arrived, and the Company needed a day to rehearse.

No libretto or score from the Paignton performance survives, and the opera as presented there could have been considerably different from the work as we know it today. The performance was given by a Pinafore touring company, who used their Pinafore costumes and scenery and had only one rehearsal, on the evening of the 29th. The BOTHNIA had left New York on the 17th, giving Gilbert and Sullivan two full weeks to tinker with the opera before the official premiere.

The London premiere came a little over three months later, on April 3, 1880. Yet, there would be no published libretto or vocal score until approximately October of that year, a circumstance unique in the history of the G&S partnership and which presents innumerable difficulties in the present discussion. The Pirates of Penzance had three premieres, and it is impossible to say with confidence what version of the opera was given at any of them.

1.1.3 A Survey of the Literature

The fact that one of the numbers from The Pirates of Penzance had been lifted from Thespis does not seem to have been widely noticed in Gilbert and Sullivan's lifetimes. By the time Pirates appeared, Thespis was an eight-year-old memory. True, the Thespis libretto had been sold at the Gaiety theatre during the opera's sixty-four night run, but it was not generally available after that, and it would have been most unlikely that D'Oyly Carte's Pirates audiences would recall one chorus from what had been, at the time, an unremarkable Christmas pantomime.

In 1931, Townley Searle published "A Bibliography of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert." The First Edition of this book is extremely rare; my copy is a 1968 reprint. In the Introduction, written by one R. E. Swartwout, appears the following:

'Anyone who has ever looked into the libretto of "Thespis," the neglected parent of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, knows that the chorus from "The Pirates," "Climbing over rocky mountain," appears practically verbatim in the earlier opera. But he probably does not know the secret. It is revealed in the following letter, a copy of which Mr. Searle has passed on to me, and which I am able to print through the courtesy of Mr Percy de Strzelecki, to whom it was written:

Grim's Dyke
Harrow Weald
14th Aug./02.

Dear Sir,

I am obliged to you for forwarding me a copy of your letter to "The Clarion." I may state that "Thespis" was in no sense a failure although it achieved no considerable success. I believe it ran about seven nights-a fair run in those days. The piece was produced under stress of tremendous hurry. It was invented, written, composed, rehearsed, and produced within five weeks. The chorus "Climbing over rocky mountain" was not transferred from "Thespis" to "The Pirates of Penzance" for the reason you suggest, viz.: that I thought it too good to be lost. The history of the transfer is as follows: The "Pirates" was produced originally in New York, and when we--that is Sir Arthur Sullivan and I--arrived in that city for the purpose of rehearsing the piece, he found, to his consternation, that he had left nearly all the score of Act I. in his London chambers. It became necessary to re-write so much of the Act as was missing; and his marvellous memory enabled him to reproduce a considerable part of it-almost note for note as he subsequently discovered on comparing the new with the old score. Almost the only "number" that he could not recall was the chorus that accompanies the entrance of the Major General's daughters in Act I., and as the situation was practically identical with the entrance of the troupe of Greek comedians in "Thespis," I suggested that he should transfer the music and words, as they stood, from one piece to the other. This he did very successfully.

As far as I know, the fact that the same chorus occurs in both pieces had never been remarked upon until your letter appeared in "The Clarion." Indeed, I had forgotten the circumstance myself.

Yours faithfully,

W. S. Gilbert.'

Gilbert's letter to Mr de Strzelecki appears to have been private, judging from Swartwout's description of it as "a secret." Indeed, I have consulted numerous biographies and histories of the G&S partnership published before 1931, and not one describes the circumstances of how "Climbing over" made its way into Thespis. Most, in fact, make no mention of the borrowing at all.

Isaac Goldberg ("The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan," 1929) notices the fact, but imagines it is simply attributable to "the circumstances under which The Pirates of Penzance was written" and speculates that the opera contains "more than one unacknowledged borrowing from the unlucky firstling of the lucky pair." H. M. Walbrook ("Gilbert and Sullivan Opera," 1922) also notices the borrowing but makes no comment about why it was done.

So, the publication of Gilbert's letter in Searle's 1931 bibliography seems to be the first occasion that the Happy Accident story appeared in print, and every book in my collection written "after" that date tells the story basically this way. There seems no reason to doubt it, a letter from the author himself being about the strongest evidence you could have.

There are a few points in Gilbert's letter that should not pass without comment. Mr. Strzelecki's letter to "The Clarion," to which Gilbert was replying, evidently described Thespis as a failure. Gilbert disagrees, saying that "it ran about seven nights--a fair run in those days." If Searle has transcribed Gilbert correctly, then there's a substantial memory lapse here, for the actual run of Thespis was sixty-four nights. Bruce Miller has speculated that Gilbert could have written "seventy", not "seven". As Bruce put it: Doesn't that ring a little funny -has there ever been a time in British Theater history when seven performances was considered a 'fair run'?

However, Lisa Berglund replied: Yes, there has. Throughout the Restoration and eighteenth century, and into the early 19th century, three nights was considered a basic run, with nine nights being the standard for a successful performance. This system developed because authors received payment above house costs on the third, sixth and ninth nights. A "seven-night run" would be very fair, because the author would have been paid twice.

Of course, the premiere of Thespis, in 1871, was well past the period Lisa describes. Terence Rees, in his book on Thespis, shows that all of the major Christmas pantomimes of the 1871-72 season ran until between mid-February and late March -all at least a month and a half. In an 1881 autobiographical sketch, Gilbert said that Thespis had run to about "eighty" nights, so Bruce's guess that Searle mis-transcribed Gilbert is a plausible one. I believe that all subsequent authors have copied Searle's transcription, so unless the autograph copy of the letter turns up, we won't know for sure.

Gilbert's memory is faulty about at least one thing: Gilbert and Sullivan DID NOT "transfer the music and words, as they stood, from one piece to the other." Sullivan transferred the music directly only through the end of the first chorus, and he re-harmonized all the vocal parts -necessary because the original piece was for mixed voices. Gilbert made numerous line changes, as well, altering "lads and lasses" to "little lasses," among many other things. I'll have more to say about these changes later on.

Gilbert must have hoped his audience wouldn't think too closely about the words. Pirates is supposed to take place in Penzance, near the sea shore, but that locale has no "rocky mountains." However, from an author that expected his audience to accept Major-General Stanley's daughters paddling in the English Channel in February, perhaps this isn't so great a suspension of disbelief.

In his final paragraph, Gilbert says that Mr. Strzelecki was the first to notice the reuse of a Thespis number in Pirates , and Gilbert claims even to have forgotten about it himself. Whether Strzelecki was indeed the first we cannot say, but Gilbert's comment certainly demonstrates that it was not a well-known fact.

Despite one or two lapses of memory, Gilbert's letter is compelling evidence in favor of Happy Accident. Gilbert can't have known about Sullivan's letters to his mother. Yet, both sets of letters, over twenty years apart, agree on the basic fact that Sullivan left his Act I sketches behind and had trouble remembering all he had written. Sullivan's letters do not specifically mention "Climbing over rocky mountain" or Thespis, so Gilbert's letter remains the one and only source for "that" part of the story. But, with Sullivan corroborating at least part of Gilbert's account, it would take strong evidence to conclude that Gilbert is mistaken. We turn to that evidence now.


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