Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


General Thoughts about the Opera (Concluded)

1.3 Gilbertian Kant?
1.4 Every number is a belter
1.5 Pappistical Pirates
1.6 It's a Masterpiece
1.7 It gets tiresome
1.8 What a Dull Discussion!

1.3 Gilbertian Kant?

Sam L. Clapp wrote: Has it never occurred to anyone that a good alternate title for Pirates would be "Kant never could do nothin'"?? The near-categorical critique of Kantian Philosophy is most astonishing!! Of course, there I go again, giving Gilbert credit for being an intellectual.

1.4 Every number is a belter

Chris Webster wrote: For what it's worth, Pirates is among my top two shows. It has always been a big favourite of mine and is the one show (well one of two) where there is no item that I wait to get out of the way every number is a belter. Pirates also contains my all-time favourite G & S scene - the paradox scene. When this is done with the traditional actions it really is Gilbert's staging at it's best! Donald Adams magnificent bubbling characterisation of PK is one I remember so fondly from concerts, and ranks (for me) with John Reed's 'happy little man' Ko-Ko portrayal in the 66 film.

1.5 Pappistical Pirates

David Craven wrote: As most people on the net know, I like Iolanthe less than any of the other works of G&S, yet the one work I would least like to attend is Pirates of Penzance. And, judging by the response to this OOTW topic, I suspect I am not alone. Why am I tired of Pirates? Well, it is a series of issues:

1. It is over performed, yet the performances tend to be quite similar. For this, I blame, on one hand, Joseph Papp, whose interpretation and vision of Pirates, particularly among non-G&S companies, appears to have had a great deal of influence. Among the traits of a Papp-Pirates:

a. The Pirate King played for in a very athletic fashion, with over-emphasis on the not-so-subtle jokes, and a essentially ignores the more subtle points of humor. In addition, the Pirate King invariably adds in a number of pieces of unnecessary business.

b. A Ruth played in a very "over the top" fashion, who is played for the low humor, but none of the pathos of the role.

c. A Sergeant played for the dancing end of the blocking, not singing.

d. A major-general who is invariably played as an "older gentlemen" and a bit of a doddering fool.

e. Daughters played as pseudo-bimbos.

Were the performance more varied, I might not find it boring, but invariably the directors watched the video of the Papp performances.

2. The Tenor Character is Boring: Unlike many other G&S characters, the tenor in Pirates is simply boring. There is no real depth to the character, and it really is not susceptible to any other interpretation.

3. The music is too repetitive: Many of the pieces in Pirates are strophic, in fact it would seem more than in any other show. The tunes may be wonderful, but they are overplayed, even just within the show.

David Duffey replied: This is not the case for me. I only saw the Papp production on TV, so cannot judge its theatrical effect. As regards 'traditional' performances I think PP has a number of advantages:

  • It does not rely on the comic business of the patter baritone, giving others a chance to stop the show.
  • Pirate King is a peach of a part.
  • The Sergeant is a great cameo.
  • The tenor part can be played as a pompous ass to very great effect.
  • There is more chorus work than average, with opportunities for individual brilliance. When, as used to be almost mandatory, TbyJ is performed as a double bill, the chorus can have three costume changes (although many companies were/are cheapskate and send on GS's daughters in what they were wearing in court). I like to see and hear a great variety of reaction in "A man" following "Stop ladies pray."

Thomas Drucker replied: David Craven's explanation for his reluctance to go to productions of Pirates can easily be read as an assault on the Joseph Papp version. There has been plenty of criticism of the Papp version over the years (my first letter from Marc Shepherd a decade and a half ago was devoted to the subject), especially from those with a concern for orchestration. It seems that many of David's objections, however, are to the lack of originality of subsequent directors who allow the letter of the Papp production to prevail without worrying about the spirit. Tolkien is no more to blame for the generations of imitations in the fantasy genre than Papp for the docility of later directors. It is true that Kevin Kline played the Pirate King rather more athletically than tradition dictates. It is also true that for some members of the audience there will never be another such Pirate King, a role that benefited from all of Kline's skills. Following the Papp production blindly without someone similar to play the King is a good recipe for failure.

In a similar way, David complains about the productions in which the Sergeant is given more prominence as a dancer than as a singer. After seeing Tony Azito on stage in other roles, I have to admit that I should not want to be deprived of his dancing skills in Pirates. There are plenty of later Sergeants who might as well work on their singing in light of their lack of similar adroitness. Some of David's other criticisms of Papp-inspired productions are objections to what seem perfectly reasonable interpretations of the roles of, say, Frederic or the Major-General. I had no enthusiasm for Rex Smith going into Pirates, but was pleasantly surprised. Sherlockians may find a touch of Nigel Bruce in the George Rose version of the Major General but that is not such a bad thing. I also think that subsequent performers in those two roles have had better luck those as Pirate King or Sergeant. There is no shortage of accusations that can be lodged against the Papp version. It is also true that many subsequent productions have tried to ape it without the necessary resources. The attractive features of Papp's Pirates are not thereby tarnished any more than Hitchcock's films suffer from his imitators.

1.6 It's a Masterpiece

Gordon Pascoe declared: Personally, I rather like to sit back and enjoy the masterpiece that Pirates of Penzance is. No second guessing the author for me. Just sheer pleasure. What music! What a libretto! What clever pacing and contrasts! What characters. In short, unmitigated Joy and Rapture. (And it's not even my favourite G&S).

1.7 It gets tiresome

Bill Schneider wrote: At first, Pirates had been my favorite G&S opera, but that was before I'd seen a production of Yeomen (Sudbury [MA] Savoyards, this past March, and excellent in all respects), which later became my favorite, and I eventually grew tired of Pirates. But it's not that I don't like it; it just gets tiresome, considering how overdone it is, and I can only reconcile myself with the 'holes' in the plot so many times. I've also felt that Act II tends to drag a little bit, with the whole sequence after the Paradox trio until With Cat Like Tread. Biff Florescu interjected: I'm constantly amazed that people think that Pirates drags in the second act!!! It's short and enjoyable from top to bottom. This weekend, people kept commenting on how fast it went!

Bill Schneider continued: I've seen the movie version with Kevin Kline et al, and hated it (after I'd purchased the D'OC 1968 CD set). Mostly, I couldn't stand what they did with the "orchestra," having been a "serious musician" for much longer than I've been into G&S. Something also didn't quite sit right with me having the Sergeant and the police dance all over the screen; my interpretation of the police has always been that they're sort of stiff and clumsy. But maybe that's just me. Not counting the movie, Pirates definitely has its bright spots too-- the Sergeant is one of the best true bass roles in the canon, and the show as a whole is one of the most fun and lively (well, at least except when it starts to drag in Act II). It is often (frequently, that is =)) the show that gets people into G&S, and for that reason I'd say it's worth doing as often as it is, especially if it encourages more people to see or perform in other G&S shows that they might not otherwise.

1.8 What a Dull Discussion!

[Towards the latter end of the discussion Derrick McClure delivered the following impassioned call to the ramparts!]

Derrick: Come on, Netters what's wrong? Compared to the brilliant discussions we've had on the other operas, why has Pirates provoked so little? We've had some fascinating information on "Climbing over rocky mountain" [Section 1] and about the original casting of the Sergeant [Section 3.5.1], some jokey comments on Ruth's deafness [Section 5.3], some half-hearted attempt to perform the same daft trick of "villainising" on Frederic as we had on Nanki-Poo [Section 5.1], and the familiar canards about paddling in February and Frederick's age [Section 2.2] surely that's not all the ideas we have on this opera?

The fact if it is a fact and I haven't missed anything (but I don't think I have) that Pirates seems so uncontroversial is quite interesting in itself. Connoisseurs like us don't necessarily rate it among the very best (in my listing it's number 5), but it's certainly one of the most popular possibly the second most performed opera in the canon. And by no stretch of the imagination is it a negligible or a forgettable work. Unlike the gentle sweetness which dominates the atmosphere of Patience it's musically and dramatically the most boisterous of the lot: for sheer joyous abandon it's bound to make a tremendous impression on any listener of whatever degree of musical sophistication. Is it just because it's so straightforwardly GOOD, with none of the complications or uncertainties of some of the others, that it's prompted so little in the way of discussion?

David Craven responded: Actually, as I recall, it was my position that Frederic was NOT able to be turned into a villain, no matter how closely the script was investigated. And that is one of the primary problems in Pirates. The lack of a true villain. In most of the other shows, whether we take the traditional approach (Katisha) or the action based approach (Nanki-Poo), there is someone who can be played up to be a villain AND is someone that we do not like. Yet in Pirates the only real villain is Ruth, and she is normally played as being so pathetic (and such interpretation is based, in part, on the script) that she is truly hard to hate.

Villainy is important in moving along the plot, and it is this lack of villainy which results in the comparatively cardboard nature of the show. This in turn means that Pirates is subject to fewer interpretations, which in turn results in a sameness from show to show, and a corollary degree of boredom. Even the papp-icided pirates is more similar to the traditional pirates, more so than, for example, an innovative production of Patience is to a straight-laced, period appropriate production of Patience. (On the other hand, Pirates may be the best show to examine a performer's ability to perform G&S well. As it is least susceptible to other takes (even more so than that other bore, Iolanthe) it would be comparatively better way to judge talent. )


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