Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Plot


2.1 Plot oddities

Andrew Crowther wrote: Pirates is well-known for the number of holes in the plot. Lisa Haferkamp mused: Odd. I've never known it for such. I suppose every G&S opera plot has its holes, oddities, and/or loose ends. Andrew Crowther continued: Everyone knows how strange it is that it should be warm enough to paddle in the ocean off Cornwall on what is clearly March 1st. (It's obvious to me that Gilbert simply didn't notice that the leap-day plot twist fixes the date of the action like this.) How many other plot oddities are there, I wonder? Lisa Haferkamp observed: But "The glass is rising very high". I take this to refer to a thermometer. It's not necessarily March first. It could very well be February 28th. And neither of those HAS to be the date; they might have thought Fred's birthday to be in July for all we know. (My theory on the birthday is that Ruth and PK lied about the leap-year thing so as to bring Fred back to them and consequently prevent their extermination. Their "spirits faint" were because of their impending doom.) Meredith Dixon interjected: "Glass" here surely means "barometer", not "thermometer." "Glass" is a common synonym for "barometer" even today, and that usage was current in the 1800's also -my 1890 Webster's International Dictionary lists "a weather glass, a barometer" as a meaning of the noun "glass". "Thermometer" is not so listed. David Duffey confirmed: "The glass" does mean a barometer therefore high pressure and fine weather, i.e. not raining and little or no wind.

Andrew Crowther continued: Think a little about the Major-General's daughters. This must be the most unlikely excuse for a female chorus in the operas. I believe the original strength of the G&S chorus was about two dozen of each sex (judging from the internal evidence of the libretti) - say 20 women, if we take Patience as our guide. It's reasonable to suppose that the Major-General and his absent (and presumably exhausted) wife also produced one or two sons - let's be on the conservative side and say 10. That's 30 offspring, which, even supposing that some of them are twins, is a pretty tall order. Was the Major-General married more than once, I wonder? That would take the pressure off things a little, so to speak - though we also have the question of the age difference between the eldest daughter and the youngest. They are all of marriageable age, clearly: even if we suppose the youngest to be 16 years old, then the eldest is likely to be in her mid-thirties, which seems to have been pretty well the upper limit when it came to the marriage stakes in Victorian times. (And that reminds me: it is, on the face of it, extremely unlikely that all the M-G's daughters should be unmarried; so we may suppose that there are more of the blighters living in married bliss off-stage.) But none of the Pirates objects to being left with an ageing spinster, though Gilbert would certainly have brought that joke in if it was appropriate. In short, it don't add up: it is my view that some of the events of the opera are not strictly credible, which is, as you may imagine, a great shock to me.

Jeff DeMarco replied: I always thought of them as being wards of some kind, akin to the Lord Chancellor. Maybe Foster Daughters, or something like that. Of course, he would have had help raising them from his parent or parents. After all, he is no orphan. Perhaps he comes from a culture that allows polygamy, and sired the daughters from various members of a harem. Henry Stephens replied: Oh you civilians! (I'm one, too, alas.) He was a major general and in the Royal Army. The Army had a lot of wars in various places, so he had the chance to meet LOTS of local women who would surely appreciate such a very modern model. I always thought it would be interesting, make the audience think, if the daughters in the chorus were all sorts of ethnic nationalities. Some Indians with dots on their foreheads, some Africans, some Palestinians, etc., all hailing from parts of the far-flung British Empire to meet their many-medalled dad.

Jim Parhamovich wrote: I always thought that since the daughters were "wards in chancery" and that MGS was sort of a guardian. However, that conflicts with the plot of Iolanthe, which has Phyllis being a ward in chancery and needing the Lord Chancellor's permission to marry. Anyway, I never thought of MGS as being a biological father to the "daughters". Andrew Crowther replied: This makes a great deal of sense to me. I should have thought of it before. The allusion to "wards of chancery" makes no sense otherwise, so perhaps it was a hasty attempt on Gilbert's part to explain away the M-G's huge brood. And David Craven replied: Could it be that all of Major-General Stanley's "Daughters" are the progeny of the members of his regiment, all of whom, with their wives, were slaughtered in some action? As Stanley was the sole survivor, and as he was a major general, he has taken charge of them. After all whole regiments and families were slaughtered in the retreat from Kabul by the Afgahanis. Lisa Haferkamp observed: Some of them might be his daughters' friends, or his friends' daughters, and so forth. And as to Mabel's "wards in chancery" line, I think it might have been a clever lie to scare off the pirates.

Andrew Crowther continued: Next, I shall prove to you that it is extremely unlikely that a group of Peers would have gone off and devoted their lives to piracy. ... No, I can't be bothered. Lisa Haferkamp declared: They're a lot of confounded radicals who grew tired of their fairy wives, of course. And Gordon Pascoe observed: I see your difficulty. The mental gymnastics required to appreciate that such a large family, all of whom are beauties, could all be the MG's daughters is enough to tax the most agile of minds. But to castigate, denounce and denigrate the Cornish weather is simply too much. For shame! The beautiful maidens who could paddle in July would probably survive hardly less badly in mid-winter since the difference of ocean temperature is at most a mere 1 degree. Indeed, it is one of the happiest circumstances of Cornish culture that an invigorating winter swim (or paddle) remains every bit as "refreshing" during the balmiest of summers.

2.2 Frederic's birthday

Paul McShane wrote: The actual date of Frederic's birthday and therefore the date on which Act I of "Pirates" is set is a fertile field for discussion. Consider the following:

  1. 1900 was not a leap year (fact).
  2. Frederic was celebrating the end of his 21st year on earth in Act I.
  3. Frederic found out about his year/birthday complications in Act II and told Mabel shortly afterwards that his 21st birthday would not be reached until 1940.
  4. Major-General Stanley told the pirates that he could whistle all the airs from "Pinafore".
  5. "Pinafore" premiered in May, 1878, a mere 6 months after the premiere of "Sorcerer".
  6. If Frederic's 21st birthday was, indeed, in 1940, his birth date would be 88 years earlier (not 84 years, because 1900 was not a leap year), i.e. in 1852. This would put Act I of "Pirates" (21 years later) in 1873, well before "Pinafore" was conceived. Therefore, if Frederic was right about 1940, the Major-General was wrong, and vice-versa - a most ingenious paradox.

So, who do we believe? If Frederic was correct, the M-G would have invented the name of "Pinafore" before either Gilbert or Sullivan had even thought of it, and the reference would have been incomprehensible to his audience unlike the rest of his introductory song.

On the other hand, if the M-G's "Pinafore" reference is to be believed, Frederic got his calculation wrong but not too wrong. Could he have made an error? Of course he could! There would have been no reason for him to try to calculate the year of his 21st birthday at any time before the Pirate King told him about The Paradox and reminded him of his sense of duty, and a mere five minutes or so later he sang of 1940. During this short interval, he never left the stage, and was continually occupied with dialogue and a trio with PK and Ruth in the dark. Let's face it - Frederic is one of the dumber characters in the canon (he believed Ruth was beautiful, for instance), and it would have been amazing if he got his sums right in the circumstances. And after all, 1940 was far enough into the future for it not to have mattered if the real year was 1940, 1944 or 1948 for the purposes of his line in the recitative with Mabel.

In my view, there is no contest. It is very plausible that Frederic could have been slightly wrong in his rushed calculations, but inconceivable that the Major-General could have known about "Pinafore" before G&S did. So, let us believe the Major-General.

We have seen that if Frederic's 21st birthday was 1940, Act I of "Pirates" would have been in 1873. What about 1944? That would set Act I four years later, at the end of February, 1877 - still before "Sorcerer" opened, and too early for the M-G to know "Pinafore", or for his audience to have heard of it. 1948? That is much better - still in the 1940's to give some verisimilitude to Frederic's 1940 line, and placing Act I in early 1881, during the initial run of "Pirates" itself, and making the "Pinafore" line very topical. 1948 for me!

One final thing. I once had a secretary who, like Rossini, was born on 29 February. She told me that it was usual for persons like herself to celebrate "birthdays" in non-leap years on 1 March.

And so, for my money:

  1. Act I of "Pirates" takes place on 1 March, 1881.
  2. Frederic was born 21 years earlier, on 29 February, 1860.
  3. His 21st birthday will occur 88 years after birth, in 1948.

And how long after Act I does Act II occur? Well, that's another story.

Sara Hoskinson Frommer replied: Just a reminder that Isaac Asimov addressed this question in a short story published as "The Gilbert and Sullivan Mystery" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine January 1, 1981, and reprinted as "The Year of the Action" in Asimov's Banquets of the Black Widows, New York, Fawcett Crest, 1984. Two characters disagree vehemently whether the action in Pirates begins on March 1, 1877 or March 1, 1873, and the Black Widows consider all kinds of complications based on whether Gilbert knew about the lack of a leap year in 1900. As usual in those stories, Henry, the waiter, solves the puzzle, though not with Paul's solution. Gordon Pascoe replied: Prodigious scholarly research does not alter the fact that the author, who is personally acquainted with the facts, gives us a clear indication of "author's intent" that Frederic's 21st natal day will not be reached until 1940. So there it be, and thar she are! (Unless, of course, some unimpeachable source, such as Townley Searle, "discovers" some compelling evidence to the contrary.)

Neil Midkiff wrote: The Gregorian calendar omits three leap years in each 400 years by skipping Feb. 29 in those years which are divisible by 100 but not by 400. Thus 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years but 2000 will be. It is clear that Gilbert was well-educated enough to know this. Perhaps the public at large might not have been aware of it, and it's easy to believe that Frederic would not have known it. (He's so math-impaired that he has to count on his fingers to divide 21 by four to realize "I am a little boy of five!"). I can see Gilbert deciding that the scansion of "nineteen forty" would make Frederic's line easier to set and sing. So I can agree with Paul McShane that the error is to be attributed to Frederic, not the Major-General, nor to Gilbert's own ignorance. Sarah Mankowski wrote: Absolute agreement, Neil

2.3 Updates

2.3.1 The Pirates of Pupukea

David Craven wrote: As Joseph Papp already updated Pirates, the door is open for very radical up-dates of this show...

I propose "The Pirates of Pupukea" (Note: Pupukea is on the Island of Oahu, right near the great surfing spot of Waimea Bay... but somehow the Pirates of Waimea Bay didn't seem to have the right feel...)

The setting is Hawaii in the '70's.... the 1970's...

The scene opens on a Beautiful late February day (Feb. 29, 1972 to be exact)... a group of surfers are gathered around a young surfer... Frederic... They are saluting his last day as a Surfer... They sing the famous song "Pour, oh pour, the Pirate's Primo, Tap, oh tap, the pirate's keg" (Primo was a once-popular beer brewed in Hawaii until about 1980... it was a favourite of surfers... in fact it one time had about 80% of the Island beer market)

It is young Frederic's birthday... and he is freed from his indentures having reached his 18th Birthday. His old baby-sitter, Ruth, comes in and tells the story of how Frederic ended up being a surfer. She had been baby-sitting for Frederic when Frederic's father had suffered an accident. With his dying breath, he made her promise that she would make sure that Frederick was a "surfrider" until he was 18. Being new to Hawaii, she assumed that Frederic was to learn how to surf. She immediately took him to the beach and made him join a surfer gang. The next day she discovered that the nearby high school, Waimea, had the nickname the surfriders... but by then it was too late.

Out of shame for her mistake, she joined the gang and became their "radical" maid of all work....

The surf begins to rise, and as The Chief Surfer sings "Oh better far to Surf and drown", the rest of the Surfers paddle out to ride the big waves.... but first they insist that he take Ruth with her... as she has spent too much time in the sun and the sand, the bloom of youth has disappeared from her.

As Frederic and Ruth begin to discuss the future, a number of girls on a Field Trip from St. Andrews Priory arrive at the beach.... As they start to enter the water, Frederic appears and warns them not to leave their purses, wallets and valuables alone and unguarded on the beach. (Stop Ladies pray... your valuables should not remain unguarded..) He warns them that there are surfers out there... before they can leave, the Surfers come back in and seize the girls... but just in time the School Principal arrives... He sings "I am the very epitome of an elderly episcopal educator" as he tells the surfers to stop....

The Surfer's threaten him, until he points out that he is a "Libertarian" The Surfers, all being Libertarians themselves, free the school principal, but express surprise that every time they try to rob someone, they claim to be a libertarian, yet no libertarian ever gets more than a few hundred votes... As the surfers, the girls and the principal sing a song to anarchy, the curtain drops on Act I.

Act II takes place on the Campus of St. Andrews Priory, located on the slope of Diamond Head, near famous Waikiki Beach...

The Principal is unable to work, realizing that he has lied, for in fact he is no libertarian, in fact, he has never been one...Frederic, now dressed like a Hawaii Banker (this essentially means that he has added shoes), says that he did what was only right. At this point several lifeguards walk in....

2.3.2 Keystone Kops tap dance

Louis Wernick wrote: I have been away for a couple of weeks and missed you all. From the postings I saw today on Pirates, I wonder if there is anything I have missed? Are we looking for alternate versions, as one in Penzance where the police are all tap-dancing Keystone Kops who are supposed to keep the rich summer patrons happy. One resort, in which Ruth and Samuel work, has a bunch of rowdy rich young gentlemen, all hiding the fact that they are peers by pretending to be pirates who occasionally smuggle sherry aboard their ship and don't attack orphans. The other one, in the Castle near the town of Mordan (Tremorden), has as its main tenant a man of no particular checkable background who brings about ten young ladies the same age because he states he is a Major General. When the two groups are at odds, the Keystone Kops do some tap dancing, Ruth says that you have to leave the rich boys alone because they are peers, and the young ladies all think it is important enough to snag these young men even though the only difference between men and boys is the price of their pirate toys.

2.4 Stanley and his Women

David Craven wrote: Here is a very off the wall theory about Major General Stanley and his women: Stanley gets cashiered from the Indian Army (Private Stanley) for some less than savory activities. He returns to Britain with his ill gotten gain, moves to Penzance, buys a mansion, hires a number of women (his daughters), and goes into business providing discrete services for Military Officers who are on leave. In other words, Tremorden Castle has become a High Class Brothel..... and the "Wards in Chancery" bit is just an act to provide some cover for the otherwise oblivious neighbors. And of course, he does not want them to "marry" the pirates as he would need to restock his house. No textual basis for this (NONE, ABSOLUTELY NONE WHATSOEVER) but it would certainly provide an "interesting" take and subtext for an awful lot of the performers.

2.5 A Formulaic Repetition

Tom Shepard asked: Is it the case that Pirates is fundamentally a formulaic copy of Pinafore? Marc Shepherd replied: I don't agree with the premise here at all. Aside from the fact that they are both nautical, I don't see much similarity between the two operas - except for the core similarities that ALL the G&S operas share. Musically, they are quite dissimilar. Pirates features very broad musical humor, has many Verdian touches, and is nearly through-composed. Pinafore is a "number" opera and has a far more restrained "English" style. Aside from my lengthy "Climbing Over" article I haven't had much to say about the opera, but Pirates is probably my overall favorite, because so much of the action is set to music - a greater proportion than in any other G&S opera besides Trial by Jury. Here, more than in any other G&S opera, Gilbert calls on Sullivan to set the mood, and he does so brilliantly. To give but one example, consider Mabel's recitative in Act II after her long sequence of duets with Frederic. Sullivan very cleverly makes the transition from the lovers' seriousness to the comic re-entry of the police.

Derrick McClure was indignant in his reply: I don't think the Netter who described Pirates as "a formulaic repetition of Pinafore" should be let off that easily. Come on, chum how do you justify that preposterous statement? The musical styles are as different as they could be (Pirates is better, but that's not all the musical atmospheres are as different as any two operas in the canon.) The characters are also very different; about the only thing they have in common is a tenor hero and a soprano heroine, like nearly every other opera and operetta in history. The heroine's father appears in both, but his character and dramatic function, not to mention voice, is totally different. Both have remarkable characters as the bass-bar. parts, but again, wholly dissimilar characters. The stories are very unlike: Pinafore is a straight romance, with (indeed) a perfectly serious social commentary as undertone, until the very end when the hitherto straight story gets a crazy resolution; in Pirates the romantic storyline is based on a fantastic premise and comically developed characterisation, giving a far greater degree of depth to the comedy. So how is one a formulaic repetition of the other?????????

Paul McShane replied: OK, Derrick. While Pirates is one of my favourites, and at the risk of alienating Bruce Miller, I agree with Bill Schneider that Act II drags between the Paradox trio and "With Cat-like Tread" [Section 1.7]. I don't particularly like "Ah, leave me not to pine (oak? elm? maple?)", although I can understand that others may go into raptures about this duet. The real problem, IMHO, is the unbroken sequence of Mabel and Frederic in recitative, duet, ballad and ensemble. And since this prolonged s.c.e.n.e is always set in subdued lighting, the cumulative effect tends to be soporific. It would have been much more effective if the Frederic/Mabel pieces could have been staggered. And better still if Gilbert had managed to find a few more scenes in the whole opera with Frederic actually OFF stage. Regarding the other candidate for an Act II dull spot ("Sighing softly"), [Section 3.2] I must, however, side with the majority of Savoynetters who consider this piece as a highlight, not a lowlight. Paul did in fact raise the ire of Bruce Miller: I don't recall making any comment about this section of Pirates, but if you are including the trio "Away, Away" (one of the more thrilling exit numbers in G & S), and "When a Felon's not engaged in his employment" (surely among the comedic highlights of Pirates) on the basis of these two numbers alone I would respectfully differ with your assessment. As to the long Frederic/Mabel duet which includes "Ah, leave me not to pine", you're entitled to your opinion. Some of us may feel that it provides both welcome relief from the more boisterous sections and also has significant plot development. Perhaps you've been dulled by too many uninspired performances. Henry Odum replied: FWIW I'd second that - in productions I've seen or been in, one of the single biggest laughs in the whole show has been in response to Mabel's : " It seems so long.." But I can see how if the performers don't see/find the humor in the scene, it could certainly drag. And "Away, Away" I'd agree, IMHO, is one of the most rousing numbers in all of G&S. Funny thing about Pirates with me - whenever I hear it's being done, my initial reaction is, " Pirates AGAIN!?! Can't we see some of the other shows? Must it be Pirates for the umpteenth time?" Then - when I go see it - just when I think I'm tired of the show - I invariably have a good time. From the exuberance of the opening scene, and "Oh Better Far To Live and Die", the comedy of " Oh False One, " (yes - I'm skipping "When Frederic was a Little Lad - I'm sorry - it's always too long for me.), the excitement of Mabel's vocal acrobatics in "Poor Wand'ring One, and yes even the overdone "I Am the Very Model...", and etc., and etc. through to the end and the mischievously cynical patriotism of the appeal to Queen Victoria name - I always find myself having a good time, no matter how many times I've seen it. Of course perhaps I've been fortunate - I don't think I've ever seen a really bad production of the show - uneven ones certainly, but never a truly bad one.

And Derrick McClure wrote: I don't agree that the long Mabel-Frederic sequence is dull: admittedly it requires two pretty good performers to carry it off, but the musical variety keeps your interest (mine anyway) engaged. From the short recit to the very dramatic "Stay, Frederic, stay!", the beautiful "Ah, leave me not", and the resumption of the vigorous up-beat mood in "Oh here is love" - not only is it a splendidly-constructed musical sequence but dramatically a very fine in-depth exploration of the love-relationship between Mabel and Frederic - in fact, it makes this one of the most interesting love stories in the canon. AND you've got all the time the underlying ironic humour in that the whole situation - he must leave her because his indenture has got sixty-four more years to run but they'll wait for each other till then - is totally crazy - one of the best "Gilbertian" situations in the series.


Page created 28 April 1998