Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Libretto

4.1 Frederic's Virginity
4.2 The Whys and Wherefores
4.3 Ruth vs the maidens
4.4 A false tip-off
4.5 Of legal knowledge
4.6 One maiden breast = double negative?
4.7 For what we ask

4.1 Frederic's Virginity

David Craven wrote: I know that this has been discussed before, but when Frederic asks whether anyone will give up their matrimonial ambitions, what is he asking? I realize that the traditional interpretation is that he is asking for someone to accept him instead of some gilded lordling or belted duke... but couldn't we also read it as a request for some women to change his condition as Virgin to ex-virgin? And of course as her condition, assuming that she is also a virgin, which based on most interpretations, she would be, would this also then make it far more difficult for her to marry. As with Major General Stanley and his house of Hookers, this interpretation is a bit over the top, but again, would it not add an interesting subtext to the actors performances. And unlike the forgoing, it appears to be sufficiently motivated in the text to be allowed to happen with only small apoplectic fits by traditionalists.

Ted Rice observed: David Craven comments on the possibility of Stanley's "Girls" being an anthology of pro's. That might be why they reject the pirates in the first scene - no apparent money - and why they accept them after it is revealed that they are all noblemen. After all, it's a cash business.

4.2 The Whys and Wherefores

Rebecca Consentino posed the following Questions:

1) If Frederic had not been such a thing of beauty, would Mabel have been swayed by quite so keen a sense of duty?

Marc Shepherd replied: I don't think so!

2) Mabel enters after Freddie's second verse. Does this mean that she should be made up to have a homely face and bad complexion? And if so, does this mean that she'd given up all hope of ever winning man's affection, and that her sisters were mistaken in thinking she was acting out of duty?

Marc Shepherd replied: I've never seen a production that had a deliberately ugly Mabel. It is notable, however, that in one of Gilbert's early drafts, it was explicitly stated that this WAS Gilbert's intention. Of course, the fact that this passage didn't survive strongly suggests that he abandoned the idea. Steve Lichtenstein replied: On the other hand, Frederick DOES address his love as "Beautiful Mabel" (he would if he could, but he is not able). Of course, he's partial!

3) Should Freddie really be considered generous in offering to love even the plainest of maidens, when all of them are quite younger than 47?

Marc Shepherd replied: In many productions that I've seen, the girls are clearly offended at the suggestion that any of them might be considered plain. In polite company, I think it clearly would be an indelicate suggestion, to say the least.

4) Can Ruth really be considered to have "deceived" Fred when she warned him that he would find her a "wife of a thousand"? With this warning, could it not be seen that it was wrong of Fred to break his relationship with her - that, in this instance, he may indeed have shirked his duty?

Marc Shepherd replied: Ruth is obviously dissembling, given her aside that, should he see the Major-General's daughters, she is "lost, lost, lost."

5) Why didn't Frederic ever realize that he was born on leap year? If he didn't actually know what his birth date was for 21 years, could it be possible that Ruth and P.K. fabricated the whole paradox story in an effort to keep him, since he was their best pirate?

Marc Shepherd replied: To the first part of your question, I've always assumed that during the years of Frederic's apprenticeship, no one had cause to reread his indenture agreement, and so his precise date of birth never came up in discussion. The idea that Ruth and the PK made the whole thing up is similar to the suggestion often made on Savoynet that Buttercup and Inez made up their baby-switching stories. I've always believed that Gilbert does NOT expect us to read such depth into his plots, and if he did, he would make it plainly obvious. In this case, of course, part of the joke is that the Pirates are scrupulously honest in everything they do, so it would be out of character for the PK to make this up. The joke Gilbert wants us to see is that Frederic's absurd sense of duty causes him to adhere even to such a silly technicality. Andrew Solovay wrote: Perhaps Frederic always knew that he was born on February 29th, but hadn't ever reflected on the fact that this meant that he only had had five birthdays. And, of course, he always assumed that his indenture lasted until his "twenty-first year"- until the PK&R showed the document, which specifically said "twenty-first birthday".

Clive Woods wrote: I think Frederic DID know his birth date. Where he was wrong was in thinking that his indentures tied him to the Pirates for 21 years whereas in fact he was tied to the Pirates until his 21st birthday. The document was probably a standard "form" contract (or, copied from a previous contract that had been found to do what people wanted in such situations) and, in the haste when it was signed and sealed, it had not been realised how inappropriate it was to one born on leap-day. Frederic probably had never examined the document in detail (it would have been kept under lock and key in the PK's safe). He would have been told its gist by Ruth and the PK probably on the basis of "it's too much trouble to get out the actual document, this is what it says - if you don't believe us you will look really stupid if we go to the trouble of getting it for you and then you see that we are telling you the truth". And there does not need to be any evil intent in this - it could be a genuine lapse of memory by Ruth and the PK. [How many people can remember the precise details of what is covered by an insurance policy?] When Frederic says "How quaint the ways of paradox...I am a little boy of five" this is mock-theatrical, merely pointing out the absurdity of the indentures when applied to one in his position. He surely does not believe he is actually a little boy of five - if he does, he must be the most moronic Pirate ever to plough the seas.

I don't think Ruth and the PK fabricated the paradox story. Once Frederic indicated his intentions to lead the fight against the Pirates after his indentures ran out, I think they were desperate to keep him in any "legal" way possible. They would have been aware that they could not keep his loyalty by force but that his sense of duty was his weakness. Maybe one of them thought "Hang on, I think there was something odd about the way the 21 years was specified" but could not remember the details; alternatively, maybe they just decided to have a look at the document to see if there was a loophole that they could exploit. [After all, almost the same plot could have been constructed out of a much more likely confusion between the phrases "until your 21st birthday" and "until the start of your 21st year" for someone NOT born on leap-day.] Either way, once they got hold of the original contract, the die was cast. Andrew Solovay replied: I don't think Frederick is even thinking about the indentures at this point. He is taking the PK&R at face value. They say that they've heard a delightful paradox, and indeed they have - that reckoning by birthdays, Frederick is only five and a little bit over! How amusing. When the PK&R call Frederick a "comrade" (in the ensuing dialogue), he is dumbfounded-- the connection to his indentures had never occurred to him.

Clive Woods: A final thought, which must have occurred to the lawyer Gilbert: since Piracy is a crime, and any contract to perform something illegal is invalid, the indentures were invalid anyway, and could not have been enforced. Of course, Gilbert may have overlooked this point when he realised that the strict observance of rules by those who operate largely outside the law is a rich field for ironic comedy. Andrew Solovay replied: Of course it couldn't be enforced. Frederick was perfectly well aware of that. But that doesn't change his duty to abide by the contract signed on his behalf, however immoral or illegal that contract may have been.

6) On the far-flung theory: If Mabel is often characterized as Gen. Stanley's favorite "daughter," would this perhaps indicate that she was the highest-priced lady in the whorehouse?

Jim Jordan replied: I don't think that we ever got the impression that the pirates were too smart-any of them-just titled and possibly rich at the end. Which leaves other impressions of the daughters-not rich, but smart, for their station.

7) Also, could Stanley-the-pimp have had connections with Ruth? After all, she was the only woman on board with all these scruffy noblemen-gone-wrong ruffians for several years - and a self-described "Piratical Maid of All Work," at that. I believe Asimov even made an annotation of the possible connotations.

4.3 Ruth vs the maidens

Gwyn Aubrey observed: It strikes one as somewhat odd that Frederic is so eager to marry and have a life of respectability with any of Major Stanley's daughters (or maids-for-hire, or soiled doves or whatever (I refuse to be diverted)), and yet Ruth, who wishes to be respectable, is cast aside for disingenuousness. Nowhere in her text does she actually come out and say, "Yes Frederic, I am the most beautiful woman in the world". She admits that she is old, and has not been considered beautiful for many years. And does it not strike anyone as odd that in all those years of pirating, the ship did not ONCE come across any other ship that had another woman on board? Or are we to assume that while Frederic was engaged in piratical duties, Ruth carefully slipped them over the side into the Channel.

4.4 A false tip-off

Andrew Crowther observed: In Act 2 of Pirates, we learn that a rumour is abroad concerning the Pirates terrorising the area. Apparently it is widely believed that one of their band has left them. So what is the textual evidence for the above piece of nonsense? Clue: don't set your sense of humour at too high a level of sophistication. Andrew later wrote: Well, I wrote this about a day ago, and have been met with a wave of apathy, so I'll just give the answer and try to forget about it. I was referring, of course, to the Daughters' line about the Pirates being "fierce and Ruth-less". Most tittersome, eh? No? Suit yourself then!

4.5 Of legal knowledge

David Duffey wrote: I have asked this question on a number of occasions, but it has never been answered. I think that the line, "... their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) ..." is a subtle legal joke. I don't know what the joke is, but why else would Gilbert have added the "(if I may so describe myself)". Property law at the time was full of arcane terms such as "fee simple", "copyhold" and "dimense". Is there a non-sequitor in the phrase "descendent by purchase"? Was there a stated case which contemporary lawyers would at once recognise? Bill Kelly replied: I don't, know David. It may be an in joke, but I think it's also perfectly funny just on its face. Part of the joke is that the phrase "descendant by purchase" has a quasi-legal ring to it but does not in fact refer to any real legal situation. The MG has bought property rather than inherited it. He is now claiming that his purchase in some sense entitles him to claim he is the descendant of the family that formerly owned the property. The MG himself realizes that this is at best a novel legal theory, and perhaps at most only a metaphor, and that is why he calls attention to the phrase by saying, "If I may so describe myself."

Andrew Solovay observed: I think the MG didn't just buy the house; he bought a baronial title, and bought the house that was associated with it. (Purchase of pre-existing titles is a real, though curious, institution.) Logically, if the title of "Baron of Wanking-Upon-Shrubbery"(*) is conferred on person A, and is inherited by his descendants, then whoever has the title must be one of A's descendants. If the MG bought the title, he must have bought the right to be called one of A's descendants - mustn't he? I think that's the logic the MG is working from. (*) Mind you, I don't know for a fact that that was the Major-general's title. Michael Rice observed: Is it possible that since we do not actually have any information as to whether MG was or was not solvent at the time of purchase any more than we have information on why he has so many wards about the same age, is it possible that he did not pay cash for the castle near Mordan (Tremorden) but has some kind of mortgage which makes him eager to cash in on the ability of his wards to attract money in one way or another?

Charles Schlotter provided this legal opinion: You are correct, David. This is a subtle legal joke. Your query o'erwhelms me with floods of nostalgia for my First Year Law School studies of arcane real estate conveyancing law. In terms of contemporary title transactions, especially in the US, none of it proved to have any useful value whatsoever and I put it out of mind. I was hoping that some more authoritative legal SayoyNetter would jump in but none has, so far, stepped forward. As "Pirates" is the OOTW, I feel compelled as a Slave of Duty to at least partially explain the joke. I had to consult a legal dictionary to refresh my faltering memory about the technical meaning of "purchase" and I may have missed some additional Gilbertian twists of the knife.

Given that uninspiring introduction, the term "purchase" in terms of real estate conveyance means any transfer of title that is not hereditary. It includes, of course, buying the property. But it could also mean taking the property in default of a debt. It could mean that the title holder gave it away as a gift. It could mean that the title holder gave it away as a gift to a descendant of someone specifically named. There are many possibilities. In "Pirates," Major General Stanley bought the land and has constructed an "ancient" dwelling upon which the stucco is not yet dry. Now, of course, he did "purchase" the estate, in the modern sense that he bought it. However, a "descendant by purchase" in the technical conveyancing sense does not imply that the party is an actual descendant. Note that the Pirates pursue an absurdly formalistic attitude of forbearance towards orphans, to the point that anyone who claims to be an orphan gets the benefit of the doubt. Frederic has a similarly absurdly formalistic attitude towards his articles of indenture, which extends to the point of denouncing his father-in-law to the Pirates as a non-orphan. These are two obvious examples of slavery to duty. However, is the Major General any less a slave of duty? Martyn Green noted himself, in his annotated edition, that he was at the time of publication about the age of Stanley but that he was an exception to the general rule of orphanage insofar as his mother was still living.

Thus, if Major General Stanley's father or mother were still living, we would expect him to confess to Frederic that he was no orphan because at least one parent was living. This, however, he does not confess. He confesses to Frederic that he bought a plot of land upon which he built a pseudo-ancient mansion and claims to be a descendant "by purchase" of the ancestors (not his own) who are buried thereabouts. Thus, though he is an orphan, the Major General denounces himself as an non-orphan because he does not understand the meaning of the term "descendant by purchase" and is blindly obsessed with acquiring social status through store-bought ancestors. Another slave of duty. And it turns out that the only possible exit from this tangled web of "duties" is to declare the Pirates, as noblemen, above the law. Whereupon the newly-recognized noblemen, with all the possibilities of state-sanctioned lawlessness before them, decide to get married en masse. "The Slaves of Duty" might be a more accurate subtitle.

4.6 One maiden breast = double negative?

Bill Kelly wrote: For the OOTW record, I will raise a point discussed last year. Frederic asks "Oh, is there not one maiden breast / Which does not feel the moral beauty ...?" The requirements of prosody aside, this seems to me to be semantically untenable -- i.e., a mistake. What Frederic (Gilbert) means to say is either "Oh, is there not one maiden breast / Which does not fail to feel the moral beauty ...?" or else "Oh, is there not one maiden breast / Which feels the moral beauty ..?" depending on one's taste for litotes (i.e., double negative constructions). In other words, the "which" clause ought to be an affirmative or a double negative in order to make sense; the single negative really isn't right. Robert Jones replied: I would suggest that it might be, could it not, a complex subjunctive clause, as it were, don't you think? Tom Shepard replied: The problem is that when you count up the negatives, the meaning is the reverse of what WSG (or Frederic) intended.

David Lyle observed: I think Steven Lichtenstein's (and others') confusion stems, not so much from any inaccuracy on Gilbert's part, but from a peculiarly English speech idiom, which, though somewhat outdated and pompous-sounding, is still used in the UK, particularly (and not, I think, surprisingly) by politicians, when indulging in what they fondly believe is rhetoric. This idiom uses "not", (such as, for example, in; "Is it not true to say that we have never been more prosperous ...") as a somewhat unsubtle way of adding emphasis to a rhetorical question, which more or less compels the listener to agree with the speaker's statement. In this way, I suggest, Frederic's pedantically-phrased and verbose questioning of the "bevy of beautiful maidens" (which is entirely in character for someone as bogged-down in the duty-ethic as he) reads (something like); "Surely there is one girl amongst you who recognises that duty should come before selfishness, and who would sacrifice her hopes of making a good marriage to rescue someone as unfortunate as I?" (The same arrangement applies to verse 2.) The trouble is, however, that this makes a rotten lyric, and I would much rather have Gilbert's immensely enjoyable and quintessentially English verse any day - including, of course, the quirks, paradoxes and idioms which make it so dryly delightful. Is it not better, therefore, not to worry about such persiflage. David Duffey asked: Do you not agree that it is not also the case, that advocate lawyers are fond of this circumlocution, not so much during examination in chief, when prolixity might not be advantageous, but during cross examination, when trying to tie the witness into knots?

4.7 For what we ask

Charles Schlotter wrote: I have been thinking about the Pirate King's notoriously confusing lines:

For what we ask is life,
Without a touch of poetry in it?

In performance, this always sounds as though the Pirates' dearest wish is to spend unpoetic lives. A solution occurred to me -- perhaps not a new one, as I can't pretend to have heard every recording and performance. It involves taking a slight liberty with the dynamics by placing a set of parentheses around "we ask":

[In a rich full voice] For what.
[Short pause, suddenly mezzo piano in a dry tone] we ask
[Short pause, Just as abruptly back to the full voice] is life

What do you think? Arthur Robinson replied: I think Martyn Green or someone commented on the ambiguity. It's a matter of punctuation. I assume "we ask" IS parenthetical, and the rhetorical question is "What is life without poetry?" But it sounds as if he's saying "What we ask for is life without poetry." (I take it this is your interpretation too, and you're just discussing how to avoid confusing the audience.)

As did Bruce Miller: But it doesn't appear you've quoted the lines accurately. In Reginald Allen's First Night (not always accurate, but here I believe he is) the lines appear as follows:

And what, we ask, is life
Without a touch of Poetry in it?

(The "And" was probably later changed to "For", but if memory serves the commas remain.) The commas clarify the point perfectly, and a good singer should be able to make the sing the phrase so it reflects the commas, whether or not there are rests in the score. If the commas did disappear later, certainly this early version of the libretto provides sufficient clarification. In any event, I have heard this done, and I think Sullivan gives us the opening by setting "what" on a dotted quarter and "we" on an eighth - suggesting, musically, that "we ask" is a parenthetical phrase. It needn't be done to the extreme suggested above; to indicate the commas, simply stop the phrase from continuing. The mezzo piano dry tone isn't necessary, unless one is making it part of his interpretation of a meticulous Pirate King.

And David Lyle: By all means insert the parentheses (or even commas) which are vital for the sense of the sentence, but, for Heaven's sake, cut out the squeaky voice! To which Charles Schlotter replied: Not squeaky! No, that's not what I meant at all. I meant for the voice to go from full-bore, operatic richness to a dry aside and back again. I've heard enough squeakiness in "Pirates" from Linda Ronstadt to last me several lifetimes. For what, I ask, is "Pirates" without a trace of Ronstadt in it.


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