The Pirates of Penzance


You are here: Archive Home > The Pirates of Penzance > Critique of "Definitive" Libretto

A Critique of Ian Bond's

"Definitive" Libretto of The Pirates of Penzance

by Marc Shepherd

Ian Bond has compiled three versions of the libretto of The Pirates of Penzance in a parallel edition, allowing them readily to be compared. Unfortunately, he has done a disservice in his introduction to the libretto, which is full of false and misleading statements. Some time ago, I pointed out these errors to Ian, who did not dispute any of my complaints, but declined to alter what he had written. It seems to me pointless to allow errors to be disseminated as if they were facts, and this brief note is an attempt to redress the balance.

Ian describes his libretto as definitive, which the Merriam Webster dictionary defines as "authoritative and apparently exhaustive." Nothing could be farther from the truth, as there are several other editions of the libretto besides those Ian has collated. It is not the case, as he states, that the piece exists in three versions. What is the case is that it exists in numerous versions, of which he has presented three.

Ian commits the error of confusing written or printed texts with performance versions. It is true, as he states, that Pirates had three premieres, but none of the libretti he has collated correspond to the performance premieres he attributes them to. The earliest of these libretti is the licence copy that was filed with the Lord Chamberlain prior to the Paignton performance. I agree with Ian that this text is so distant from the final version of the opera that it must have been written some time before the actual performance — likely, before Gilbert and Sullivan even left for America.

However, the licence copy is definitely not a Paignton libretto. Sullivan's diary tells us that, on December 17, 1879, the ship Bothnia left New York with performance materials for Paignton. The Bothnia reached England on December 29. However, the licence copy was filed December 27 — meaning that it had been sent to England at an earlier date, or perhaps left behind when the partners went to America. It was the materials that arrived on December 29, and not the licence copy, that were used at Paignton.

The licence copy isn't even as close as we can get to a Paignton libretto. The Pierpont Morgan Library has a draft of Act I, which was found amongst Sullivan's papers at his death. It is clear that Sullivan used this draft while he composed Act I, as he wrote musical notation on a number of pages. Sullivan finished Act I on December 17, in time to ship to England. And, the version of Act I in the Morgan libretto is considerably closer to the final version of the opera than the licence copy.

So, not only is it incorrect to equate the licence copy with the Paignton performance, the two are not close. No actual libretto from that performance has yet been discovered, but the licence copy isn't it. The best guess at a Paignton libretto would be the Morgan Act I manuscript joined to Act II of the licence copy. But, even that hypothetical text surely has some significant differences from what was actually performed.

We come next to the New York and London premieres, and both of these pose a problem. Unlike all the other Gilbert and Sullivan first nights, the libretto for Pirates was not placed on sale when the opera opened. Rather, the libretto was not published for a full six months after the London opening (nine months after New York). Neither the American nor the British libretto, therefore, represents a first-night version. Both were published late enough to comprehend post-premiere changes.

In Ian's consolidated libretto, text he prints in dark green supposedly represents material performed at the New York opening. Text in gold supposedly represents material performed at both Paignton and New York. In fact, the only thing one can say with confidence is that the green/gold text is found in the first published American libretto. What state of the opera it represents is anyone's guess, because a vocal score was published at the same time in America, and the two sources do not agree.

For example, after Frederic and Mabel's emotional duet in Act II, the American libretto prints an eight-line recitative for Mabel, beginning with the words, "Distraction! Frederic! loved one! oh return!" This recitative is not in the vocal score. It is a well-known problem with Gilbert libretti that they were often slow to catch up with the vocal scores. Whether this recitative was cut before the New York opening or after it remains a mystery.

Before this recitative, Ian quotes a brief exchange for Mabel and Frederic, as follows:

Fred. Farewell, adieu!
Mab. The same to you!
Both. Farewell, adieu!

Ian prints this text in purple, implying that it was performed at Paignton only. However, these lines were also included in the first American edition and Gilbert's Original Plays, which was published a year after the London opening, so they may have been performed at all three premieres. We just don't know.

The third text that Ian collates, supposedly the London opening, has similar problems. Ian leaves the "Hymn to the Nobility" out of what he considers to be the London text. (He prints it in green, suggesting that it is New York only.) Based on what was published in Britain — six months after opening night — that would be correct. But, the original prompt book (now in the Theatre Museum, London) suggests that the Hymn to the Nobility was, in fact, performed on opening night in London.

There are many other errors in Ian's choices of colours for particular passages of the libretto. We would have been considerably better off if Ian had simply collated the texts faithfully, without trying to guess what was performed at particular performances, as most of these guesses are either speculative or just plain wrong.

Ian makes other comments that should not go uncorrected. He doubts that much music for Paignton could have been sent from New York, since the last shipment could not have been later than December 16th, at which time (he alleges) Sullivan's diary indicates that he was still composing. Ian obviously has not actually looked at the diary, for he is wrong on all counts. The diary indicates that Sullivan shipped the score of Act II to England on December 9th, 1879. There was a rehearsal of Act I for the New York Company on December 15th, and the score of Act I was shipped to England on December 17th. Sullivan started scoring (i.e., orchestrating) on December 18th, meaning that the work of composition was completed at this point. Hence, there is no mystery where the Paignton score came from. Speculation that the Paignton company performed the Pirates libretto to the music from Thespis is both unfounded and unnecessary.

Archive Home  | The Pirates of Penzance

Page Created 20 August, 2011