|The Pirates of Penzance > Reviews > New York Premiere from The Era
From The Era, Sunday, January 18, 1880
“THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE.”
NEW YORK, JANUARY 3, 1880.—The most important event of the season took place on New Year’s Eve at the Fifth-avenue Theatre, namely, the production of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s long-expected comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance; or, the Slave of Duty. Disregarding its nominal performance the day previous at the little town of Paignton on the south coast of Devon, England, in order to preserve the English rights of the authors by compliance with the letter of the Copyright law, this was the first production of the work on any stage. It achieved an instant and emphatic success. Modelled upon the Pinafore pattern, and following the same vein, it is far more artistic and finished; filled with delicious strokes of satiric humour; absurd impossibilities following each other in the gravest and most commonplace fashion, giving point to sardonic witticisms in the telling style of Swift, but without his coarseness; startling ingenuity and bold inventiveness sustained throughout in the conduct of the story — if the string of wild absurdities prepense may so be called; the complications cut at last by one of the keenest bits of flashing satire — social and political — in modern English literature; the whole vitalised by the most original, taking, brisk, characteristic music; the poetry of the piece is caught in the amber of song, and framed with beautiful, brilliant, powerful orchestration. The melodies are fresh and sparkling, and wedded with singular felicity to the words. The music as thoroughly parodies grand opera as the libretto burlesques the broadly romantic drama.
The honourable and tender-hearted gentlemen known as the Pirates of Penzance had their head-quarters in a quiet and convenient glen on the coast of Cornwall. They practised piracy diligently, attending strictly and soberly to business. From their hiding place they could easily swoop upon the Liverpool and New York mail packets, or the other numerous shipping in the neighbourhood. “But,” as Richard, the pirate chief, sadly and reflectively remarked, “We never could make piracy pay.” The fact was they were altogether too generous and noble-minded. They invariably spared the weak, and when they attacked the powerful they always got a sound drubbing. A beautiful and touching trait of the piratical band was this — mercy to the orphan. “Though we are pirates,” said the Chief, “we are not insensible to the promptings of humanity; we are orphans ourselves, and we know how it feels.” It got abroad that these pitying pirates always spared orphans, and the result was that whenever they captured a ship they found (according to the statement of the captives) that it was entirely officered and manned by persons who had no parents. And yet, as one of the pirates shrewdly remarked, it cannot be possible that the whole British mercantile marine is recruited exclusively from the orphan class.
Prominent among the pirates was young Frederic, their apprentice, a most excellent youth and painstaking pirate. His main characteristic was the strong and pervading sense of duty, which governed all his actions. In fact, he is the “slave of duty.” He detests the trade of piracy, but the sacred sense of obligation, as an indentured apprentice to the business and to the band, compels him to serve out his time.
The curtain rises upon the Pirate’s Lair — a rocky seashore. They are celebrating the “coming of age” of Frederic, who is touched by the kind expressions of his comrades, and yet grieved, as he knows he cannot return their goodness. He explains that, being now out of his indenture, he has resolved to avail himself of his freedom by severing his connection with them for ever. The Pirate Chief desires to know the “why and wherefore” of this astonishing determination. Ruth, a piratical “maid-of-all-work,” answers for him. As his nurse, she received instructions from his father to apprentice him “to a pilot,” but by a mistake in the similarity in the words, she indentured him to “a pirate.” By this fatal mistake he became a pirate apprentice. Frederic, governed by the nicest sense of honour and duty, says he feels bound to work heart and soul at the business until the expiration of his indenture. He then means to atone for his acts by bringing his comrades to justice. At the commencement of the piece his indenture is within half an hour of its termination. Richard, the Pirate Chief, regrets Frederic’s decision, but holds him blameless, as he knows he is thoroughly conscientious.
The Pirates withdraw. Ruth, who has, it seems, "worked her middle-aged way into his boyish heart,” implores him to take her with him. Frederic is loth to do so. Inasmuch as he has seen no other woman’s face for sixteen years, he may possibly be mistaken in his opinion that she is a very fine woman. Ruth strongly asserts and finally convinces him, that she is an exceedingly attractive female. As Ruth’s ill-luck will have it, a group of some twenty beautiful young ladies — the daughters and wards in Chancery of Major-General Stanley — come strolling into the Pirate’s haunt, bent on a pic-nic. Frederic sternly reproaches Ruth on her deception, comparing her maturely developed charms with the blooming beauties who come clambering over the rocks, all unconscious of the proximity to the pirates. Ruth, her prospects blighted, retires broken-hearted.
Fearing that his pirate’s attire might frighten the charming young ladies, Frederic conceals himself to observe their movements. He feels compelled to reveal his presence, however, as the girls, thinking they are alone, propose to take off their shoes and stockings and “paddle.” They are caught each with one foot bare, and their terror is expressed in a most humorous and fantastic hopping chorus. They are horrified at learning from him that he is a pirate, but partly reassured when he tells them he intends to leave the profession for something more respectable, and implores them to assist him in his good intentions, thus:–
They hesitate. None amongst them seems prepared to make the sacrifice.
Frederic is almost despairing when Mabel, the youngest daughter of Major General Stanley, comes to him from among the twenty and declares her willingness to devote herself to his reformation. The remaining nineteen young ladies resolve to close their eyes to the proceedings “and talk about the weather,” in order to allow the young couple to come to a perfect understanding. They, therefore, sit back on the rocks and enter into an animated discussion upon the prospects of “a warm July.” Mabel and Frederic sing a love duet. Frederic and the young ladies are about departing, when the Pirate Chief and his band enter, seize the twenty young females, and insist upon marrying them then and there, by the aid of —
They are deterred by Mabel, who warns them of the probable consequences —
Enter Major-General Stanley in full uniform. He introduces himself in a rattling “patter song,” which is very effective. He describes himself as being learned in every science under the sun — excepting those pertaining to military affairs. Thickly studded with technical and scientific terms of tremendous length, the rapid delivery of this song is occasionally interrupted in an exquisitely ludicrous manner by the General’s hesitation for a rhyme —
The Major-General is shocked to hear that the outlaws propose to wed his extensive family out of hand. He remembers the prevailing rule among these benevolently inclined pirates regarding orphans. “They are orphans themselves and know what it is.” He appeals to them as an orphan to spare him and his daughters and his wards. The tender hearts of the piratical gentlemen are melted. They shed tears on learning that —
The Chief sets them free at once. His motive for so doing he thus explains:–
The pirates, notwithstanding this avowal, are inspired by the mere mention of the word “Poetry.” Likewise the young ladies. They all kneel and sing the following hymn:–
The charming bevy of girls, accompanied by Frederic and the Major-General, take their departure, climbing over the rocks at back, waving adieu to the pirates who give vent to their unrestrained joy over the moral triumph of their guiding principle as to orphans in a wild dance of frenzied exultation, on which the curtain descends. It is exceedingly droll throughout and was greeted with peals of uncontrollable laughter, the merriment reaching a climax at the end of the first act.
The second and last act discloses a ruined chapel on the General’s estate. He is terribly depressed. His remorse, caused by the falsehood which he told the pirates in order to escape, weighs heavy on his conscience. His daughters and wards have vainly endeavoured to console him. He has come to the tombs of his ancestors. Here will he pray to them in secret to forgive the blot that he has brought upon an hitherto stainless escutcheon. He is reminded that he only purchased the property a year ago. His scruples are not so easily overcome. He argues thus: “Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors, you cannot deny that. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I do know whose ancestors they are, and as their descendant ‘by purchase’ (if I may so describe myself) I shudder to think of the disgrace I have brought upon them.”
Frederic, now betrothed to Mabel, and likewise having obtained a commission in the Eleventh Hussars, is to lead that night a body of policemen against his old comrades. The “Bobbies” now enter to receive the General’s blessing. Drawn up in line across the stage they execute a very funny trumpet-call upon their clubs, chorusing a refrain to their Sergeant’s song, ere proceeding to do battle with the Pirates —
They withdraw, after receiving the General’s blessing, which is not calculated to raise their spirits, as he recommends them “to go to death and go to slaughter.”
Mabel takes fond farewell of Frederic, who is left alone to commune with himself ere departing for the scene of coming strife. He is surprised by Ruth and the Pirate Chief, who appear at a window in the back part of the stage. They level pistols at his head, and beg him not to kill them until he has learned their mission. He yields to their polite request, though he cannot regard himself as altogether a free agent. They tell him of a discovery which they made after his departure — namely, that he was apprenticed to the pirates, not as they had all imagined, until his twenty-first year, but until his twenty-first birthday; and, inasmuch as he was born on the 29th of February (leap-year), he will not attain his birthday until A.D. 1940. Horrified though he is by this relation, Frederic obeys the voice of conscience. His sense of duty convinces him that until that date his services belong to the Pirates. He feels that morally he is again a member of the gang, and devoted to the interests of his old comrades, Though strongly attached to General Stanley and Mabel, he is conscientiously impelled to reveal to his old associates the fact that the General lied when he said he was an orphan and thus fraudulently escaped from them. Not only is he not an orphan, but he never was one. The Pirate Chief and Ruth are fiercely wrathful at having been thus victimised and cheated out of their sympathies. They depart together, and arm the band for the purpose of making an attack that very night on Tremorden Castle. Frederic takes leave of Mabel, with the promise to return and claim her in 1940. He then goes to join his former comrades.
Mabel calls in the police, tells them of Frederic’s decision, and enjoins them to attack only the pirates. They agree to do so, though on general principles they rather favour criminals, explaining their reasons in a deliciously humorous song and chorus. The second verse runs as follows:–
The police are delighted, and make the purest fun, being conceived in the spirit of irresistible comicality.
The Pirates now arrive, and the police hide in the left aisle of the chapel. Though the Pirates have come to commit a burglary; they chorus vociferously in describing their cat-like mode of taking the foe unawares. The General, under the impression that he has really “heard a noise,” now enters. The Pirates have concealed themselves in the right aisle of the chapel. The General perceives nothing to account for “the noise,” and concludes that it must have been “the sighing of the breeze.” He then sings an ode to the evening breeze. Though he, as well as the other groups, are supposed to be totally oblivious of each other’s presence, yet this fact does not prevent them joining in choruses and answering each other with strophe and antistrophe in the finest antiphonal effect. The music here is superb. The police songs and the “paddlers” in the first act are brilliant melodies, fresh, characteristic, original. Amazement, of course, seizes the General when the Pirates, emerging from their hiding place, pounce upon him. They decree his instant death. The police now rush upon the Pirates. A brief struggle ensues, and the guardians of the law are overpowered. The Sergeant has reserved his trump card for just such a contingency.
No Englishmen, even though they are pirates, can resist such an appeal. These exemplary outlaws at once submit, and exchange places with their conquered foes.
The General orders them off to jail under a strong guard; but matters are arrested by the entrance of Ruth, who reveals a secret which changes the whole complexion of affairs
Down on their knees fall the General and the police at the feet of their erewhile foemen and now actual prisoners, “the noblemen who have gone wrong,” and in that position pay them homage
He entreats them to resume their several ranks and enter upon their hereditary legislative duties, and consents immediately to the solemnisation of marriage between them and his wards and daughters, Frederic and Mabel being, of course, reunited. The curtain fell amid roars of mingled applause and laughter, and the large, critical, fashionable audience applauded again and again the innumerable “strong points” and “good things” with which the last act is studded.
I have but little space to speak of the interpretation. It was almost perfect. Miss Roosevelt, Miss Barnett, Mr. Brocolini, Mr. Ryley, and Mr. Talbot deserve special mention, for they all shared in the honours of the evening. Here is the cast — Richard, a pirate chief, Mr Brocolini; Samuel, his Lieutenant, Mr Furneaux Cook; Frederic, a pirate apprentice, Mr Hugh Talbot; Major General Stanley, of the British Army, Mr J. H. Ryley; Edward, a sergeant of police, Mr F. Clifton; Mabel, General Stanley’s youngest daughter, Miss Blanche Roosevelt; Kate, Miss Rosina Brandram; Edith, Miss Jessie Bond; Isabel, Miss Barlow; and Ruth, Miss Alice Barnett.
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