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The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Pirate King The Pirates of Penzance Major General


From The Morning Post, Monday, April 5, 1880

OPERA COMIQUE.

Without reckoning the representation which took place in some obscure west country village on the day of the more serious production in New York, the first performance of "The Pirates of Penzance," as it may be considered, was given on Saturday night with complete success, the greater portion of this result being due to the merits of the book. Mr. Gilbert has distinctly the advantage in the present combination; his words are clever, his verses smooth and his humour good. The plot is of course an absurdity, and the treatment marked by delicious improbability.

Frederic, the hero of the piece, the slave of duty, by an unfortunate mistake of his old nurse, Ruth, is apprenticed to a pirate instead of to a pilot, and at the moment the action commences is within half an hour of the time for the expiration of his indentures. He tells his associates that although he loves them all personally as friends, still as pirate it is his intention to devote his best efforts to their extermination. His nurse, Ruth, maid-of-all-work to the fraternity, is to leave the lair with him, and as she is the only woman he has ever seen he promises to marry her if he finds that she is able to endure comparison with other and younger women.

At this time the twenty-four daughters of Major-General Stanley appear, having wandered to this spot for a pic-nic. Frederic finds the ugliest more beautiful than Ruth, charges that hapless woman with having deceived him, and implores some one of the General's daughters to give him love; they all refuse except Mabel. The pirates gradually surround the bevy of fair women, seize them and their father, but release them as soon as they discover that the old man is an orphan, it being one of their weaknesses to spare all orphans, as they are all orphans themselves.

The Major-General is haunted by remorse for having told a lie – he is no orphan, never was one – and wanders nightly among the tombs of his ancestors, by purchase. His many daughters try to comfort him, but failing, they cannot. Frederic, in the undress uniform of an officer in the 11th Hussars, is about to visit the pirates' lair, accompanied by a body of policemen, with a view to their extermination according to promise. While he is alone the Pirate King and Ruth enter and tell him that he was apprenticed to them until his twenty-first birthday, and as he was born on the 29th of February, although he is apparently over twenty-one, he is really only a little more than five years old. He being the slave of duty, conscientiously returns to piracy. He takes a tender farewell of the General and his daughters, and Mabel agrees to wait for him until he is out of his time, when he will be apparently eighty-four. The pirates attack the General, and his daughters are defended by the policemen, who, being worsted in the encounter, call upon their victors to surrender in the name of the Queen. As they are all orphan sons of peers they willingly obey, and at the earnest request of the Major-General abandon their unlawful calling, and take each one of his remaining daughters to wife. It is probable, to preserve the balance, that the General himself takes Ruth, but this is not clear.

The details which fill in this hold and clever outline are bright and witty. In this, as in the "Pinafore," Mr. Gilbert makes no attempt to offer a new phase of thought, but is content with placing common sentiments and feelings in the ridiculous light which the converse of a proportion would have when accepted as a primary position.

It may be that the author of the book and the composer of the music were alike influenced by a desire to do nothing that their admirers had not been accustomed to in their former works. It is certain that there is very little, if anything, in the music that Mr. Sullivan has not said before. That it is pleasing, because tuneful and melodious, will be accepted as conclusive. There is better evidence of tune-making than the desire to exhibit musical science or original invention. There are many of those delicate touches of masterly skill in instrumentation which are to be found in the "Pinafore," and which few musicians know better how to introduce than Mr. Sullivan. The melodies of the songs and pieces, in the first act especially, fall familiarly upon the ear. The second act contains the gem of the work, a duet for soprano and tenor, and, although nearly every piece in the first act was encored, the greatest enthusiasm was excited by the Policemen's chorus in the second act, "When the enterprising burglar's not a-burgling." which was encored three times, and Mr. Sullivan, who conducted the performance, with Mr. Gilbert, were called on the stage at the conclusion of each act.

Those familiar with the "Pinafore" will find something in each scene to remind them of former effects. Mr. Grossmith, as the Major-General, is admirable. As the Sergeant of the Police Mr. Barrington is very good, Mr. Temple, as the Pirate King does fairly well, but Mr. Power, as Frederic, has more strength in his name than in his acting or his singing. Miss Emily Cross, who undertook the part of Ruth at a few hours' notice, though at first exceedingly nervous, gave a commendable representation of the character. The chief interest of the audience was excited by Miss Marion Hood, to whom was assigned the part of Mabel. She sang most courageously, and with an amount of "go" which astonished and pleased all. Her best effort was in the duet before referred to. In this she displayed capabilities which might be turned to good account. When she has learned to control her voice, and to master the difficulties of vocalisation, she will doubtless earn a bright fame.

The chorus was very good, the dresses pretty and effective, the scenery well painted, and the band well selected, but they exhibit too much of their powers for the comfort of the sensitive hearer. This tendency to over-loudness will disappear as the novelty wears off and their duties excite less enthusiasm. As the book of the play is not yet printed, and as it is desirable that the audience should know something of what the performers are singing, it might be suggested that a modification of the quantity of tone in the band would enable the hearer to enjoy the wit of the words as well as the skill of the music.


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