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


From The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday April 6, 1880.

"THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE."

In the preface to "Lucrèce Borgia" Victor Hugo lays stress on the dramatic results that may be produced by exhibiting on the stage wicked personages in whom there is one strong redeeming point. This principle has been turned to admirable account in the new comic opera by Mr. W. S. Gilbert and Mr. Arthur Sullivan, brought out on Saturday night at the Opera Comique. The Penzance pirates are a band of miscreants whose savagery is tempered by magnanimity. They scorn to attack vessels weaker than their own, and they never make captive men who declare themselves to be orphans. They have a strict regard, moreover, for the plighted word; and when Frederic, who has been apprenticed to them until the age of twenty-one, announces that on the expiration of the term for which he has been bound he shall feel himself called upon to attack them and do his best utterly to destroy them, they content themselves with requiring that he shall do his duty as a pirate for so long a time as his indentures still remain valid.

In a few hours their force will be at an end. But meantime Frederic is expected to aid the pirate band, as occasion may demand, both with his counsel and with his arm and to this, proclaiming himself the "slave of duty," he consents. He proposes as soon as he shall recover his freedom to exterminate them. But while he remains in their service he is ready to give them good advice; and he reproaches them with those weaknesses which they have been in the habit of regarding as virtues and, in particular, with their feeble-mindedness in sparing all prisoners who are prepared to make oath that they have lost one of their parents or both.

Frederic, though for seven years he has led the life of a pirate, was intended by nature for a more honest career; and the fact of his having joined the pirate crew is due to the accident of his nursery-maid, Ruth, having mistaken certain instructions given to her on the subject of his apprenticeship. The fatal error cannot be better explained than in Ruth's own words when she sings:–

I was a stupid nursery-maid, on breakers always steering,
And I did not catch the word aright through being hard of hearing;
Mistaking my instructions, which within my brain did gyrate,
I took and bound this promising boy apprentice to a pirate.
A sad mistake it was to make and doom him to a vile lot,
I bound him to a pirate – you – instead of to a pilot.

Continuing the story, she sings:–

I soon found out beyond all doubt the scope of this disaster,
But I hadn't the face to return to my place and break it to my master.
A nursery-maid is never afraid of what you people call work,
So I made up my mind to go as a kind of piratical maid-of-all-work;
And that is how you find me now a member of your sly lot,
Which you wouldn't have found had lie been bound apprentice to a pilot.

Ruth, the singer of this, being the only woman Frederic has seen for many a year, is the only one he loves. He has misgivings, however, as to whether she is really a more than average specimen of womanhood. But she assures him that she is; and while reserving his judgement on this delicate point he makes no decided objection to her project of quitting the vessel with him and accompanying him through life. Frederic has an early opportunity of comparing the charms claimed for herself by Ruth with those really possessed by twenty-four young ladies, who suddenly appear on the shore, and who turn out to be the twenty-four daughters of Major-General Stanley – all more or less of the same age. He at once perceives that Ruth has been deceiving him, renouncers her and addresses his homage to the twenty-four damsels collectively, in the hope that individually one of them will respond.

An ex-pirate, however, is not regarded as worthy of marrying into the family of a major-general. In vain does Frederic appeal to the girls sense of "moral beauty.” Vainly does he inquire whether among them all there is not one “whose homely face and bad complexion have caused all hope to diappear of ever winning man’s affection," until at last Mabel Stanley steps forward and, more tender-hearted than her twenty-three sisters, accepts his proffered love.

Suddenly the pirates return to the scene, and surrounding the female members of the Stanley family, capture the whole two dozen. But they have reckoned without the Major-General and without their own rule as to the inviolability of orphans, which the cunning old soldier, after falsely declaring himself bereft of parents, applies and extends so as to make it include immunity from seizure for his daughters. The pirates relinquish sorrowfully the really handsome prizes they had made; and the act-curtain falls upon their grief.

The entry of the Major-General, apart from its dramtic importance, is remarkable for an admirably humorous song with rhymes of the most surprising kind, in which this exaggerated type of the modern soldier, as perfected by competitive examinations, military schools, and the Staff College, enunciates his various accomplishments, which include everything but the art of commanding troops in the field. This lyric, without resembling it, yet cannot but suggest the aria d'intrata sung by Sir Joseph Porter in the "Pinafore;" the more so as Mr. George Grossmith sings it. Miss Everard1, too, as Ruth reminds one of Miss Everard as the bumboat woman in the opera just named; and the twenty-four daughters of Major-General Stanley will recall to many Sir Joseph Porter's sisters and his cousins and his aunts. "So rnuch the better," the great body of the public may say, on recognizing characteristic features which stamp the new work as with a hall-mark.

But the story of "The Pirates of Penzance" must be proceeded with and rapidly indeed does it move on in the second, as in the first act. Frederic, the slave of duty, is called upon by the King of the Pirates and by the voice of his own conscience to join once more the pirate crew; for the ingenious sea-robbers have been struck by the fact that their apprentice had been bound to them until he should reach his twenty-first birthday, and that through his having been born in leap-year the number of his birthdays does not as yet amount to more than five. He had taken measures for "running them in" with the aid of a strong body of police. But admitting the truth of the leap-year proposition he resumes his piratical life, and sets about devising means for the frustration of the plans he had himself conceived. The police sing a spirited war-song, and the sergeant of police tells in lyrical fashion the story of his life and the woes of his profession. Ultimately, as in so many dramas, all comes right. The pirates turn out to be young noblemen who have taken to an exciting mode of life merely for the pleasure of the thing, and not with any view to profit nor with the slightest idea of crime and they marry the twenty-four daughters of Major-General Stanley.

Of Mr. Sullivan's music we must speak in detail on some other occasion. Suffice it for the present to say that in the new style which he has marked out for himself it is the best he has written. Unfortunately neither book nor music can yet be published. There are other pirates besides those imaginary ones of Penzance – pirates on both sides of the Atlantic ready to capture literary and artistic property wherever, finding it in an unprotected condition, they can lay hands on it; and to avoid the seizure by which its publication would inevitably be followed the new work is "printed as manuscript." The librettist suffers greatly from this state of things. The public has no “book of the words” to refer to and read; and there are but few vocalists who can do justice alike to the words and to the music of a song. Even Mr. Grossmith, with all his fluency and distinctness of enunciation, does not make every point tell in the patter song delivered by the Major-General. This he would have more chance of doing if the time were taken a little slower.

One very agreeable novelty in the performance is the presence of a really attractive soprano vocalist – 'prima donna" she would be called in serious opera – who as Mabel Stanley sings one of the most graceful “vocal waltzes” that Mr. Sullivan or any other composer has produced. Miss Marion Hood, the artist in question, has for partner in her love-duets that very capable tenor, Mr. George Power – the representative, it need scarcely be said, of Frederic. One of the most original pieces in the work is a chattering chorus sung by twenty-three of the Stanley girls, who wish to make conversation at all hazards in order to give Frederic and Mabel the opportunity of making love; and nothing can be more ingenious than the manner in which the chattering chorus in 2-4 time and the duet for the lovers in waltz time are combined. A similar but not identical form of combination occurs in the scene for the policemen in second act. Here, too, will be noticed the deeply significant passages for the “loud bassoon” by which the policemen's chorus is prefaced. The part of the police sergeant is played with humorous pomposity by Mr. Barrington; and the sergeant's song, with chorus, is one of the most striking and most successful things in the opera, which, for the rest, contains a never-ending series of charming melodies.


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