You are here: Archive Home > The Pirates of Penzance > Reviews > Review of the original London production
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Pirates review of original production


Mr. Gilbert has a vein of quaint and spontaneous humour as peculiarly his own as any gift ever possessed by the most individual of artists and poets. This humour has charmed us all in the inimitable “Bab Ballads,” and it has lost nothing of its raciness by being embodied in whimsical dramatic creations and presented on the stage in conjunction with Mr. Sullivan’s pretty music. It gives to Mr. Gilbert’s dramatic extravaganzas their cachet and raises them infinitely above the puns and platitudes of the ordinary run of opéra bouffe. If, with his humour and his literary skill, he combined the gift of dramatic invention, he might take high rank as a writer of comedy. Of such invention there is little or no trace in the latest combined production of Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan, brought out at the Opéra Comique on Saturday night.

The libretto, for of this alone we are now speaking, is as full of drolleries and amusing concetti as anything that has proceeded from the same pen; but the plot is weak, and the chief characters are copies – copies from Mr. Gilbert’s own originals, but copies still. The story is briefly this:– When the curtain rises we see the far-famed Pirates of Penzance reposing in picturesque groups, the scene being a rocky shore on the coast of Cornwall. They are celebrating the coming of age of Frederic, one of the bravest members of their band, who alone is sad among the merry. The cause of his sadness is sufficiently explained by the ballad of Ruth, the nursery-maid, to whose care young Frederic had been left by his father:–

“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 mind did gyrate,
“I took and bound this promising lad 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.”

This is, indeed, a slender peg to support even the thinnest web of a story, slenderer even than the mistake which in the Pinafore made Little Buttercup – by the way, the exact prototype of Ruth – “mix those children up, and not a creature knew it.” To return to the Pirates of Penzance, it must be owned that they follow their criminal calling in a very humane and gentlemanly spirit. They, for example, never attack a weaker party than themselves, and, moreover, make a point of never molesting an orphan. This latter circumstance has become generally known, and is taken advantage of by the victims of the bold pirates. “The last three ships we took,” they complain, “proved to be manned entirely by orphans, and so we had to let them go.”

But in spite of these redeeming features Frederic declares himself disgusted with the society he has been compelled to keep. Being a “slave of duty,” he has felt bound to further the ends of the pirates while his apprenticeship continued; but the same sense of duty, he confesses freely, compels him “to devote himself heart and soul to their extermination now that he is out of his indentures.” Acting on the same strict principle, he is on the point of giving his hand to the middle-aged Ruth, when their interview is interrupted by the voices of young ladies, who are presently seen approaching. Frederic, who had never seen a young maiden in his life, at once perceives the falsehood of his nurse, who had represented herself to him as the ideal of womanhood, and, feeling once more at liberty, proposes to one and several of the maidens – four-and-twenty in number – who turn out to be sisters. They all refuse him except the romantically-minded Mabel, who at first sight falls in love with the picturesque ex-pirate. In the meantime the pirates have returned to the scene, and, surrounding the maidens, propose in their turn to be as they express it: –

  “Conjugally matrimonified
“By a Doctor of Divinity
“Who is located in this vicinity.”

This interesting meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Major-General Stanley. Major-General Stanley is the alter ego of the First Lord of the Admiralty in the Pinafore. Like that functionary, he immediately sets forth his qualifications for his high office in a song, which in sentiment is the counterpart of the popular ballad of “the Ruler of the Queen’s Navie,” (sic) while in the matter of impossible rhymes it might have excited the envy of the author of “Hudibras” himself.

The place of the famous “sisters and cousins and aunts” is taken in the present instance by the 24 daughters of Major-General Stanley already introduced to the reader. The difficulties of the situation are met by the ready wit of the aged warrior, who on proclaiming himself a “lonely orphan boy” is allowed by the tender-hearted pirates to depart in peace, together with his daughters and Frederic.

The latter, in the second act, is bent upon obeying the dictates of duty by exterminating his former comrades, and for that purpose has surrounded himself with a set of policemen, about as bold and as musical as their colleagues, the two gendarmes in Offenbach’s Genevieve of Brabant. But this noble endeavour is frustrated by a fresh discovery of a very extraordinary character. His apprenticeship, it appears, was stipulated to last until his 21st birthday, and that birthday falling on the 29th of February, he is accordingly still tied to the pirates for an unlimited number of years. Having become a pirate again, he feels in duty bound to disclose the falsehood of the General as to his being an orphan. This breach of faith the fierce rovers of the sea determine to revenge in the most ruthless manner. They easily vanquish the policemen sent out to capture them, and are on the point of committing the gallant soldier to death when a last appeal “to yield in Queen Victoria’s name” recalls them to their duty. After this the dénoûment is short and satisfactory. Ruth exclaims, referring to the pirates, –

“They are no members of the common throng,
“They are all noblemen who have gone wrong.”

“What all noblemen?” ask the policemen and girls. “Well, nearly all,” is the answer, in palpable allusion to the proverbial “hardly ever” of the Pinafore. We need not add that the wooing of members of the House of Peers is not rejected by General Stanley and his daughters, “all of whom,” it is generally admitted, “are beauties.”

Such a story, lighted up with the incessant fireworks of Mr. Gilbert’s wit, contains all the elements of popularity, and on its own peculiar grounds little fault can be found with it from a literary point of view. But it is different when we regard it as the basis of musical construction, as a libretto. Music is fully able to deal with broadly comic phases of human life. Such a character as, say, Figaro, in the scores of Rossini and of Mozart, stands forth with a graphic distinctness unattainable by words alone. But Mr. Gilbert’s characters are not comic in themselves, but only in reference to other characters chiefly of the operatic type, whose exaggerated attitude and parlance they mimic. He writes not, in fact, comedies but parodies, and music has accordingly to follow him to the sphere of all others most uncongenial to it – the mock-heroic. The skill and ingenuity evinced by Mr. Sullivan in such disadvantageous circumstances cannot be sufficiently admired. His tunes are always fresh and lively, and the few opportunities of genuine sentimental utterance offered to him are turned to excellent account. One such opportunity – the leave-taking of Frederic and Mabel in the second act – has originated a sweetly melodious madrigal (“Oh leave me not”), another has called forth Mabel’s song in the first act, “Poor wandering one.” Certain passages in the first duet between Frederic and Ruth and elsewhere, where the composer becomes serious in spite of himself, make one regret what might have been, or, perhaps, might still be if Mr. Sullivan would attempt a genuine dramatic effort. As a piece of very graceful concerted writing we may mention the discreet chatter of the girls “about the weather,” accompanying in an undertone the amorous discourse of Frederic and Mabel. More broadly comic pieces, such as the pirates’ chorus and the song of the policeman – the latter received with a perfect storm of applause – will be welcome food for street organs and popular minstrels. Taken as a whole, however, the music to the Pirates of Penzance did not seem quite equal to that of the Pinafore, certainly not to that of The Sorcerer, in our opinion the masterpiece of its joint authors.

The question of popular success is of course quite different from artistic merit. On the first night the satisfaction of the crowded audience was boundless, culminating in the call before the curtain of the performers (including the four-and-twenty maidens) and the authors. Of the rendering we can speak in brief and highly favourable terms. The mis-en-scène did great credit to the establishment over which Mr. D’Oyly Carte presides, and the admirable singing of the chorus testified to careful and conscientious rehearsing under the composer’s direction. The comic gravity of Mr. George Grossmith’s General Stanley may be imagined by those who have seen that excellent artist as Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., in the Pinafore. Mr. Barrington was absolutely sublime in the small but by no means unimportant part of Sergeant of Police, and Mr. Power’s sympathetic tenor voice was heard to great advantage in the sentimental music allotted to the dutiful Frederic. Mr. R. Temple, as the Pirate King, was as truculent as could well be desired. Miss Marian Hood (Mabel) is in possession of a fine soprano voice of considerable compass, which, but for her habit of straining it, would be very sympathetic. The bravura passages with which Mr. Sullivan has adorned the part were attacked with considerable courage and success, and the pretty madrigal already referred to was given with exquisite feeling. Further careful study may make an excellent singer of Miss Hood. Miss Cross, who owing to Miss Everard’s indisposition took the part of Ruth at very short notice, acquitted herself most creditably. A few slips of memory were fully accounted for in the circumstances.

Archive Home  |  The Pirates of Penzance | Reviews

Page modified 20 August, 2011 Copyright © 2009 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.