Sunday Pages: "Pirates of Penzance"

A comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan

Dear Reader,

Every July during my formative years, our town produced a musical. Directed by the high school music teacher, a true maestro named John Bunnell, and performed in the sweltering high school auditorium by theater kids ranging in age from rising high school freshmen to graduating college seniors, the summer musical was a huge deal. It’s what we all did every evening for the first half of the summer.

The summer between seventh and eighth grade, the show was Pirates of Penzance, the comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan, which debuted in New York City in 1879. Technically, I was too young to participate, but I played the viola, and Mr. Bunnell needed viola players for the pit; neither my youth nor my complete butchery of that fine instrument dissuaded him from including me. Thus I had a front-row seat for what remains my favorite thing, of any art form—musical, stage play, novel, album, you name it—of all time. The music is catchy and fun and at times soaringly beautiful, the harmonies exquisite, the lyrics clever and so, so funny. There’s even a bit of madcap dialogue, a play on the often/orphan homonym, that prefigures “Who’s on First.”

Between Jersey dissident Stuart Syvret casting the British Empire as pirates on my recent podcast and last week’s slagging of the monarchy, I was reminded of Pirates of Penzance, as it brilliantly combines all of those themes: piracy, monarchy, Great Britain, shoddy police work, duty, justice.

The action kicks off as Frederic, one of the titular band of pirates, turns 21. His then-nursery maid, Ruth, mishearing her employer, had mistakenly apprenticed him to a pirate instead of a pilot, and now that he is out of his indentures, he denounces piracy and vows to bring his former colleagues to justice. The Pirate King, in song, argues that, next to traditional monarchy, piracy is comparatively honest:

Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part,
With a pirate head and a pirate heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where pirates all are well-to-do;
But I'll be true to the song I sing,
And live and die a Pirate King.
For I am a Pirate King!
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a Pirate King!

When I sally forth to seek my prey,
I help myself in a royal way.
I sink a few more ships, it’s true,
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do;
But many a king on a first-class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work than ever I do.
For I am a Pirate King!
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a Pirate King!

(If we’ve learned nothing else during these last five years it’s that there are way too many well-to-do-pirates!)

Ruth, who has remained with Frederic during his piratical apprenticeship and is now his lover, leaves with him. The problem is that he has not set eyes on another woman since hitting puberty, and believes her when she tells him she is Keira Knightley circa Bend It Like Beckham—a lie he discovers when he happens upon a “bevy of beautiful maidens” frolicking. “O false one, you have deceived me! You told me you were fair as gold,” he accuses her, again in song, “and now I see you’re plain and old!” In this melodramatic ditty, we find out how old Ruth is. “Forty-seven!” he sings, despondently. (I sang this line to my wife for months after she turned 47, much to her lack of amusement).

After Ruth skulks off, the hunky Frederic attempts to woo the maidens with the sort of brutal honesty that nowadays would make him a social media failure:

Oh, is there not one maiden here
Whose homely face and bad complexion
Have caused all hope to disappear
Of ever winning man’s affection?

He promises, if such a desperate and unsightly maiden would only love him, he would no way swipe left. The lovely Mabel accepts, and she and Frederic become an item. But the idyll does not last. The pirates return and scoop the women up, hoping to secure them as their wives. Ah, but the maidens turn out to be the adopted daughters of the Major-General, who makes his grand entrance toward the end of the first act, performing what in 1879 was called a patter song but would today be called a rap. It even has hip hop bombast:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral.
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.
I’m very well acquainted too with matters mathematical.
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical.
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news—
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

The punchline here is that this mighty military man, this great leader, knows tons and tons about everything—except the subject he should know about:

For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General

But the Major-General convinces the pirates to scram. Later, everything turns. Frederic learns that, because his birthday falls on February 29th and he is apprenticed until his 21st birthday, his indentures will not technically expire until 1940. So he has no choice but to re-join his old mates. Policemen are marshaled to arrest the pirates, but the cops harbor sympathy for the scofflaws, and also fear death, so they are in no great hurry to do their jobs:

When a felon’s not engaged in his employment,
Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man’s.
Our feelings we with difficulty smother,
When constabulary duty is to be done.
Taking one consideration with another,
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

At last, at the climax of the show, the lawmen do bust the pirates—much to the disappointment of the maidens, who are all eager to “indulge in the felicity of our maiden domesticity”—that is, to wed, and enjoy what comes after. The pirates dutifully yield “in Queen Victoria’s name” because “with all our faults, we love our queen.” Then Ruth, the 47-year-old nursemaid-turned-pirate, explains why this might be: the pirates are not just any old Tom, Dick, or Harry. “They are all noblemen who have gone wrong!” Once the Major-General determines that they are aristocratic pirates, he happily sets them free to marry his daughters.

So: a group of marauding pirates are pardoned for their crimes, and allowed to become sons-in-law of the Major-General besides, because they are noblemen who support the monarchy. No one is above the law—except prodigal sons of the landed gentry!

That summer between seventh and eighth grade, I found the ending to be too pat, too abrupt. Lazy, even. Now I recognize its genius. In 1879 as in 2021, this is what happens. Rich white men with well-to-do fathers get off easy when they commit crimes. Gilbert and Sullivan knew this well; the reason they opened the show in New York and not London was to avoid American production companies pirating their work.

While there are several film adaptations of the show, and an excellent recording by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company from 1968—and while I was in it myself my senior year of high school (I played the Major-General, and can still do the patter song on cue)—in my mind, the definitive version is the one I watched for weeks on end from the pit in 1986. This poses problems, because I can’t ever go back and watch it again. But it lives on in my memory.

The Pirate King is not Kevin Kline, but some guy named Jim, who had long hair and a beard and was kind of short. George Rose is not the Major-General—heck, I’m not even the Major-General: Roddy McRae is. And the great Alison Weller, not the great Linda Ronstadt, is Mabel. Those guys were just terrific that one magical July. The whole show was. The only thing lacking in that entire summer production was a certain seventh grade viola player who shall remain nameless.


Photo credit: Madison High School Yearbook, 1991. The author, center, as the Major-General, wearing a pirate’s hat.