Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Pirates of Penzance? I have often heard of them.

And I imagine so have you. I always feel that line takes on a slightly meta aspect in this day and age, since Pirates of Penzance (or The Slave of Duty) is probably the best known G&S now. I for one know I've come across people who have heard of Pirates but not of Gilbert and Sullivan. It's just one of those things you hear about but don't necessarily know that much about. Oh, and of course the Modern Major-General has got to be the most reworded/parodied (Though I find it odd to talk about parodies of something which is already a parody) G&S song there is, with versions ranging from the periodic table of elements to video games to the Animaniacs to Doctor Who (My personal favourite).

Anyway, without further ado, we shall proceed into discussion of the show:

Dramatis Personae:
Major-General Stanley - Comic baritone. Surprisingly small part, for all that he has the best known song in all of G&S. But what time he has on stage is wonderful.
He is the very model of a modern Major-General.

The Pirate King - Baritone. Big, booming and full of bluster. I tend to feel he can be rather paternal to the other pirates, and particularly Frederic. Alternatively he could be more of a cool but weird uncle figure. In our production he was also a little bit dim. Very fun part to play.
Samuel (His Lieutenant) - Baritone. Bit part, though there's more in there than I initially thought when I got cast as him. Part voice of the chorus, part backup for the Pirate King.

Frederic(k?) (The pirate apprentice) - Tenor. Leading man. Not sure if he has a k in his name or not. The titular slave of duty. Ridiculous. Very enjoyable if you like over-acting (Actually that could be said for many or all of the other parts as well, and parts in other G&S...)
He is the slave of duty.

Sergeant of Police - Bass. Recruited by Fred to deal with the pirates, but generally portrayed as actually terrified of them. One of those G&S roles who only appear in the second act but then get some of the best songs.
Deputy Sergeant of Police - Part added for our production as we didn't want to split the male chorus too much so had only two policemen later on. With that being the case, he took some of the Sergeant's lines allowing the Sergeant to be more courageous with his Deputy filling in as the scaredy-cat half of the duo.

Mabel (General Stanley's daughter) - Lead soprano, with all that entails. Has some crazy high singing, though not that much speaking. Pretty much adopts Frederic's views on duty and so on shortly after meeting him.
Edith, Kate, Isabel (Also General Stanley's daughters) - Traditionally soprano, mezzo, non-singing as I recall, but things can easily be moved around between them. Kind of bit parts, but can actually work out to be pretty fun parts I think, depending on the director.
Ruth (A piratical maid of all work) - Standard old lady alto who nursed the lead tenor as a baby. Basically becomes a pirate in Act 2.

Rapid plot summary:
Frederic has just turned 21 and is out of his indentures, having been apprenticed to the pirates as a child. This was an accident - Ruth was supposed to apprentice him to a pilot, but she misheard, and Frederic had to keep going with it because he's the Slave of Duty. Can't have been that bad though, as the pirates are not really that great at piracy, never attacking a weaker party than themselves, and never molesting an orphan (Or anyone who claims to be an orphan...)
Now, Ruth wants to marry Frederic, and he is willing to take her word that she is a fine woman, as he has seen no other woman since he was eight years old. Unfortunately for her, at this point the female chorus turn up, so Frederic rejects Ruth and asks if any of the girls will marry him, Mabel says yes (Omitting some details here, but these are the important events). Lovey-dovey stuff happens, then Frederic points out that really they should go before the other pirates come back, but it's too late, and they all seize the ladies. The Major-General then turns up, sings the most famous song in all of G&S, and cleverly gets out of the predicament by claiming to be an orphan, so the pirates don't marry his daughters, Frederic rejects Ruth again, and everyone except Ruth is happy. End of Act 1.

Act 2, the MG is distraught over the fact he had to tell a lie, while Frederic is determined to atone for his own involuntary misdeeds by taking a band of policemen and dealing with the pirates. However, once everyone else leaves the stage the Pirate King and Ruth enter and reveal to him that he was born on the 29th of February, in leap year, and consequentially (since the contract of his apprenticeship specifies birthday rather than year), he is still apprenticed to them (Since going by birthdays he is only five and a quarter). This being the case, clearly it is his duty to rejoin them, and as one of them, to reveal that in fact General Stanley is no orphan. The King immediately resolves to avenge this falsehood by attacking Tremordern Castle this very night.
Frederic explains this to Mabel, they're very sad, she explains it to the police, they're very scared. They hide as the pirates come on, they hide as the Major-General comes on, his daughters ask him why he's out of bed, the pirates come on and grab him, but are stopped short when the policemen charge them yield, in Queen Victoria's name. However, Ruth then reveals that in fact the pirates are all noblemen who have gone wrong, so the Major-General pardons them all and lets them marry his daughters after all. Everyone is happy!

So, the show. It's all great fun, of course. It's not so great for female parts, as is typical in G&S, though there can be some interest to playing General Stanley's daughters I think, depending on the direction. For men, of course, it's very good - while some might expect those who have to play policemen to be disappointed at being removed from the ranks of the pirates, on the other hand the policemen get some of the best bits.
In terms of putting on the show, it's not overly long, so nothing really needs to be cut. If anything, one might consider adding back in some things which Gilbert cut from the original production. One aspect of the show which I feel works very well in this day and age, though I don't know if it was similarly applicable back when it was written, is popular conceptions of pirates. Nowadays, of course, pirates are often imagined as somewhat romantic figures, sailing the high seas swashbuckling and finding buried treasure, etc, which is somewhat at odds with the actuality of how piracy works - theft, pillage, and so on. Pirates of Penzance neatly sidesteps that dilemma through the point that the pirates are really not that good at being pirates. In fact, that romanticised view of pirates could easily, one imagines, have been what the pirates were thinking of when they became pirates in the first place, hence the high principles they maintain.
Another interesting thing about Pirates is it seems to me that is has quite a high music-to-dialogue ratio. Certainly, in act two, as written, it's all music from Away, away to the end. At least 40 pages of music in the vocal score (Obviously varying dependent on edition), with no stops. Though there is one point at which it's just that Mabel/the Sergeant speak and the chorus policemen respond by singing in monotone, which I for one would always put into just dialogue instead. Even so, there're some pretty lengthy chunks of all music and no speaking. Mabel has got to be the least talkative lead soprano in G&S, but she has masses of singing. Despite this, the focus remains very much on the words, the humour and ridiculosity of the plot.
That big chunk of music at the end is pretty great as well. Has I think all the iconic memorable bits other than the modern Major-General (And actually, there was an earlier version of the act 2 finale which did include a reprise of that...) - Away, away, then the romantic bits between Frederic and Mabel, Though in body and in mind (reprise of the iconic When the foeman bears his steel), A policeman's lot is not a happy one, With cat-like tread, Sighing softly to the river, and then the act 2 finale. Brilliant run of music. Even with turning the Mabel/policemen scene into proper dialogue, it still goes through from A Policeman's lot onwards.
I suppose the presence of so many good and memorable songs is an obvious reason why Pirates is so popular.

Now, last summer, I put my name forward to potentially direct this show. I wasn't chosen, but nonetheless I put some thought into it which of course I then didn't get  to share with anyone, until now. So here are some hopefully interesting thoughts which I had:
The motivations of all the characters, I feel, can be explained by the fact that they all adhere rather strictly to their own views of what is right - the differences merely arise in what those views are. Though Frederic title-drops himself as the slave of duty, the label could be applied to some extent to many of the other characters as well.

Frederic is obvious. He has a skewed view whereby he basically sees the best in everything. He genuinely likes the pirates, and doesn't think they're bad people, even though they do things which he knows, thanks to his somehow incredibly srupulous upbringing, to be wrong. I would compare him somewhat to a simplified version of Carrot in the Discworld books - believing that everyone is good really. And of course then he's the slave of duty - failing to do his duty would be wrong, so though being a pirate involves doing other things which are wrong, since it's his duty he must do them, and he sticks rigidly to that.  Mabel, as I said, somewhat adopts these views. One could also imagine that the policemen were similarly infected by his views, hence A policeman's lot is not a happy one, singing about how criminals are actually very nice people when they're not committing crimes.

The Pirate King and the Major-General both have us-and-them sort of mentalities, with the King's being somewhat flipped as regards traditional morals. The MG feels that piracy is wrong, therefore pirates are bad people (The connection with which Frederic has difficulty), but on the other hand respectable people, like noblemen (even if they have gone wrong), are good and perfectly suitable husbands for his daughters. Noblemen are Us, pirates are Them. Of course he also feels incredible guilt for lying to the pirates - feeling that this was a bad thing eventhough it was done for good reasons - somewhat at odds with Frederic committing acts of piracy because it's his duty, and very much at odds with the King, who has a cut line "Am I to understand that you consider all dishonesty wrong?"
Moving on to the King, his us-and-them is somewhat flipped. Presumably he had some bad experiences as a nobleman, hence "I do not think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest." But of course they are all orphans, and so they never molest an orphan, and very honourably never attack a weaker party than themselves, because though they are pirates, they still feel they are good people - indeed they feel pirates are good people in general. Pirates are Us, orphans are Us, noblemen (and Major-Generals) are Them. (Note: if you're confused by me saying 'they' when I was supposed to be talking about the King, that's because the pirates all basically follow his lead in this regard)

The Major-General's daughters can be anything. It's easy to imagine they'd follow their father's views, but equally some of them could be rebellious, certainly they could be excited by romanticised ideas about pirates (Ours certainly were), etc.

Finally, Ruth. Ruth has a more traditional view of right and wrong in common with the Major-General, but approaching it from a different angle - or actually, somewhat like the Major-General is in act 2. But in her case, she apprenticed Frederic to be a pirate instead of a pilot, probably altering the course of his entire life - somewhat worse than telling one lie. I feel that Ruth, having made this one mistake in her backstory, then spends the entirety of the show trying to make up for it. I like to imagine the reason Frederic is so ridiculously moral and dutiful is because Ruth raised him that way to (over)compensate for making him a pirate. And I would then also interpret her wanting to marry him more as her path to atonement - Frederic being so perfect, if he loves her, then she must be a good person after all, particularly since he was the one she wronged all those years ago. Consequently, when he rejects her, she is left with the logical conclusion that she did a bad thing => she is a bad person. Thus she becomes a pirate in act 2, and were I directing, I would want Ruth to be more piratical than the actual pirates, since they're pirates who think they're good people, whereas she is a pirate because she thinks she is a bad person. Ironically, I would have Ruth be rather ruthless. (Actually I have wondered before if Ruth's name was so you could say the pirates definitely weren't ruthless - bit of an in-joke maybe?)

At least, such were my thoughts. I think that was pretty much all of them, other than possibilities for moving some of the female solos around, possibilities for tackling the usual unfortunate scarcity of society men, and reinstating that line about dishonesty.

To sum up, there's a lot to Pirates, but above all it's just a lot of ridiculous fun - in fact in that respect it may be unmatched among the G&S operettas, though others are superior in other respects and actually I may just feel that way because I've just done it less than a week ago. At any rate I can understand why it's the best known G&S, and so popular, and I'm very glad to have done it.
Oh, thanks to Buttercupliffy and our pianist for the photos I've appropriated for this post.


  1. Although I enjoy your concept of Ruth, nowhere in Gilbert's direction or notes does it say she 'becomes' a pirate. He infers she is more-or-less Pirate, and there is directorial scope for her to act on your particular whims there, but the change of costume in Act 2 is a tradition which I find baffling and without cause!
    When HUGSS did Pirates no one changed costume and it worked just as nicely :)

    I also find it pleasing how the policemen duet, though very similar to the 2009 HUGSS version, in the simple decisions of which way the lines are split completely changes the character arrangements there and allows the Director to create his or her own stamp on a seemingly small part of the show.

    ALSO. I don't believe Pirates is the most well known G&S. But I do believe you're right about the MG's song :)

  2. By which I mean, in no version I have read does Gilbert give those instructions for Ruth, but they may be in other versions I suppose :)