W. S. Gilbert collaborated with the composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) on eleven highly successful comic operettas between 1875 and 1889, of which The Pirates of Penzance is the fourth major work. Like the others, The Pirates of Penzance combines topical satire and parody with essentially conservative themes. Penzance, in the rugged coastal area of Cornwall (traditionally known for smuggling) provides a picturesque backdrop for a work that has remained a favorite because of its whimsical plot devices; good-humored satire of the army, the police, and the institution of marriage; and sparkling songs and dialogue.
In his libretto, Gilbert shapes the timeless tale of cruel pirates falling upon innocent maidens into a mock-heroic romp, in which virtue ultimately triumphs, but not before extremes of duty have led to absurdly funny situations. In the world of Victorian England, duty reigned as a supreme virtue, but by 1879, even the most earnest Victorians were ready to laugh at themselves as long as their basic values were ultimately affirmed. Gilbert bases his work on the premise that anything, even commitment to doing one’s duty, can become silly if carried beyond reasonable limits. Frederic, the hero, desires nothing more than to be an honest man, but he takes the notion of duty so seriously that he regards breaking the terms of his apprenticeship to the pirates as worse than actually being a pirate. He accepts, in all seriousness, the extension of his commitment to the pirates because of a paradox in reckoning dates. Major General Stanley, having lied to the pirates to save himself and his adopted daughters, feels overwhelming guilt for this betrayal of his duty to be honest. Ruth, whose incredible mistake in apprenticing Frederic to a pirate instead of a pilot sets the entire plot into motion, has joined the pirate band herself rather than abandon her duty to her charge. The pirates are so softhearted that they never actually hurt anyone, and they finally give up without a struggle when reminded of their duty to Queen Victoria.
While the absurd extensions of duty provide a universal satiric theme, Gilbert also satirizes specific Victorian institutions. Gilbert deftly exploits the humorous possibilities in the ways that newly professionalized police as well as military officers changed during the nineteenth century. The first modern urban police forces had been introduced in London in...
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