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 1829, and the police jokes in The Pirates of Penzance show some ambivalence about the place of the police in society. Like many citizens, Gilbert demonstrates a good-natured affection for police officers, whose “lot is not a happy one” because they are torn between their duty to arrest wrongdoers and their natural sympathies with criminals’ “capacity for innocent enjoyment.” At the same time, the police are ridiculed both for their false bravado before the confrontation with the pirates and for their bumbling inability to overcome and arrest the pirates.
The Victorian era saw not only the novelty of professionalized law enforcement but also pressure for changes in the tradition-bound military. Three laws reforming the army were passed in the early 1870’s, but officers at the time of The Pirates of Penzance were still more likely to be gentlemen whose military knowledge, like that of Major General Stanley, had “only been brought down to the beginning of the century.” Officers usually purchased their commissions and had been educated in British public schools (privately run, all-male, boarding academies) at which they learned much more about classical languages and playing sports than about modern science, technology, or warfare. Gilbert satirizes the major general from the middle-class perspective, portraying him as a pompous product of moneyed,...
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behind-the-times aristocracy and over-education in the totally useless knowledge required on the entrance examinations for the two service academies.
The women in the operetta personify the stereotypical Victorian maiden, whose goal it is to hold out for the best marriage possible, and the stereotypical Victorian spinster, whose goal it is to marry anyone at all. The pirates desire to marry the maidens “with impunity,” circumventing the women’s calculations and avoiding the tedious negotiations with fathers that were common at the time. The young women refuse until the finale, when the pirates’ true identities as noblemen are revealed. This patently silly turn of events parodies the harsh reality that, in an age of limited opportunities for women to be independent and of nearly impossible divorce, a young woman’s husband was her destiny. One of the maidens, Mabel, seems to have the best of all possible situations when she and Frederic fall in love, because she is both doing her duty by redeeming him from a life of crime and winning a handsome husband. When Frederic and Mabel promise, in their duet, to be faithful to each other “till we are wed, and even after,” Gilbert makes even these starry-eyed lovers express the typical Victorian combination of romantic idealism and hardheaded realism about marriage. Ruth’s hopeless love for Frederic even more poignantly demonstrates the woman’s position: Devoid of youth, beauty, and wealth, she can only watch sadly as the young, beautiful, and rich Mabel wins his heart in an instant. Even as the curtain falls at the end of the operetta, she is alone, with no sympathy from the other characters.
Despite the subversive possibilities in satirizing the concept of duty, the uniformed authorities, and the institution of marriage, The Pirates of Penzance concludes with the accepted Victorian order of things restored. The outlaws give up when the police invoke the queen’s name; Major General Stanley not only gives his daughters in betrothal to the formerly pirate noblemen but also orders them to “resume [their] ranks and legislative duties,” thus bringing full circle the theme of duty. By scrupulously doing one’s duty, the finale asserts, one brings about the best possible results for the greatest number of people. These good results include, for the men, assuming their rightfully high places in the social structure, and for the women, marrying well.