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"A Paradox, A Paradox, That Most Ingenious Paradox"
The Pirates of Penzance (or A Slave To Duty): Gilbert and Sullivan

by Alan D. Craxford


Sir Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Sullivan (1)

WS Gilbert

W.S. Gilbert (2)

“Pirates of Penzance” features many of the familiar characteristics of Gilbertian plot twists. Age and time are hopelessly entangled. Logic is upended and sat rudely upon its end. Everyone loves everybody else in an unrequited fashion that is properly requited(!) at the end – and nobody gets seriously hurt.

By the time this operetta opened in London in 1880, Gilbert and Sullivan were taking the world by storm and were reaching the pinnacle of their popularity. They had already set a seal on the renaissance of the English comic opera and had made that medium firmly their own. This, the second of the ‘Big Five’, remains after over 120 years one of the most commonly played and is the vehicle for some of England’s finest and most stirring tunes. As well as the opera house, these themes have been heard to issue from the bandstand, the music hall, the military band and the brass band.

The plot

The opera opens on a beach in Cornwall. Frederic has just reached the age of twenty one. By mistake when he was a boy, his Nanny (Ruth) apprenticed him to become a pirate (instead of a pilot). Now Frederic can be leave the pirate band and swears that he will do his utmost to destroy them. The Pirate King notes that they are not bad and rarely plunder anyone. This is because everyone they attack pleads that they are orphans – and as the pirates are orphans themselves, they cannot harm their victims!

George Cook as Frederic

Frederic played by George Cook

Major-General Stanley: Leicester Amateurs

Major-General Stanley

Apart from Ruth (now 47), Frederic has never seen a woman. Ruth tells him that she is pretty but Frederic espies a troupe of girls who turn out to be the daughters of Major-General Stanley. He spurns Ruth and falls in love with Mabel. The pirates lay siege to the girls and demand that Stanley allows them to marry. To avoid this, Stanley pleads that he is an orphan and would be alone if the girls were taken from him.

Later that night, Frederic arranges to meet a group of police officers and they plot the downfall of the pirates. Stanley is disconsolate for having lied to the Pirate King and is surrounded by his daughters. However he gives rousing advice and encouragement to the police in their forthcoming battle. On his way to the meeting, Frederic is way-laid by the Pirate King and Ruth with some grievous news. Apparently Frederic was born on February 29th. Consequently by counting birthday dates he is not 21 but five and a quarter. He is still indentured to the pirate band and his “Sense of Duty” must be to protect them.

In turn Stanley, Mabel and the rest of the daughters appear. The Pirate King wants his revenge on Stanley for the lie that was told. Frederic tells Mabel that he loves her but will have to leave with the pirates. He promises to return when he is 21 (in the year 1940! – remember when this opera was written!!). The constabulary arrive on the scene and a confrontation ensues which is easily won by the pirates. The tables are turned when the police appeal to the pirates’ sense of duty and loyalty to the Queen (Victoria).

Ruth then appears to bring tidings that the pirate are not pirates at all but were peers of the realm who had all gone astray. Pardons are handed out all round and the pirates / peers can go off rejoicing to regain their proper station in life – and marriage to Major-General Stanley’s daughters. Frederic and Mabel are also united in their happiness.



Ruth (A piratical maid of all work): Leicester Amateurs


Gilbert and Sullivan history

Gilbert spent the summer of 1879 sailing along the south coast of England in his new yacht working on the plot of the new opera. The runaway success of "HMS Pinafore", particularly in America, had created problems with pirated versions of the music and unlicensed productions of the opera (there were no international copyright laws or conventions in those days). To overcome this, Richard D’Oyly Carte decided to arrange for the next opera to make it’s debut in New York.

Writing and composition was carried out in secret and it is said that no copies of the manuscript were actually printed prior to the formal openings. Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte as well as the Company sailed to America in November of that year. The official line was to produce an authentic version of "HMS Pinafore" for the State-side audience and then premiere the new opera with only short notice and no advance publicity. Coincidentally they were greeted off the US coast by fleets of ships and steamers decked out as pirates!

Sworn to absolute secrecy, the orchestra, company and soloists rehearsed with hand written scores. Sullivan also discovered that he had left part of the scores for Act I in London and had to rewrite it with only two weeks to go before the first curtain call. The opening night in New York was December 30th 1879. In order to assert copyright a virtually unrehearsed performance of "Pirates" was given by one of the D’Oyly Carte touring companies at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton, Devon.

The official opening night in London was April 3rd 1880 and subsequently ran for 363 performances.

The background

There was some criticism at the time that “Pirates” was a re-hash of “HMS Pinafore” transferred from the sea to dry land. Gilbert is known to have remarked: ‘The treatment will be similar to that of "Pinafore", namely to treat a thoroughly farcical subject in a thoroughly serious manner’. The satire here is on the police, the army and the then prevailing English Sense of Duty.

The songs

Pirates of Penzance: an illustration from the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

"Pirates of Penzance" (the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive)

“Pirates” has perhaps the greatest density of recognisable tunes in the whole repertoire. Some of these are so well-known that they have transcended the context in which they were written. The main theme of the first section of the overture is a prime example of this (try playing it from the Web Opera reference given below). And yet – try to find this theme in the opera itself (it’s called “Come, friends, who plough the sea”) and you will find it buried away in the middle of a chorus piece “With Cat-like Tread”. The overture is Sullivan’s usual heady and boisterous amalgam of songs and refrains taken from the body of the opera – familiarising you with the tunes that are to come.

Some of the songs also disguise remarkable operatic and balletic forms. The song “When the Foeman…” for instance (sometimes known as the Ta-ran-ta-ra, Ta-ran-ta-ra song – although the same phrase is used again in the opera “Iolanthe”) includes a counterpoint recitative “Go, ye heroes, go to glory”. At the end of the set piece, the police sergeant is singing the words of “Foeman” against a male chorus of “Ta-ran-ta-ra” while Mabel is singing the verse of “Go to glory” with the female chorus singing the chorus line. This is usually set to an elaborately choreographed action on stage.

Songs of particular note are:

“Oh Is There Not One Maiden Breast?” – Frederic
“Poor Wand’ring One” – Mabel
“I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General” – Major-General Stanley
“When The Foeman Bares His Steel” – Mabel, Edith and Police Sergeant.
“When A Felon’s Not Engaged In His Employment” (a.k.a “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One”) – Police Sergeant and Chorus.

The words and music of these song can be found on the Web Opera Pages of the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
(Select the link to the song you require. Clicking on the midi file on that page should open your media player and start the melody. To return here close the media player and then press the [BACK] button of your browser)

Continued in column 2...

Page added - November 24th 2005
Last updated - April 26th 2019

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Stage performances

My grandfather, George Cook, was an avid Savoyard and took the tenor lead in most of the operas with the Leicester Amateur Dramatic Society in the 1920s and early 1930s. The four pictures reproduced above are from his recently discovered collection of photographs and were taken at the time of their production of 'Pirates of Penzance' at the Royal Opera House, Leicester in March 1924.

Kevin Klein and Linda Ronstadt on Broadway


Australian version (1994)


D'Oyly Carte at the Savoy Theatre London April - June 2001

D'Oyly Carte

Pirates at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds: November 1997 - January 1998:


'Pirates' is an ever-popular vehicle for adaptation and revision. It maintains its popularity on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. At times the choice of actor or vocalist can raise an eyebrow or two and even rock singers have tried their hand at operetta. Kevin Klein and Linda Ronstadt starred in a celebrated production by Joseph Papp on Broadway, New York which was transferred to film in the late 1980s.

The spirit of G&S remains extremely strong in Australia and New Zealand where performances are regularly staged. One highly acclaimed production by Simon Gallagher in 1994 proved immensely popular on tour and was transferred to DVD. Starring Jon English as the Pirate King, it involved much audience participation and elements of pantomine.

Access "With Cat Like Tread" from the 1994 production by Jon English & Company

“Pirates of Penzance” was the first professional production that I saw at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester in the 1960s. This was a staged by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company with John Reed as the Major-General.

More recently (January 1998) a Broadway Company toured provincial theatres in the UK. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company performed a season at the Savoy Theatre in London in 2001.

Other resources

'Pirates of Penzance' cover from the D'Oyly Carte CD collection

The CD

George Cook: Sergeant of Police (4)

George Cook (4)

As with other releases in the series this set contains two discs. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is in fine form particularly in its performance of the overture. Overall this is a hearty rendition of the opera (admittedly without dialogue). All the leads are in fine voice. John Reed is at his rapid intelligible best in the patter songs – even making Stanley’s groan-worthy puns easy to comprehend. Owen Brannigan has a great time as the Sergeant of Police – even introducing the expression “… not a nappy one!” in the final chorus of his song.

Of parochial interest is that the part of Samuel, the Pirate King's lieutenant, was sung by George Cook (1925 - 1995: no relation!). He was a member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company between 1954 and 1969.

A Gilbert & Sullivan Libretto. 'Pirates of Penzance'


THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE - Gilbert & Sullivan (1968)

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Conducted by Isidore Godfrey.
Soloists: John Reed (Major-General Stanley); Philip Potter (Frederic)
Donald Adams (The Pirate King); Valerie Masterson (Mabel)
Christene Palmer (Ruth); Owen Brannigan (Sergeant of Police)
CD: LONDON 414286-2 (£19.99)


“The Pirates of Penzance” or “The Slave of Duty”
International Music Publications Ltd (1993)


'Pirates of Penzance' from The BBC DVD collection


This version is taken from a full series of specially staged productions (originally by the BBC in 1982) which is offered both a single DVDs and as a boxed set from Amazon (America). These are currently available only as Region 1 discs. As far as I am aware there is no other complete set of performances.

This is an overall good performance that generates the sparkling vivacity of a live staging. Keith Michell (he played Henry VIII in the famous BBC TV series of that monarch and his wives) revels in the role of the ‘Modern Major General’. Although he is no singer, he is able to get his tongue around the demands of the patter songs – and make some sense out of the rhyming couples (strategy … sat a gee = sat on a horse!). Peter Allen is not known over here and had not acted in opera before this but is a good enough pirate king. Janis Kelly (Mabel) and Alexander Oliver (Frederic) are well suited as the lovers. Gillian Knight (Ruth) is an experienced Savoyard.

Each act is introduced by Douglas Fairbanks Junior. The extras include a 16 minute “Making of… “ featurette. This gives the fascinating insight that each operetta had a very tight schedule: one week for rehearsal and one week for shooting. There is a “Life and Times Of Gilbert and Sullivan” storyboard.

“THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE” (2002) Acorn Media DVD AMP5335

Keith Michell

Keith Michell (5)

Keith Michell as Major General Stanley (6)

Major General (6)

Owen Brannigan

Brannigan (7)

G&S trivia spot

Owen Brannigan (1908 – 1973) was a popular bass-baritone of the 1940s and 1950s. Although not a Savoyard he starred in many operas and operettas. He had a supporting role in the 1953 film “The Great Gilbert and Sullivan” which starred Robert Morley (Gilbert), Maurice Evans (Sullivan) and Peter Finch (Carte).


The first version of this article originally appeared on CIAO on April 2nd 2003.


1. Sir Arthur Sullivan (detail of a portrait by John Millais, 1888; National Portrait Gallery, London): Student Britannica
2. W.S. Gilbert: The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
3. Kevin Klein and Linda Ronstadt on Broadway: Musical item on Amazon.com
4. George Cook as the Sergeant of Police (1961): The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
5. Keith Michell Biography on wikipedia
6. Keith Michell as Major-General Stanley: Reference on Amazon.com
7. Owen Brannigan: The Northumbria Anthology

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