Wondering what the Pirates of Penzance is all about? This will give you a brief introduction to one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s musicals.
Short Attention Span Plots
written by Mike Storie
The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society
“It’s easy, in elegant diction, to call it an innocent fiction.”
One of the true saving graces of these fun-filled operas is that 90% of the plot takes place decades before the curtain goes up. So we see a sort of “Spark Notes” version of the story and Pirates is no exception. The tale starts when Fred (he’s the so-called “hero”) is eight years old and his father decides that he should learn a trade. So Dad sends him off with the nursery maid to get him signed up as an apprentice pilot so that he can learn the trade of sea-faring.
Actually, Fred’s full name is “Frederic,” much to the consternation of my spelling checker. Frederic, as we will soon learn, has an IQ that is numerically about equal to room temperature (Fahrenheit, Celsius — it’s only a matter of degree,) and he has the same moral convictions as a weather vane. It has to do with which way the wind is blowing.
Our first task as an audience is to accept the notion that Fred was inadvertently apprenticed to a pirate (instead of a pilot) because his nurse was a touch hard of hearing. Old Fred, of course, saw nothing unusual about this (nor, apparently, did his family whom we never hear of again) until his apprenticeship was due to be over on his 21st birthday.
Having been at sea since he was eight, our strapping 21-year-old can’t remember what a woman (other than deaf old Ruth who’s going on 47!) looks like. Ruth decided to stay on as an administrative assistant with the pirates after her little boo-boo. The salt air and clean living evidently have cleared up her deafness and she’s now driving the pirates nuts.
Now, it seems that Fred was born on the 29th of February in 1856. (This bit of trivia becomes important later, so pay attention!)
Shortly after this piratical party of the first part, along comes a bevy of beautiful girls on a picnic with the intention of “paddling” in the water.
If the above discussion already within your brain doth gyrate, I had better not tell you about the girls’ foster-father, a high-ranking British military officer, who makes difficult rhymes about most of the subjects you hated in high school. In order to save his daughters (not to mention himself) from the pirates, he claims he’s an orphan.
Later we can discuss the business about Frederic being born on February 29th in leap year and not reaching his 21st birthday (in the contractual sense) until 1940, thus requiring him to switch loyalties back to his former colleagues after promising to lead the Keystone Cops in an effort to capture the slippery pirate rascals.
If you have accepted all of this, then it will certainly come as no surprise that the pirates, in addition to being orphans, are the sons of British Peers, and are deeply patriotic and sort of devoted to Queen Victoria. What else is a Major-General to do after all of these developments come to light, than to utter the immortal words: “take my daughters, all of whom are beauties.”
At this juncture, the sopranos pair up with the tenors, the altos with the baritones, the contraltos with the bases, the double-belled euphoniums with the flugel horns, etc., and once again, all is right with the English-speaking world.
Welcome to the shores of Cornwall, England…..and the Pirates of Penzance!