W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s operas are loaded with wit, sarcasm, and humor and have been delighting audiences for more than a century. Their comic opera The Pirates of Penzance has been especially successful in America. As a matter of fact, in the early 1980s Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline starred in 772 performances on Broadway.
The vagaries of English and American copyright laws combined to allow American audiences to view the first performances of The Pirates of Penzance. Gilbert and Sullivan were determined to protect the copyright of their play, and they believed that by holding the world premiere in America the thieving that occurred with H.M.S. Pinafore could be delayed. Gilbert found one example of this robbery of his theatrical works in 1879. “While Gilbert was still in New York, he was astonished to find Augustin Daly advertising a revival of Charity. He wrote Daly, asking by what right he proposed to play it. Then he wrote to at least two local papers disclaiming any responsibility for the play ‘in its forthcoming debased condition.’ Daly had constructed his own version, and no copyright law protected Gilbert. In fact, his presence in New York very likely increased Daly’s box office. In a moment of irritation Gilbert told a reporter that he and Sullivan would live in New York nine months of the year in order to benefit from American copyright” (Jane W. Stedman, W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre [New York: Oxford University Press, 1996], 177).
In order to gain British copyright protection, a traveling H.M.S. Pinafore company performed a slapdash show of The Pirates of Penzance on December 29, 1879, at the Bijou Theatre in Paignton, England. The American copyright was more complicated, so “Gilbert sold his performing rights to Sullivan’s American friend Sugdam Grant for a nominal $100, since only an American could have an enforceable copyright” (Stedman, 175). With the copyright as safe as it could be, on December 31, 1879, The Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.
Not only did the play premiere in America it was almost entirely written there. Arthur Sullivan forgot to bring the first act with him to New York; he had to rewrite Act I and finish Act II. A sign hangs in the vicinity of the hotel where Sullivan stayed that says, “On this site Sir Arthur composed The Pirates of Penzance during 1879.” On December 29, 1879, the day before dress rehearsal, Sullivan finished the musical score for The Pirates of Penzance, but he had another problem to cope with—the orchestra.
The American orchestra threatened to quit unless Sullivan raised their salaries to compensate for the added work of such late rehearsals. Sullivan bluffed, and told the Americans that he would bring over another orchestra from Britain who would gladly do the opera. “In the face of this display of British sang-froid the American musicians backed down, much to the relief of Sullivan who later admitted: ‘The idea of getting the Covent Garden band over was hardly less absurd than the ludicrous idea of using the pianoforte and harmonium in a big theatre’” (Ian Bradley, The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan [New York: Oxford University Press, 1996], 189-190).
Whereas Gilbert had no compunctions about deceiving the orchestra, the theme of The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty is based on Victorian values that emphasize duty, unselfishness, and honesty. “To most Victorians the choice between ‘worldly interest’ and ‘sense of duty’ was the central dilemma of life. In the character of Frederic, Gilbert mocks the intellectual and emotional sterility of this choice. Frederic is completely governed by his sense of duty, so that his behaviour in any situation is automatic and does not permit feeling or logic” (Charles Hayter, Modern Dramatists: Gilbert and Sullivan [London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1987], 104). While Victorians were often torn between their obligations to others and human nature, Frederic does not suffer from this quandary. Frederic consistently chooses his sense of duty above everything else, even though his sense of duty is to the pirates who obtained him inadvertently.
Because Frederic feels obligated to the pirates, he betrays the woman he loves, her father, and the police officers. “One of the interesting and unconventional aspects of The Pirates is that the hero and heroine are forced apart by the hero’s personality. As the subtitle of the opera indicates, Frederic is the ‘slave of duty’, and his actions are directed by his conscience” (Hayter, 101).
Reminiscent of the great Greek comic playwright Aristophanes, Gilbert mocks the society in which he lives. “The two fooled in the same way; they looked at life with the same eyes. In Gilbert’s pages Victorian England lives in miniature. . . . Gilbert was one of the cleverest caricaturists, but the freedom Aristophanes enjoyed was not his, and his deft, clear-cut pictures of dishonesty and sham and ignorance in high places are very discreet and always nameless” (Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way [New York: Random House, 1930], 139).
Gilbert’s satire is superb, but when synchronized with Sullivan’s music, the lyrics convey emotion, the sarcasm becomes more evident, and the meaning is transformed. “Sullivan’s music plays an important role in demolishing Mabel’s pretensions. On paper, the song ‘Poor wandering one’ reads like a hymn: it is full of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and its central image is that of a lost sheep who has wandered from the flock” (Hayter, 107). It’s a perfect setup for a hymn, and Sullivan did indeed write hymns including “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Instead, though, he wrote a waltz passionate, romantic, and the exact opposite of what the words seemed to be saying. As Eric A. Plaut writes, “Sullivan was the master of parody of opera. Mabel’s song, “Poor wand’ring one,” In The Pirates of Penzance, is a wonderful parody of French sentimental opera” (Eric A. Plaut, Grand Opera: Mirror of the Western Mind [Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993], 152).
“Crucial to an understanding of the metamorphosis from opera to musical theatre via comic opera is the Gilbert notion that the words—and thus the drama came first. It was Sullivan’s great talent to write inspiring music that supported the words clearly. Rhythms matched the sentences, vowels and consonants fell in the correct place” (Denny Martin Flinn, Musical A Grand Tour [New York: Schirmer Books, 1997], 76). Gilbert and Sullivan were a remarkable team, and their brilliance has made their comic operas everlasting.