Pirates remains popular today, taking its place along with The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore as one of the most frequently played Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Its 1981 Broadway revival by Joseph Papp ran for 787 performances and spawned many imitations.
After the success of Pinafore, Gilbert was eager to get started on the next opera, and he began working on the libretto in December 1878. The composition of the music for Pirates was unusual, in that Sullivan composed the acts in reverse — intending to bring the completed Act II with him to New York, with Act I existing only in sketches. When he arrived in New York, however, he found that he had left the sketches behind, and he had to reconstruct the first act from memory. Gilbert told a correspondent many years later that Sullivan was unable to recall his setting of the entrance of the women's chorus, so they substituted the chorus "Climbing over rocky mountain" from their earlier opera, Thespis. Sullivan's manuscript for Pirates contains pages removed from a Thespis score, with the vocal parts altered from their original context as a four-part chorus.
Some scholars (e.g., Tillett and Spencer, 2000) have offered evidence that Gilbert and Sullivan had planned all along to re-use "Climbing over rocky mountain," and perhaps other parts of Thespis, noting that the presence of a Thespis score in New York when there were no plans to revive it might not have been accidental. In any event, "Climbing over rocky mountain," one other song, and a ballet are the only portions of the score of Thespis known to have survived.
On 10 December 1879, Sullivan wrote a letter to his mother about the new opera, upon which he was hard at work in New York. "I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching." True enough, The Pirates of Penzance was an immediate hit in New York, and later London, and takes its place today as one of the most popular G&S works. To secure British copyright, there was a perfunctory performance the afternoon before the New York premiere, at the Royal Bijou Theatre Paignton, Devon, organised by Helen Lenoir (who would later marry Richard D'Oyly Carte). The cast, having performed Pinafore the night before, read from scripts carried onto the stage, making do with whatever costumes they had on hand.
The work's title is a multi-layered joke. On the one hand, Penzance was a docile seaside resort at the time, and not the place where one would expect to encounter pirates. On the other hand, the title was also a jab at the theatrical pirates who had staged unlicensed productions of H.M.S. Pinafore in America.
Sullivan's score borrowed from several musical traditions. In the Major-General's Act II song, "Sighing softly to the river", the composer imitates Schubert's partsongs for male voices. Also, the "Come, Friends Who Plough the Sea" section of "With Catlike Tread" resembles the anvil chorus from Il Trovatore. In another scene in Act II, Mabel addresses the police, who chant their response, in an imitation of the form of an Anglican church service's canticle and response. One of the most famous passages from the finale to Act I, referred to as "Hail Poetry", is a five-part musical piece, utilising all of the voices in a chorale style.
The character of Major-General Stanley was also based partly on Field Marshal Garnet Wolsely.
On the coast of Cornwall, at the time of Queen Victoria's reign, Frederic, a young man with a strong sense of duty, celebrates, amidst the pirates, the completion of his twenty-first year and the apparent end of his apprenticeship ("Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry"). The pirates' maid of all work, Ruth, appears and reveals that, as Frederic's nursemaid long ago ("When Frederic was a little lad"), she had made a mistake "through being hard of hearing": she had misheard Frederic's father's instructions and apprenticed him to a pirate, instead of to a ship's pilot.
Frederic has never seen any women other than Ruth, and he believes her to be beautiful – the pirates know better and suggest that Frederic take Ruth with him when he returns to civilisation. Frederic announces that, although it pains him to do so, such is his sense of duty that, once free from his apprenticeship, he will be forced to devote himself to their extermination. He points out that they are not very successful pirates, since, being orphans themselves, they allow their prey to go free if they too are orphans. Frederic notes that word of this has got about, so captured ships' companies routinely claim to be orphans. Frederic invites the pirates to give up piracy and go with him, so that he need not destroy them, but the Pirate King notes that, compared with respectability, piracy is comparatively honest ("Oh! better far to live and die"). The pirates depart, leaving Frederic and Ruth. Frederic sees a group of beautiful young girls approaching the pirate lair, and realizes that Ruth lied to him about her appearance ("Oh false one! You have deceived me!"). Sending Ruth away, Frederic hides before the girls arrive.
The girls burst exuberantly upon the secluded spot ("Climbing over rocky mountain"). Frederic reveals himself ("Stop, ladies, pray!") and appeals to them to help him reform ("Oh! is there not one maiden breast?"). One of them, Mabel, responds to his plea, and chides her sisters for their lack of charity ("Oh sisters deaf to pity's name for shame!"). She sings to him ("Poor wand'ring one"), and Frederic and Mabel quickly fall in love. The other girls contemplate whether to eavesdrop or to leave the new couple alone ("What ought we to do?"), and eventually decide to "talk about the weather," although they steal a glance or two at the affectionate couple ("How beautifully blue the sky").
Frederic warns the girls of the pirates nearby ("Stay, we must not lose our senses"), but before they can flee, the pirates arrive and capture all the girls, intending to marry them ("Here's a first rate opportunity"). Mabel warns the pirates that the girls' father is a Major-General ("Hold, monsters!"), who soon arrives and introduces himself ("I am the very model of a modern Major-General"). He appeals to the pirates not to take his daughters, leaving him to face his old age alone. Having heard of the famous Pirates of Penzance, he pleads for their release on the ground that he's an orphan ("Oh, men of dark and dismal fate"). The soft-hearted pirates are sympathetic and release the girls ("Hail, Poetry!"), making Major-General Stanley and his daughters honorary members of their band.
The Major-General sits in a ruined chapel on his estate, surrounded by his daughters. His conscience is tortured by the lie that he told the pirates, and the girls attempt to console him ("Oh dry the glist'ning tear"). The Sergeant of Police and his corps arrive to announce their readiness to go forth to arrest the pirates ("When the foeman bares his steel"). The girls loudly express their admiration of the police for facing likely slaughter at the hands of fierce and merciless foes. The police are unnerved by this, and remain around (to the Major-General's frustration) but finally leave.
Left alone, Frederic, who is to lead the group, pauses to reflect on his opportunity to atone for a life of piracy ("Now for the pirate's lair"), at which point he encounters Ruth and the Pirate King. It has occurred to them that his apprenticeship was worded so as to bind him to them until his twenty-first birthday – and, because that birthday happens to be on February 29 (in a leap year), it means that technically only five birthdays have passed ("When you had left our pirate fold"), and he will not reach his twenty-first birthday until he is in his eighties. Frederic is convinced by this logic that he must rejoin the pirates, and thus he sees it as his duty to inform the Pirate King of the Major-General's deception. The outraged outlaw declares that their "revenge will be swift and terrible" ("Away, away, my heart's on fire").
Frederic meets Mabel ("All is prepared"), and she pleads with him to stay ("Stay Frederic, stay"), but he explains that he must fulfill his duty to the pirates until his 21st birthday in 1940. He promises to return then and claim her. They agree to be faithful to each other until then, though to Mabel "It seems so long" ("Oh here is love and here is truth"), and Frederic departs. Mabel steels herself ("No, I'll be brave") and tells the police that they must go alone to face the pirates. They muse that an outlaw might be just like any other man, and it is a shame to deprive him of "that liberty which is so dear to all" ("When a felon's not engaged in his employment"). The police hide on hearing the approach of the pirates ("A rollicking band of pirates we"), who have stolen onto the grounds, meaning to avenge themselves for the Major-General's lie ("With cat-like tread").
The police and the pirates prepare for the fight ("Hush, hush! not a word"). Just then, the Major-General appears, sleepless with guilt, and the pirates also hide, while General Stanley listens to the soothing sighing of the breeze ("Sighing softly to the river"). The girls come looking for him ("Now what is this and what is that"). The pirates leap to the attack, and the police rush to the defence; but the police are easily defeated, and the Pirate King urges the captured Major General to prepare for death. The Sergeant plays his trump card, demanding that the pirates yield "in Queen Victoria's name"; the pirates, overcome with loyalty to their Queen, do so. Ruth appears and reveals that the orphan pirates are in fact "all noblemen who have gone wrong". The major-general is impressed by this and all is forgiven. Frederic and Mabel are reunited, and the Major-General is happy to marry his daughters to the noble pirates after all.
|GENERAL,POLICE & GIRLS:||What, all noblemen?|
|KING & PIRATES:||Yes, all noblemen!|
|GENERAL, POLICE & GIRLS:||What, all?|
|KING:||Well, nearly all!|
|ALL:||They are nearly all noblemen who have gone wrong. |
In the original London production, this exchange was shortened to:
|GIRLS:||Oh spare them! They are all noblemen who have gone wrong.|
|GENERAL:||What, all noblemen?|
|KING:||Yes, all noblemen!|
|KING:||Well, nearly all!|
Gilbert deleted this exchange in the 1900 revival, and the Chappell vocal score was revised accordingly. The revived D'Oyly Carte Opera Company restored the original version in their 1989 production.
In America, after the New York opening on New Year's Eve, 1879, Richard D'Oyly Carte launched four companies that covered the United States on tours that lasted through the following summer. Gilbert and Sullivan themselves trained each of the touring companies through January and early February 1880, and each company's first performance – whether it was in Philadelphia, Newark, or Buffalo – was conducted by the composer. In Australia, its first authorized performance was on 19 March 1881 at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, produced by J. C. Williamson.
There was still no international copyright law, and the first unauthorized New York production was given by the Boston Ideal Opera Company at Booth's Theatre in September 1880. The first non-D'Oyly Carte professional production in a country that had been subject to Gilbert's copyright (other than Williamsons' authorised productions) was in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, in September 1961. In 1979, the Torbay branch of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society presented a centenary tribute to the world premiere performance of Pirates in Paignton, with a production at the Palace Avenue Theatre (situated a few metres from the former Bijou Theatre).
As discussed below, Joseph Papp's 1980–83 Pirates gave a boost to the opera's popularity. Professional and amateur productions of the opera continue with frequency. In 2007, the New York City Opera mounted a new production as did Opera Australia.
The following table shows the history of the D'Oyly Carte productions in Gilbert's lifetime:
|Theatre||Opening Date||Closing Date||Perfs.||Details|
|Bijou Theatre, Paignton||December 30 1879||December 30 1879||1||English copyright performance.|
|Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York||December 31 1879||March 6 1880||100||Original run in New York. The company toured the Eastern seaboard between March 8 and May 15. Three other touring companies were launched in January and February 1880.|
|May 17 1880||June 5 1880|
|Opera Comique||April 3 1880||April 2 1881||363||Original London run.|
|Savoy Theatre||December 23 1884||February 14 1885||?||Series of matinées with a juvenile cast.|
|Savoy Theatre||March 17 1888||June 6 1888||80||First professional revival.|
|Savoy Theatre||June 30 1900||November 5 1900||127||Second professional revival.|
|Savoy Theatre||December 1 1908||March 27 1909||43||Second Savoy repertory season; played with five other operas. (Closing date shown is of the entire season.)|
|Major-General||Richard Mansfield||J. H. Ryley||George Grossmith||George Grossmith||Henry Lytton|
|Pirate King||F. Federici||Sgr. Brocolini||Richard Temple||Richard Temple||Jones Hewson|
|Samuel||G. J. Lackner||Furneaux Cook||George Temple||Richard Cummings||W. H. Leon|
|James||John Le Hay||role eliminated|
|Frederic||Llewellyn Cadwaladr||Hugh Talbot||George Power||J. G. Robertson||Robert Evett|
|Sergeant||Fred Billington||Fred Clifton||Rutland Barrington||Rutland Barrington||Walter Passmore|
|Mabel||Emilie Petrelli||Blanche Roosevelt||Marion Hood||Geraldine Ulmar||Isabel Jay|
|Edith||Marian May||Jessie Bond||Julia Gwynne||Jessie Bond||Lulu Evans|
|Kate||Lena Monmouth||Rosina Brandram||Lilian La Rue||Nellie Kavanagh||Alice Coleman|
|Isabel||Kate Neville||Billie Barlow||Neva Bond||Nellie Lawrence||Agnes Fraser|
|Ruth||Fanny Harrison||Alice Barnett||Emily Cross||Rosina Brandram||Rosina Brandram|
|Major-General||Charles H. Workman||Henry Lytton||Henry Lytton||Martyn Green||Grahame Clifford|
|Pirate King||Henry Lytton||Leicester Tunks||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt|
|Samuel||Leo Sheffield||Frederick Hobbs||Joseph Griffin||Richard Walker||Hilton Layland|
|Frederic||Henry Herbert||Dewey Gibson||Charles Goulding||John Dean||John Dean|
|Sergeant||Rutland Barrington||Fred Billington||Leo Sheffield||Sydney Granville||Richard Walker|
|Mabel||Dorothy Court||Elsie McDermid||Elsie Griffin||Kathleen Frances||Helen Roberts|
|Edith||Jessie Rose||Nellie Briercliffe||Eileen Sharp||Marjorie Eyre||Marjorie Eyre|
|Kate||Beatrice Boarer||Betty Grylls||Aileen Davies||Maisie Baxter||Ivy Sanders|
|Isabel||Ethel Lewis||Kitty Twinn||Hilary Davies||Elizabeth Nickell-Lean||Rosalie Dyer|
|Ruth||Louie Rene||Bertha Lewis||Bertha Lewis||Dorothy Gill||Ella Halman|
|Major-General||Martyn Green||Peter Pratt||John Reed||James Conroy-Ward||Alistair Donkin|
|Pirate King||Darrell Fancourt||Donald Adams||Donald Adams||John Ayldon||John Ayldon|
|Samuel||Donald Harris||George Cook||Alan Styler||Jon Ellison||Michael Buchan|
|Frederic||Leonard Osborn||Thomas Round||Philip Potter||Colin Wright||Meston Reid|
|Sergeant||Richard Watson||Kenneth Sandford||George Cook||Michael Rayner||Clive Harre|
|Mabel||Muriel Harding||Jean Hindmarsh||Valerie Masterson||Julia Goss||Vivian Tierney|
|Edith||Joan Gillingham||Joyce Wright||Peggy Ann Jones||Patricia Leonard||Jill Pert|
|Kate||Joyce Wright||Marian Martin||Pauline Wales||Caroline Baker||Helene Witcombe|
|Isabel||Enid Walsh||Jane Fyffe||Susan Maisey||Rosalind Griffiths||Alexandra Hann|
|Ruth||Ella Halman||Ann Drummond-Grant||Christene Palmer||Lyndsie Holland||Patricia Leonard|
In 1980, Joseph Papp and the Public Theater of New York City brought a new production of Pirates, directed by Wilford Leach and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, to the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, one of the series of Shakespeare in the Park summer events. The show played for 10 previews and 35 performances. It then transferred to Broadway, opening on January 8 1981 for a run of 20 previews and 787 performances at the Uris and Minskoff Theatres. This take on Pirates earned several Tony Awards, including a Tony Award for Best Revival.
Compared to traditional productions of the opera, Papp's Pirates featured a more swashbuckling Pirate King and Frederic, and a broader, more musical comedy style of humour. It also featured an adapted orchestration and a number of key changes. The "Matter Patter" trio from Ruddigore and "Sorry her lot" from H.M.S. Pinafore were interpolated into the show. The production also restored Gilbert and Sullivan's original New York ending, with a reprise of the Major-General's song in the Act II finale.
Linda Ronstadt starred as Mabel, Rex Smith as Frederic, Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, Patricia Routledge as Ruth (replaced by Estelle Parsons for the Broadway transfer), George Rose as the Major-General, and Tony Azito as the Sergeant of Police. Notable replacements during the Broadway run included Pam Dawber, Karla DeVito and Maureen McGovern as Mabel; Robby Benson, Patrick Cassidy and Peter Noone as Frederic; James Belushi, Gary Sandy and Treat Williams as the Pirate King; David Garrison as the Sergeant; George S. Irving as the Major-General; and Kaye Ballard as Ruth. The national tour of the production featured Barry Bostwick as the Pirate King, Jo Anne Worley as Ruth, Clive Revill as the Major-General and Andy Gibb as Frederic.
The production opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, on May 26 1982 for a run of 601 performances. Notable among the cast were George Cole and Ronald Fraser as the Major-General; Michael Praed and Peter Noone as Frederic; Tim Curry, Timothy Bentinck, Oliver Tobias and Paul Nicholas as the Pirate King; Chris Langham as the Sergeant of Police; Pamela Stephenson as Mabel; Annie Ross as Ruth; Bonnie Langford as Kate; and Louise Gold as Isabel.
The Australian production opened in Melbourne in January 1984 at the Victorian Arts Centre and was the first work staged in the new performing arts complex. It was directed by John Feraro and starred Jon English as the Pirate King, Simon Gallaher as Frederic, June Bronhill as Ruth, David Atkins as the Sergeant of Police, and Marina Prior as Mabel. The six week limited season was followed by an Australian national tour throughout 1984, and return seasons in 1985 and 1986. In 1985, Pirates was the first production in the new Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane and set attendance records that were not surpassed until many years later by The Phantom of The Opera.
The Papp production was turned into a film in 1983, with all of the original Broadway cast reprising their roles, except that Angela Lansbury replaced Estelle Parsons as Ruth. The minor roles used British actors mimeing to their Broadway counterparts. The film was not a success, but, according to the IMDB, this "had nothing to do with the reviews, which were often quite positive. The real problem lay with Universal Pictures' decision to release the film simultaneously to SelecTV (a Los Angeles subscription television service) and to theaters. Theater owners were so angry that they boycotted the film; in the end, only 92 theaters agreed to show it, and it enjoyed a long run at only one of them. The film has been shown occasionally on television. Another film based loosely on the opera, The Pirate Movie, was released during the Broadway run.
The Papp production design has been widely imitated in other modern productions of Pirates, even where traditional orchestration and standard score are used. Many modern productions are also influenced by the popular Disney film franchise Pirates of the Caribbean.
Other songs from the show that have been used frequently include the chorus of With cat-like tread, which begins "Come, friends, who plough the sea," which was used in the popular American song, "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here," popularized by Fred Astaire. It is also part of the soundtrack, along with other Gilbert and Sullivan songs, in the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire. The song was also pastiched in an episode of Animaniacs in a song about surfing a whale.
Other notable instances of references to Pirates include a New York Times article on 29 February 1940, memorializing that Frederic was finally out of his indentures. Six years previously, the arms granted to the municipal borough of Penzance in 1934 contain a pirate dressed in Gilbert's original costuming, and Penzance had a rugby team called the Penzance Pirates, which is now called the Cornish Pirates. In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called "The Year of the Action", concerning whether the action of Pirates took place on March 1, 1873, or March 1, 1877. That is, did Gilbert take into account the fact that 1900 was not a leap year?
Film references to Pirates include Kate and Leopold, where there are multiple references, including a scene where Leopold sings "I Am The Very Model of A Modern Major General" while accompanying himself on the piano; and in Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) covered a social gaffe by prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), who said that the opera La Traviata was so good that she almost "peed in [her] pants" by saying that she had said that she liked it almost as much as "The Pirates of Penzance." In Walt Disney's cartoon Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004), there is a performance of The Pirates of Penzance that becomes the setting for the climactic battle between the Musketeers and Captain Pete.
In the TV series, The West Wing, "The Pirates of Penzance" and other Gilbert & Sullivan operas are mentioned, in particular by Deputy Communications Director, Sam Seaborn, who was once recording secretary of the Gilbert and Sullivan society in school. In the pilot episode of the 2008 CBS series, Flashpoint, a police officer and his partner sing the policeman's song. In Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a poster from "The Pirates of Penzance" hangs on Matt Albie's (Matthew Perry) office wall.
The show is referred to in video games. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a casino is called "Pirates in Men's Pants", a crude play on "Pirates of Penzance". The opera has also lent itself to other cultural references, such as the unlikely slang used by Melburnian youths, who refer to marijuana as "Pirates of Penzance" or the "Gilbert & Sullivan Special."