THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
SCOTT, Clement. OUR PLAY-BOX. THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE;
THE SLAVE OF DUTY. The Theatre 1880 May 1 New [3rd.] series 1:
(with scans of the illustrations originally appearing on page 305, facing
page 307 and 307)
"THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE; OR, THE SLAVE OF DUTY."
An entirely original melodramatic Opera, in Two Acts, written by W.
S. GILBERT. Composed by ARTHUR
Produced at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, on Wednesday, December
Produced at the Opera Comique, London, on Saturday, April 3rd,
||MR. GEORGE GROSSMITH.
||MR. J. H. RYLEY.
|The Pirate King
||MR. R. TEMPLE.
|Samuel (his Lieutenant)
||MR.. G. TEMPLE.
||MR. FURNEAUX COOK.
|Frederic (the Pirate 'Prentice)
||MR. F. POWER.
||MR. HUGH TALBOT.
|Serjeant of Police
||MR. F. CLIFTON.
|General Stanley's Daughters
|MISS MARION HOOD.
MISS LA RUE.
MISS JESSIE BOND.
|Ruth (a Pirate Maid-of-all-Work)
||MISS EMILY CROSS.
||MISS ALICE BARNETT.
wonder, indeed, that stage success is so seldom obtained, when, in order
to win the prize, it is necessary to elbow your way through a crowd of
obstinate obstructionists who are positively offended at the pronounced
amusement of the people. Between the author's desk and the voice of the
public comes a formidable barrier of discontent, composed of men half-cynical
and semi-critical, weary and bored playgoers who never come to the theatre
with a healthy appetite, but, with a faded and fastidious palate, proceed
to discuss with slight interest, and to dismiss with ill-timed scorn, the
kind of work that should, if for nothing else, be welcomed for its originality.
It is only a very strong and powerful combination of opinions that can
break through this quick-set hedge, and once more the authors of "The Pirates
of Penzance" have been able to hold their own. Two dramatic writers in
our time have acquired the art of amusing the public in an original manner,
and have gradually become so firm in their saddles, conquering prejudice,
and confident of their natural power, that they in time could afford to
smile at the silliness that, once powerful to crush, can only now pull
feebly at their successful skirts. They happened to be two friends – members
of the same clubs, belonging to the same set, thrown together as the very
outset of their literary career, valued by such as watched their undaunted
progress and soaring power, destined, as we all thought then, to become
greater than the rest of their fellows, unless comparisons were utterly
at fault – and their names were T. W. Robertson and W. S. Gilbert. The
fame of Robertson was not obtained without a struggle; he was sneered at
and jeered at, held up as the king of teacups and saucers, and the founder
of namby-pambyism. He was so simple that the quidnuncs insisted he was
little; he gained recognition with such ease that his style was laughed
at as milk-and-water. The success of Robertson for a long time seemed to
irritate such as professed to study art. Here were the people in the theatre
laughing and crying all the evening, charmed with a pure, fresh, and incomprehensible
feeling, touched to the quick with light turns of humour and rays of fancy
as sparkling as the spring-time sun that steals into the window and suddenly
illuminates the room; but all that the malcontents could say was that it
was elaborated nothingness, and that every play was the same. Here indeed
was a fallacy. The author was the same, not the play. He treated various
subjects with the same kind of handling. We could go into the dramatic
gallery, and, hearing his dialogue and appreciating his love of manliness
in men and purity in women, could say, "That is a Robertson," just as we
say, That is a Walker, or an Orchardson, or a Fildes, or an Allingham,
or a Marcus Stone; but it was a long time before those who craved for originality
and English work permitted the worth of the happy and delightful painter
of English life.
ACT 1. — A Rocky Seashore on the Coast
ACT 2. — A Ruined Chapel on General Stanley's
Mr. Gilbert is undergoing the same kind of trial.
Here he is making his audiences laugh without ceasing, tickling them with
the concealed straws of his unexpected fun, pleasing their ears with ingenious
lyrics and verbal conceits, fascinating them, only they do not know it,
with his masterly workmanship, showing the value of finish even in his
extraordinary eccentricity. And yet what are his countrymen ordered to
do? Is it to encourage or disparage? Do they say, Thank Heaven, here is
an original humorist at last; an author who has been accepted nem.
in the land of quaintness of thought and expression – America – a relief
from the burden of bad French books and nasty French innuendo; a writer
who can write words that tune themselves to the musician's fancy; a composer
of songs that sing of themselves, so happy is his skill in turning a verse
and polishing a sentiment? or do they not rather say, Why, my dear Gilbert,
you have given us all that before! This patter-song is that patter-song,
this chorus answers to that chorus; we can trace your bumboat woman in
your piratical maid-of-all-work, your First Lord of the Admiralty in your
Major-General, your spick-and-span sailor in your duty-loving Frederic,
your Dick Deadeye in your Pirate King? Ingenuity is exercised in recalling
the incidents of one comic opera in order to fit it into the motive of
another; but it is forgotten the author has a style and a manner, and that
though he is the same, he is still uncommonly different in all that he
undertakes. Look at the Bab Ballads; there they are, scores of them, all
together, bound up in one volume, one after the other. They are all in
the same vein, touched by the same governing spirit, and yet the reader
of books does not weary of them. Why should the spectator of plays be tired
of a succession of "Sorcerers" and "Pinafores" and "Pirates" when, with
the same touch, Mr. Gilbert has always got a new tune? The people don't
say so; they can listen to Mr. Gilbert without a book to guide them, and
they applaud him, although the superfine gentlemen insist that laughter,
applause, and encores ought really to be put down as "bad form" – a detestably
vulgar expression that marks the character of those who use it. Why on
earth should not people applaud and cheer if they are so disposed? The
art of the stage must die if it is to be draped in funereal silence at
the dictation of old young men.
The style of humour of which these Bab Ballad operas
is composed has hitherto defied analysis and description. Everyone has
had a try at it, but no one has hit the mark. Literary critics, with the
Bab Ballads, and dramatic critics, with these inverted dramatic studies,
have all made an attempt to define the Gilbertian fun; but I believe it
to be beyond definition. It has been called topsy-turvy, deformed, exaggerated,
caricature, grotesque; it has been compared to the effect of a man looking
at his face in a spoon, in a magnifying-glass, or at the world through
the wrong end of an opera-glass; but none of these things hit the mark.
It is a kind of comic daring and recklessness that makes fun of things
which most people would not dream of mentioning, and reveals to broad daylight
the secrets of suggestiveness. In a dim, dreamy, and incoherent way we
have all thought many of Mr. Gilbert's ideas; but he says
them. They are true, or they would not be so familiar to us. Most people
suppress some of their funniest thoughts for fear of offending somebody.
Mr. Gilbert makes of his conscience, or inner guide, or daily companion,
a friendly jester, who urges him to say the first thing that comes uppermost,
careless of consequences. This humorist is so extremely frank and determined
in his unbelief, that he can see no human action without believing it to
be veneered with humbug. Now, how exquisiteis the satire here of duty.
Ten out of every dozen men would hesitate to ridicule such a sentiment,
believing that it is a good, a pure, and generous impulse. But Mr. Gilbert
can only see the humbug in it, and searches for its ludicrous aspect. In
a comical way he shows us all that is mean, and cruel, and crafty, and
equivocal even in the world's heroes; and he makes us laugh at them because
we are convinced such faults are lingering in the breast of the best of
us. "That's all very well," says the serious mother to the sharp and observant
child; "but there are some things that little children should not say!"
The author of the Bab Ballads is no believer in this doctrine of reflection.
He says exactly what comes uppermost, and gets the laugh. A man has a ridiculous
face; he looks like a dog or a bird. Some of us don't say so; it might
offend or give pain. Mr. Gilbert has it out and amuses by his very truthfulness.
Most of the incidents of life have their comic side; there is humour mixed
up with pathos in our everyday experiences. We pass over the fun as perhaps
too trivial for special mention; but Mr. Gilbert stores it up, remembers
it, and, when he alludes to precisely the same funny things that have occurred
to us, we appreciate his daring and recognise the justice of his observation.
Meanwhile, "The Pirates of Penzance" is a success
beyond question; the malcontents have been beaten down, the humour of the
text appeals to the whole audience, the quaintness of the conceits are
as original as in any of the other operas, and the spirit of the thing,
musical and literary, is beyond all praise. Musicians who have technical
knowledge may not like this, that, or the other; but, given such a subject
and such a character of work, I cannot see how it could have been better
done than by Mr. Sullivan, who is such a magician that he makes me listen
to his orchestra as well as to his voice-parts, and enables me to enjoy
without fatigue a most delightful entertainment. On this point I can only
speak as one of the public. We can enjoy music and criticise in our way
without being technical. Some people will like one thing and one another,
as, for instance, the singing of Miss Marian Hood in the madrigal, "Oh,
leave me not to live alone and desolate," which, by consummate art and
exquisite expression, is turned into a song-poem worthy of the highest-class
opera; the admirable simplicity and irresistible quiet of Mr. George Grossmith,
as the patter-song singing Major-General; the burlesque spirit of Mr. Temple,
as the Pirate King; and, certainly best of all, the true comedy, twinkling
fun, and delightful gravity of Mr. R. Barrington, as the Policeman, who
in the smallest part of the opera makes the greatest hit. I wish that actors
would remember how often this occurs, and how little an audience thinks
of lines, or scenes, or being out of the first act. Supposing this had
been a play, how many leading comedians would have played the policeman?
Not one, and yet Mr. Barrington is remembered when all is over as having
done the best bit of art in a very clever company. There are scores of
things more, no coubt, to praise; but, in truth, the whole thing goes so
well – it is so sharp, concise, and well-organised – there is so much good
acting in the rank and file of the piece, in each individual member of
the famous police force, and in the fluttering tribe of the Major-General's
daughters, that for once the mind is deadened to individual excellence
and astonished at the general effect. The whole thing ripples and rhymes
as neatly as Mr. Gilbert's verses, and flows as charmingly as Mr. Arthur
Sullivan's music. I can give it no higher praise. — C. S.
illustration facing page 307 (click for larger image)
illustration on page 307 (click for larger image)
transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 21 November 2000