THERE is a certain amount of originality even in
inventing a description for a stage piece, and for this, if not for anything
else the joint authors of The Pirates of Penzance are to be complimented.
The last work which these continuous caterers to the select audiences of
the Opera Comique have put before their intelligent patrons is represented
to be a "melodramatic opera," and we congratulate them on the novelty of
the idea. But nobody has ever been able to define the melodrama in its
modern and very variable sense, and if any one is able to define the melodramatic
opera on the basis of this first specimen he is more fortunate than we
are. On the whole, we are inclined to think that the description, whatever
freshness it may display, was an afterthought of that most delightful humorist
Mr. W. S. Gilbert to justify a tout ensemble which, conceived with
a single purpose, has resulted in many.
The book is not bad, except by comparison with other books form the same hand. On the whole, the mere literary work is better than we are accustomed to from translators of grand opera or librettists of opera in English. There is a quaint eccentricity of idea in several of the incidents which amuses sufficiently in most cases to justify the sublime anxiety not to speak too fast displayed by the ladies and gentlemen who have to interpret them. But those who ask for action in fun and dialogue will be dissatisfied, and the admirers of the Gilbertonian manner themselves will think some of the details attenuated to the point of satiety. There are not enough plot and dramatic complication to excite interest, much less to sustain it; there are too much “very clever”-ness and too little feeling in the spoken matter leading up to the musical situations to allow the composer the chance of an effect without leaving the situations a good deal behind him. That Dr. Sullivan has left Mr. Gilbert behind him wherever the setting is most striking will hardly be denied, for the setting is striking in passages although somewhat difficult to reconcile with the unities. Here a graceful love passage, here a lively patter song, here an impressive chant, here a pathetic prayer, present the varied charms of melody, energy, or religious sentiment. If at times we are bewildered as to whether we are at the Oxford or at Exeter Hall, if we are in doubt as to whether the next number will be in the style of negro minstrelsy or an oratorio, still the music is generally good of its kind. We do not exactly see the connection with the tone and obvious idea of the story. But in the same manner as we are amused by Mr. Gilbert’s play, which is hardly a play, so we cannot help being on the whole entertained by Dr. Sullivans’s music, which is rather more than a setting.
There is generally nothing particularly exceptionable on the ground of taste in the joint productions of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan. But here once or twice there seems to be a hint at satirising Church forms which might have been gracefully avoided. The ensemble sung kneeling in the first act, and the Sergeant’s song with responses by the police in the second, are cases in point. We may have formed a wrong impression on these heads, but the very possibility of such an impression appears to have been a mistake.
In the story – what story there is – a youth, Frederick, [sic] has been apprenticed until twenty-one to a band of desperadoes – the Pirates of Penzance. The last day of his servitude has come, and although he has been conscientiously faithful hitherto, he feels it equally imperative to betray and hunt down his present masters as soon as the clock striking twelve relieves him of his obligations to them. He tells them so in one of those scenes of frank simplicity which Mr. Gilbert has utilised under variations in many pieces. This strictly scrupulous young gentleman – Frederick, not Mr. Gilbert – has seen but one lady in his life. She occupies a position of credit among his comrades, is called Ruth, and is in love with their apprentice. There is another naïve episode between them, in which he puts this elderly female upon her honour to declare whether she is as handsome as she has always endeavoured to persuade him that she is. The apparition of a bevy of girls, the daughters of a General Stanley, settles the doubt. Ruth vanishes, and Frederick hides, in order not to frighten the lovely visitors. But – was the incident suggested by "Diplomacy"? – when they are about to paddle in the water, and after they have taken off one shoe each, Frederick’s honesty or modesty compels him to reveal himself, and they make a somewhat ridiculous attempt at flight upon one foot. In the end, however, they change their minds, and stay to be wooed in a body as follows:–
The appeal is for some while a vain one, but ultimately Mabel, who appears to be the eldest of twenty young ladies of eighteen, offers herself as a sacrifice, and mutual love at first sight is the immediate consequence. While the lovers exchange confidences the sisters employ themselves in discussing the weather in couples on their knees, with details of "business" which make the audience laugh, but almost border upon silliness. The Pirates arrive and seize each a girl, whom they are about to marry, when the General in turn appears, and for the moment they are awed. Still it is only when the uphappy father proclaims himself an orphan, a species which the Pirates have never allowed themselves to injure, that the departure of the captives is allowed. Frederick goes with them, the episode, with the despair of the forsaken Ruth, affording an effective tableau for the close of the act.Oh! is there not one maiden breast
Which seems to feel the moral beauty
Of making worldly interest
Subordinate to sense of duty?
Who would not give up willingly
All matrimonial ambition
To rescue such a one as I
From his unfortunate position?
transcription provided by Jackie Flowers, March 2001