It’s probably one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous works. Filled with jaunty songs and witty comedy, The Pirates of Penzance has been regularly staged in theatres since the 1870s. But what does our sunny town in the far southwest have to do with an operetta first performed on New York’s Broadway?
Here we delve into the history of The Pirates of Penzance.
W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s swashbuckling heroes first boarded the stage in 1879, marking the pair’s fifth collaboration. Pirates followed hot on the heels of their wildly successful H.M.S. Pinafore, which had opened the year before and was still being performed all over America. In fact, to Gilbert and Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore was altogether too popular – US copyright rules at the time allowed anyone to enact the British men’s work without paying them a penny (or cent) from the ticket price.
To create an income, Gilbert and Sullivan decided to premiere their next play in New York months before publishing the libretto and vocal score, and to fund their own US touring productions. The Pirates of Penzance: or The Slave of Duty opened on Broadway on New Year’s Eve 1879, becoming an overnight success. A low-key performance was held in Paignton on 30 December 1879 to secure the English copyright, and from 3 April 1880, it was officially staged at the Opera Comique in London.
The operetta focuses on the story of Frederic, who as a child was mistakenly apprenticed by his hard-of-hearing nursemaid as a pirate, rather than a pilot. Action begins on the coastline of Penzance as Frederic prepares to leave the pirate gang for a civilised life, having reached his 21st birthday and therefore the end of his apprenticeship.
When he falls in love with the beautiful Mabel, his future looks promising – but he is quickly dealt a devastating blow. Learning that his birth fell on a leap year, he’s told that rather than being 21, he is actually only five. As the pirates appeal to his ‘sense of duty’, he feels obliged to stay with them to complete his apprenticeship. What follows is a conflict based on honour and loyalty, though ultimately there’s a happy ending for all.
The true story
During the late 19th century, when The Pirates of Penzance was first performed, Penzance was a peaceful and fashionable seaside town. Though still considered by many to be a ‘wild’ outpost in deepest Cornwall, it had become highly respectable: a perfect setting for strict Victorian manners in action. It’s this idea of respectability that is parodied throughout the production, as the pirates and Penzance residents negotiate what it really means. Here, it seems, there’s little difference between the criminals and cutthroats aboard a pirate ship and the honourable gentlemen on land.
But while 19th century Penzance was respectable, real-life pirates had been on its shores just over 100 years before. In the mid-18th century, Barbary corsairs raided the town to seize captives as slaves. This wasn’t a recent problem – pirates from the Barbary Coast had been raiding coastal villages in Cornwall since the 1600s. While many fled, thousands of men, women and children were enslaved and taken back to North Africa. In 1640, pirates claimed three ships within view of Penzance and on one raid, 60 residents were captured. As Britain and American combined forces against them, Barbary piracy was gradually stamped out, although it persisted well into the 19th century.
Today, you’re almost certainly safe from pirates in Penzance – but if you’d like a taste of the action, go for dinner at the atmospheric Waterside Meadery. To feel like a real pirate, do eat without cutlery (where possible) – it’s all part of the experience.
Read more about Penzance’s adventure-filled history.