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The Pirates of Penzance

A band of tender-hearted pirates are gathered in Penzance, on the Cornish coast.  Their existence is an ironical combination of rough piracy and true compassion.  They make it a point of honour never to attack a weaker party, and whenever they attempt to fight a stronger one they invariably get thrashed.  Orphans themselves, they shirk from attacking an orphan - they often release ships on account that all those aboard are orphans.  Little wonder then, that these Pirates of Penzance cannot make a living from piracy.
The curtain rises on Frederic's 21st birthday celebration.  Today, he completes his pirate apprenticeship and when the clock strikes 12, hw will become a fully-fledged member of the gang.  However, his indenture as a pirate was a mistake - when he was a lad his nurse (Ruth) was told to take and apprentice him to a pilot, not a pirate.  When she discovered her blunder she remained with the pirates herself as a maid-of-all-work rather than brave the parental fury. Frederic, at all times the slave of duty, however, announces that not only will he not continue at a trade he detests, but he is going to devote himself heart and soul to his old comrades' extermination. The scrupulous pirates admit that a man must act as his conscience dictates, and they can only crave that the manner of their deaths may be painless and speedy.
Frederic has never seen a woman's face - except for Ruth's, his old nurse, who adores him.  This explains his surprise when he discovers the  many daughters of Major-General Stanley having a picnic in a rocky cove.  Frederic hides from them for a while, but soon he reveals himself and entreats them all to stoop in pity so low as to accept the hand and heart of a pirate. Only one of them, Mabel, is ready to accept his hand, and the two are whipped into a frenzy of love and passion. Their encounter is interrupted by the return of the gang, each member of which seizes a girl and claims her as his bride.  During this lively exchange, old General Stanley arrives. 
The General, dressed in a splendid uniform, is highly knowledgeable but modestly declares that he knows no more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery.  His daughters, wary of their unwanted suitors, reveal them as the Pirates of Penzance.  The General has no liking either for pirates as sons-in-law or for the prospect of being robbed wholesale of his daughters.  Plotting his escape, he fortuitously remembers that this particularly band of pirates are soft on orphans.  With their hopes dashed again, the pirates reluctantly surrender the girls, and with them all thoughts of matrimonial felicity, and restore the entire party to liberty.

The second act is set in a ruined chapel at night. General Stanley, surrounded by his daughters, has come to do penance for his lie before the tombs of his ancestors.  Frederic is leading an expedition against the pirates. For this perilous mission he has gathered together a squad of police, who march in under their sergeant, all of them very nervous and under misgivings that possibly they may be going to "die in combat gory."  
Soon after they have left there is a whimsical development.  Frederic, alone in the chapel, is visited by the Pirate King and Ruth.  They share with Frederic, who has a taste for curious quips, a paradox, which results from the fact that Frederic was born in leap year, on the 29th of February.  Hence, although he has lived for 21 years, going by birthdays, he is only five, and a little bit over!
Frederic, as we have observed before, has a keen sense of duty. In blank despair he agrees to return to the gang to finish his apprenticeship.  Once more a member of the band, he is bound also to disclose the horrible fact that the Major is in fact no orphan boy. The Pirate King decrees that there shall be a swift and terrible revenge that very night.
After Mabel declares that she will remain faithful to her lover until he has lived his twenty-one leap-years.  The sergeant laments that the policeman's lot is not a happy one. It is distressing to them to have to be the agents whereby their erring fellow-creatures are deprived of the liberty that everyone prizes.
The pirates are heard in the distance and the police conceal themselves.  As the pirates declare their intentions to turn their hand to a little 'burglaree', they are interrupted, not by the police, but by the appearance of General Stanley. who appears in a dressing-gown and carrying a light.  Having lied to the pirates about being an orphan, his tortured conscience has resulted in a sleepless night.  
The General's daughters appear in their night-caps and wonder why their father is up at this untimely hour.  The pirates reveal themselves and seize the General and demand his life.  Frederic, even on Mabel's entreaties, cannot save him, for is he not himself a pirate again.
Eventually the police, having passively watched the situation so long, summon up courage and tackle the pirates, but they are soon overcome.  Forced to surrender, the sergeant has a brainwave and calls upon the ruffians to surrender in the name of the Queen.  As if by magic, the pirates kneel to their captives, which Ruth explains is because they are really "no members of the common throng, but noblemen who have gone wrong."  The Pirates of Penzance promise to return forthwith to their legislative duties in the House of Lords and, in doing so, they are to share their coronets with the beautiful daughters of old General Stanley.  All ends happily!


2006 Production

Pirates of Penzance - Photos by George Knox