The Pirates of Penzance synopsis
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
First performed: 1879
A rocky seashore on the coast of Cornwall
The pirates offer a toast to Frederic. Now that Frederic is twenty-one and his apprenticeship over, the men assume that he will join their band permanently. Ruth, a ‘piratical maid of all work’, explains that, as Frederic’s nursery maid, she had been instructed by his father to have the boy apprenticed to a pilot, but she misheard and instead took Frederic to a pirate. Her shame upon realizing her error led her to join the pirate band herself.
Now that his obligation to the pirates has ended, duty compels Frederic to devote himself to destroying them. When the men admit their inability to make piracy pay, Frederic explains that they are themselves slaves to their tender hearts, particularly regarding their refusal to take advantage of anyone they believe to be an orphan.
Ruth longs for Frederic to take her with him when he leaves. He has had no opportunity to compare her with other women, but when he decides that she should remain with the pirates, they reply that they cannot deprive him of his beloved. Frederic wishes he could bring the pirates back to a respectable life, but the Pirate King rejects that possibility. Alone with Ruth, Frederic admits his reluctance to marry her, though he is satisfied that, despite her age, she is beautiful. But when he sees a group of lovely young women approaching, he rages at her for deceiving him.
The girls descend to the shore, delighting in their surroundings. They are astonished to encounter Frederic and horrified to hear that he is a pirate. He assures them that, having just abandoned that profession, he now wants only to love one of them. They all reject him except Mabel, who reproaches her sisters for being deaf to pity.The girls distract themselves, so that Frederic and Mabel can have a few moments alone.
The pirates suddenly surprise the girls and anticipate soon becoming their husbands. Mabel reminds them that she and her sisters are wards in chancery (i.e. minors under the protection of the Court of Chancery), and that their ‘father’ is a major general. The Major General enters and objects to the girls being married against their wills to the pirates of Penzance. He lies his way out of the situa¬tion by claiming to be an orphan. The girls are released from the pirates’ clutches, as Mabel and Frederic – ignoring the pleas of Ruth – look forward to their marriage.
On Major-General Stanley’s estate
The girls comfort the Major-General, who is upset because he believes his lie has shamed the family name and he fears the consequences. Frederic will soon march against the pirates accompanied by the police, who now arrive. They eventually leave to attend to the business at hand, but only after repeated urging by the Major General.
Alone, Frederic contemplates atoning for his years with the pirates, when Ruth and the Pirate King enter. They explain that Frederic was to be apprenticed until his twenty first birthday; having been born in a leap year on 29 February, he is officially only five. The Pirate King insists that Frederic respect his own sense of duty, whereupon the obedient young man informs him that the Major General lied about being an orphan. The Pirate King and Ruth swear vengeance.
Frederic informs Mabel that he will not reach his twenty-first birthday until 1940. Convinced that he can ignore the pirates’ claim, she begs him to remain with her and swears to be faithful. After he leaves, Mabel tells the policemen that Frederic has returned to the pirates, praising him for his sense of duty. The Sergeant laments the difficulties the constabulary faces. The policemen hide as soon as the pirates arrive.
Unable to sleep, the Major General enters. The girls chide him for leaving his bed at this time of night. Frederic and the pirates seize the Major General and overcome the police. When the Sergeant implores the pirates to yield in the Queen’s name, Ruth reveals that they are in fact peers of the realm. With this revelation, they are pardoned by the Major-¬General, who rewards them with the girls’ hands in marriage.
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