Gilbert & Sullivan and The Pirates

 If our Pirate King had been able to meet Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, his taste for a “curious paradox” would surely have been stimulated. For in spite of their representing probably the most successful theatrical collaboration of all time, the two partners differed in almost every aspect of behaviour and temperament, and if they achieved so perfect a wedding of words and music that their popularity has continued undiminished for more than a century, their personal relationship was at best one of mutual tolerance. Indeed, they were at odds more often than not, and after producing The Gondoliers (1889), Sullivan was even obliged to defend himself against Gilbert in a court of law.

Gilbert, the librettist, was crusty and cantankerous, famous for his lightning with and sharp tongue, and ready to live up to his reputation at the slightest provocation. Sullivan on the other hand, was gentle and amiable, and went out of his way to get along with people, particularly “the best people”. While Gilbert regarded himself almost exclusively as a comic dramatist, Sullivan saw “serious music” as his real calling, and collaborated with Gilbert only as a means of making money so that his social position would continue to match his prestige as England’s foremost serious composer. Luckily for posterity, classical music has never been a very lucrative business, and Sullivan’s gambling parties at Monte Carlo with his royal friends were often cut short by the necessity of returning to London to compose another comic opera.

Gilbert and Sullivan opening nights, whether at the Savoy Theatre or the Opera Comique, were glittering social events in London. Sullivan rarely missed conducting the orchestra himself in spite of his lifelong ill health, which was such that on one occasion (Princess Ida, 1884) he had to be given injections and “copious draughts of black coffee” (according to his own diary) in order to conduct, and fainted immediately after the final curtain. Gilbert, by contrast, invariably spent his opening nights pacing the Victoria Embankment by the Thames. He once said that as soon as attend the opening of one of his own operas he would “gladly face an amputation at the hip joint”. Somehow, however, he always seemed to find his way back to the theatre in time for the curtain calls, in which he was always all too willing to take his share of the glory.

Although Gilbert and Sullivan had written four operas together before The Pirates of Penzance, they did not achieve widespread popularity until the production of the last of these, HMS Pinafore. This piece, however, became so popular that in the United States, where it was not protected by copyright, dozens of productions were mounted, none of  which paid so much as a penny in royalties to the authors. It is not known whether this “piracy” suggested the title of their next work, but in any case The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty, having been rehearsed in great secrecy, opened at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York on 31 December, 1879. The London opening took place the following April, and the show ran for 363 consecutive performances.

In The Pirates, Gilbert aimed his satirical barbs at numerous hallowed British institutions such as the Army, the police (Britain’s famous “Bobbies”), upper class respectability, the nouveau riche, and even popular reverence for Queen Victoria. His principal target, however, was the Englishman’s fundamental Sense of Duty, that bulwark of the 19th century British character which had won the Empire, and which clearly dominates the mind and actions of young Frederic, the hero of  The Pirates, very much at the expense of his safety and comfort, personal morality, feelings of affection, and even his common sense.