The Pirates of Penzance, or: The Slave of Duty is a famous and much-parodied (and itself redolent with parodies and lampshade-hanging) operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan, and one of the most famous works of 19th century English drama. The eponymous slave to duty is Frederic, who was accidentally apprenticed to a pirate ship when he was a boy, and felt honour-bound to be the best pirate he could be — but now he has come of age, and his period of apprenticeship is over, he feels honour-bound to round up a posse and wipe the pirates from the face of the earth. Hilarity Ensues.Penzance was a prominent seaside resort town in Cornwall. Thus, the title sounds like "The Pirates of Malibu" would today.One of the most widely-recognised bits of the operetta is the Patter Song "I am the very model of a Modern Major General", sung by the father of the obligatory love interest.Two very different film versions were made in The Eighties — The Pirate Movie (1982) has a modern day teen heroine dreaming herself into the story as Mabel (Frederic's love interest); with light pop songs and pop culture parodies alongside the Gilbert and Sullivan material, it could be described as Pirates of Penzance meets Grease meets Airplane!. A more straightforward adaptation using the original title was released the following year, and starred Kevin Kline as the Pirate King and Linda Ronstadt as Mabel.
This work provides examples of:
Abduction Is Love: When the pirates capture Major-General Stanley's daughters, their first thought is "to be married with impunity."
A Running Gag throughout the play relies on the fact that in Victorian Received Pronunciation, the words "orphan" and "often" sounded the same. The jokes still kind of work, but it means stretching the sounds of the words to their limits.
The most extreme is probably "sat a gee" which relies on knowing that a "gee-gee" is a horse. Made worse by the fact that even at the time the phrase was a grammatical disaster.
Blatant Lies: Major-General Stanley claims to be an orphan, but he's not. While he initially justifies his lie by saying it's "an innocent fiction / which is not in the same category / as telling a regular terrible story," he feels remorse about it later on.
Blue Blood: As it turns out, the pirates are (nearly) all Peers who have gone wrong.
Breaking the Fourth Wall: If it doesn't have it at some point, it's not true Pirates. Sorry. There is even a notable sword fight with the conductor, which has occurred in several versions, and originated as a spur-of-the-moment outburst in the original production.
Calling Me a Logarithm: Stanley's question to the pirates "You're not thespians, are you?" provokes this reaction in some modern productions.
Close To Home: The pirates have a soft spot for orphans, so anyone who claims to be an orphanwill be spared. This leads Frederic to observe "The last three ships we took proved to be manned entirely by orphans, and so we had to let them go. One would think that Great Britain’s mercantile navy was recruited solely from her orphan asylums – which we know is not the case. "
Evil Sounds Deep: Played with. All the pirates, except the King and Samuel, are tenors—the range traditionally assigned to the hero. The policemen are all basses—usually the range of the baddies.
Although this only applies in the second act. There are bass harmonies written for the Pirates in Act 1 and the Police don't show up until after interval. So traditionally the male ensemble split either before or after 'When the Foeman Bears his Steel' into Pirates for the higher voices and Police for the lower ones.
Failed a Spot Check: General Stanley fails to notice the group of about two dozen pirates and policemen hiding (poorly) in his garden. On top of that, the pirates fail to notice the policemen. This despite all of them serving as chorus to General Stanley's song.
Flaw Exploitation: The Pirates themselves make a point of two things: 1. Never to attack a weaker party than themselves, and 2. Never to harm an orphan. Word gets around.
Also, it's common knowledge that every British person loves his queen.
Go Ye Heroes, Go and Die: Mabel's attempt at a rousing speech before the policemen set out to fight the pirates; as the head policeman remarks, it might have been more rousing if she'd spent less time dwelling on the danger and expressed a bit more confidence about their chances of survival. The Sergeant replies,
"We observe too great a stress On the risks that on us press And of reference a lack To our chance of coming back."
Informed Flaw: In the first act, Ruth confesses she mistakenly had Frederic apprenticed to a pirate, rather than a pilot, due to being hard of hearing. Her deafness never comes up again in the rest of the play.
The Ingenue: Mabel: a young soprano winning the affection of the lead tenor, whose role calls for some terribly soprano-y cadenza runs (which are hilarious).
Insane Troll Logic: Major-General Stanley claims the tombs in the ruined chapel on his estate are the tombs of his ancestors, even though he only bought the estate a year ago. He is their "descendant by purchase," you see. (It is fact satire of newly wealthy middle class family buying their way to respectability, something which happened reasonably often in Victorian England but was nevertheless looked down upon.)
Sung, of course, at the top of one's lungs. Often while performing a kick line. With an orchestral accompaniment featuring heavily accented chords and cymbal crashes. And frequently rhythmic stomping by the pirates.
"With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal In silence dread, our cautious way we feel No sound at all, we never speak a word A fly's footfall would be distinctly heard!"
Large Ham: The Pirate King, the Major-General, and pretty much the rest of the cast too.
Last Chorus Slow Down: In some productions, if they follow the famous 1982 Joseph Papp revival, "With Catlike Tread". Possibly followed by several encores, each slowing it down even further, and raising the volume even more.
Lyrical Dissonance: The dynamic notation for the song "With Catlike Tread...", which covers (and talks about) the Pirates quietly sneaking into Major General Stanley's manor and into his house to gain revenge, is Fortissimo. For those unfamiliar with musical notation, for singers Fortissimo means "sing it at the top of your lungs, as loudly as you can". The number is accompanied by heavy use of cymbals and brass in the accompaniment, and brother, it's a show-stopper.
Modern Major General: Major General Stanley, who introduces himself with a long-winded song listing all of the things he knows, eventually summing up with a long verse about his complete and utter lack of military knowledge.
Pirate Girl: Although describing piratical maid-of-all-work Ruth as a 'girl' might be a bit of a stretch.
In some productions, like the Kevin Klein movie and The Pirate Movie, Ruth starts off dressed as a maid but is dressed as a pirate when she comes back with the King to let Frederic know he's only had 5 1/4 birthdays.
The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Subverted, sort of—they attempt piratical activities, they're just useless at them, combining being very soft-hearted with being rather dim-witted.
Rags to Royalty: When it's revealed that the pirates are all noblemen who have gone wrong, they immediately resume their ranks and legislative duties.
Rules Lawyer: The Pirate King holds Frederick to the Exact Words of his apprenticeship contract, which releases him on his twenty-first birthday, not when he's twenty-one years old. Since he was born on Leap Day, that makes things a bit complicated.
Sergeant of Police: It is most distressing to us to be the agents whereby our erring fellow-creatures are deprived of that liberty which is so dear to us all— but we should have thought of that before we joined the force.
Speaking Simlish: In the 1983 film, in the pre-credit sequence showing the villagers, they babble in Simlish.
Skeleton Key: In the song, "With Cat-Like Tread", one of the pirates' tools mentioned is their "skeletonic keys."
Suddenly Suitable Suitor: In the final scene, Ruth reveals that all the pirates are "Noblemen who have gone wrong." The Major General is suddenly eager for the buccaneers to marry his daughters, as are the girls themselves. "With all our faults, we love our House Of Peers!" Gilbert and Sullivan used this trope regularly.
Swiper, No Swiping!: The pirates turn themselves in when requested to surrender in the name of Queen Victoria.
Mabel: Oh, Frederic, cannot you, in the calm excellence of your wisdom, reconcile it with your conscience to say something that will relieve my father's sorrow? (Beat) Frederic: What? Mabel: Can't you cheer him up?
Breaking the Fourth Wall: The 1994 Australian production (the one with Jon English and Toni Lamond) is filled to the brim with this, amongst Actor Allusions and Shout Outs aplenty. The revival production a decade later even referenced this — Jon English stops to make sure that a number of gags from the original aren't repeated, with the explanation "they've all seen the DVD anyway".
Calling Me a Logarithm: Depending on the production, this can be the pirates' reaction to Major-General Stanley asking "You're not thespians, are you?". The non-verbal reaction of Jon English, playing the Pirate King in Australian productions, is a comic masterpiece.
Evolving Music: It's quite common for renditions of the Major General's song to incorporate new lyrics poking fun of current topical references; in fact it even warrants its own trope.
Mondegreen: In certain productions, an in-universe example occur when the Major-General's daughters mishear Frederic's "I, sore at heart" as "I saw a tart".
Nobody Here but Us Statues: In the 1983 film, The Pirate King and Frederick take positions like this on each side of the door when the Major General comes out.
Overly Long Gag: The 1994 Australian production had the conductor force the pirates to perform four encores of "With Catlike Tread".
Pair the Spares: General Stanley and Ruth are often paired off at the conclusion. (The policemen also end up gaining wives along with the pirates, depending on the male-to-female ratio of the cast.)
It can also depend on the director's sense of humor. One production had enough daughters for every pirate and every constable, but the Sergeant remained alone because the Pirate King grabbed two girls!
In the 2013 production by Seattle's 5th Avenue Theater, one of the couples that steps up to be married consists of a pirate and a constable. The Doctor of Divinity pauses for a brief double-take, then cheerfully marries them without further ado. Considering recent events in Seattle at the time, this brief bit invariably got one of the biggest cheers of the night from the audience.
Recitation Handclasp: In the 1983 film version (and in the Delacorte theatrical version from which it sprang), the womens' chorus assume this pose.
Two Words: Directors love to have fun with this bit. In some productions, the 'two words' ("We propose to marry your daughters.") are delivered as two words each by three different pirates. Another production has it rendered as "We propose-to-marry-your-daughters" (with the pirate counting the words on his fingers, and being surprised when he reaches six (or seven, with "daugh" and "ters" as seperate words)). Others have a pirate deliver the first two, "We propose," and have the Major-General be confused or offended that he's being proposed to before the sentence continues.