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Theatre / The Pirates of Penzance

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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. Due to a quibble, it turns out his apprenticeship hasn't quite run out after all. 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 '80s in the wake of a wildly successful New York City revival of the operetta. 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 film adapted from the aforementioned revival staging was released the following year with the original title, 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."
  • Action Girl: Ruth, a 47 year old child's maid who joins battle between pirates and police during a full raid on Penzance, coming out without a scratch.
  • Affectionate Parody: The entire play. Down to the music; "Poor Wand'ring One" is a parody of "Sempre libera" from Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata and "Come, Friends Who Plough The Sea" is a parody of the "Anvil Chorus" from Verdi's Il Trovatore.
  • All There in the Script:
    • The Pirate King's lieutenant is Samuel, and is referred to as such in the script, but his name is never spoken. The same goes for Mabel's three sisters with lines, Kate, Edith and Isabel.
    • In the first American production, which debuted at an earlier date than the British one for copy-right reasons, the Pirate King and the Sergeant of Police have their names listed in the dramatis personae as Richard and Edward, respectively. This never comes up anywhere else.
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  • Affably Evil: The pirates are technically, well, pirates, but they're so endearingly dimwitted (and completely rubbish at their attempts at piracy) that you can't help but like them.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Perhaps he's just posh, but the Major-General seems to often be played this way. His enormous number of daughters doesn't prove anything, as they are stated to be wards in chancery, not his biological daughters.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Wouldn't be a G&S play without it. 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. In the film, the Major-General flat-out replaces the phrase with "rode a horse" the last time it comes up (which of course doesn't rhyme at all).
  • Badass Baritone: The part of the Pirate King is written for a bass-baritone voice. The Chief of Police is written for an even deeper bass, but he's not as badass as he thinks.
  • Berserk Button: The Pirate King is tired of people pretending to be orphans to manipulate him. This is a rare trope played absolutely straight in the show, and the pirate songs after they learn Major-General Stanley did so are entirely serious about wanting to kill him.
  • 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.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Traditionally, the only way to portray the Pirate King... though in recent years 'Jack Sparrow' has been gaining popularity for some reason.
  • 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.
  • Close to Home: The pirates have a soft spot for orphans, so anyone who claims to be an orphan will 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. "
  • Conveniently an Orphan: It's amazing how often the Pirates run into people who claim this applies to them...
  • Counterpoint Duet: "How Beautifully Blue the Sky" and "When the Foeman Bares His Steel / Go Ye Heroes."
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: And it is, it is, a glorious thing, to be a Pirate King!
  • Deus ex Machina: The pirates finally surrender when asked to do so "in the name of the Queen". A deliberate parody of Victorianism.
  • Dirty Coward: The entire police force.
  • Don't Explain the Joke:
    • The Major-General. The orphan gag.
    • The Paradox.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: "I do not think I ought to listen to you..."
  • Drink Order: Due to their unusual origins, these pirates prefer sherry to the more obvious rum.
  • Easily Forgiven: When the pirates reveal their true identities, the Major General seems to forget about their past, and even invites them to marry his daughters.
  • Either/Or Title
  • Even Evil Has Standards: A major plot point. The titular Pirates of Penzance are highly infamous and feared pirates, but it is also well-known that they, being orphans, would never kill an orphan. This weakness has been manipulated by many would-be victims, such as three whole ships and the Major General. The Pirate King really isn't able to tell if anyone is lying about it, since he trusts that all of his victims would be honest about it.
    Frederic: "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. Although the Pirate King and Samuel are in the traditionally villainous lower registers, the pirate chorus in the first act covers the full range — and when the male ensemble divides into pirates and policemen for the second act, it's the pirates who get all the high vocal parts and the policemen (led by a Sergeant with an even deeper voice than the Pirate King) who get the low vocal parts.
  • Evolving Music: For the 1908 revival, Gilbert had the pirates being charged to yield "in good King Edward's name." Later productions have not followed suit, as Victorian pirates are just funnier.
  • Exact Words: Frederic's indentures specify that he is bound to his apprenticeship until his 21st birthday. This is a problem, since he was born on Leap Day.
  • 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.
    • Frederick's love of duty means he's bound to piracy for what amounts to a typo in his contract.
  • The Golden Age of Piracy: Spoofed to high heaven.
  • Go Ye Heroes, Go and Die: Mabel's attempt at a rousing speech before the policemen set out to fight the pirates is all about how they'll be fondly remembered after the pirates kill them all. As 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."
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Hoorah for the orphan boy!
  • High-Class Glass: The Major-General usually wears one.
  • Honor Before Reason: Frederic's defining trope. Ironically, taught him by the pirates themselves, who never attack orphans or weaker enemies. Last but not least, General Stanley deeply regrets subverting this trope to help himself and his daughters escape the pirates. It's arguable that deconstructing this trope is one of the play's main themes.
  • "I Am" Song: "I am the very model of a Modern Major General", "Better Far to Live and Die".
  • Incessant Chorus: During "Oh False One, You Have Deceived Me", the chorus of pirates ends up repeating both sides of an argument.
    Ruth: Oh, do not leave me!
    Pirates: Oh, do not leave her!
    Frederic: Away, you grieve me!
    Pirates: Away, you grieve him!
    Frederic: I wish you'd leave me!
    Pirates: We wish you'd leave him!
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: "You said often frequently only once!" It makes sense in context, but it's also often the line that pushes the Pirate King to order the Major-General's death.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: The pirates are too soft-hearted to be much good at piracy.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Each of Stanley's daughters is described as surpassingly beautiful by Frederic, shortly after confessing to having never seen a woman other than Ruth. Mabel, the last daughter revealed, is of course the most beautiful as well.
    • Savagely satirized with Ruth. The pirates struggle to convince Frederic to take her with him, with such lines as "there are the remains of a fine woman about Ruth," but it's clear neither Frederic nor the crew really find her attractive.
  • 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 a 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.)
  • Irony: The pirates sing "With Catlike Tread" at the top of their 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!"
  • It's Probably Nothing: After the loud, loud "With Catlike Tread", Major General Stanley comes out to see what the noise was, but concludes that it "must have been the sighing of the breeze."
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Ruth, or so she claims. Samuel backs her up, kind of, saying that "There are the remains of a fine woman about Ruth."
  • I Will Wait for You: Till 1940, when Frederic's indenture is finally up.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: Drives the Pirate King to order the Major-General's death at the end of the Major General's song.
    "You said often frequently only once!"
  • Large Ham: The Pirate King, the Major-General, and pretty much the rest of the cast too.
  • Lawful Stupid: Frederic, the eponymous "Slave of Duty". Hell, the entire cast. The plot runs on it.
  • Leap Day: A major plot point for Frederic. The Pirate King attempts to get him back into the fold by pointing out that his apprenticeship expires on his 21st birthday, not in his 21st year, which wouldn't matter much except that he was born on the 29th of February and so his 21st birthday won't arrive until he's in his eighties.
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: Hence the desire to Talk About the Weather
  • 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.
  • Mathematician's Answer: When the Major-General wants to find out more about the men in piratical outfits who propose to marry his daughters:
    Major General: May I ask – this is a picturesque uniform, but I’m not familiar with it. What are you?
    Pirate King: We are all... single gentlemen.
    Major General: Yes, I gathered that.
  • 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.
  • Mood Whiplash: "Oh False One, You Have Deceived Me" begins loud and dramatic as Frederic accuses Ruth of lying to him, before slowing to a soft song as she pleads with him not to abandon her. It's not until she accidentally reminds him how much older than him she is that he erupts into decrying her once again.
    Ruth: (sweetly) My love unabating...
    Frederic: (also sweetly) If, as you are stating...
    Ruth: Has been accumulating...
    Frederic: Has been accumulating...
    Ruth: Forty-seven year-
    Frederic: (horrified) Forty-seven year?!
  • Motor Mouth: A requirement for singing the Major General Song. If there's an encore, expect to have to sing it even faster.
  • Opening Chorus: "Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry."
  • Overly Long Gag: Often.
    • No, only once!
  • Patter Song: The Major General's Song is a shining example of the craft.
  • Pirate: Many of the characters, as the title suggests.
  • A Pirate 400 Years Too Late: Well, more like 300 but still...
  • Pirate Girl: Although describing piratical maid-of-all-work Ruth as a 'girl' might be a bit of a stretch.
  • Pirate King: The Pirate King seems to be the kind who commands only a single ship and just uses the title.
  • Pirate Song: The Pirate King sings a self-titled song about how great it is to be a pirate.
  • 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. Played straight in that they speak oft and loud about how they are rough men (rough!) and lead a rough life (rough, rough!), and how they live by strife, and so on... but every time they do, it's to point out that they'll make an exception just this time. It is eventually revealed that the pirates are members of the peerage gone to the bad—which means that they weren't doing anything related to that position either.
  • Police are Useless
    Sergeant of Police: "They come in force,
    With stealthy stride.
    Our obvious course
    Is now to hide!"
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The focus of the song "When a Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment."
  • 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.
  • Scare Chord: The opening bars of "Oh False One, You Have Deceived Me" are typically played loudly and suddenly as Frederic turns on Ruth.
  • Scoundrel Code: Parodied. The pirates' code entails that they will never hurt an orphan, so all anyone has to do to foil their attacks is claim to be one. Similarly, they never attack anybody weaker than themselves, and when they attack a stronger party, they invariably get thrashed.
  • Selective Slaughter: The pirates will never hurt an orphan, which leads to the Flaw Exploitation mentioned above.
  • Self-Deprecation: "That infernal nonsense Pinafore"
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Major-General Stanley, especially when it comes to his renowned "I am The Very Model of a Modern Major General" musical number.
  • Should Have Thought of That Before X:
    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.
  • Skeleton Key: In the song, "With Cat-Like Tread", one of the pirates' tools mentioned is their "skeletonic keys."
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: The chorus of policemen sing the trumpet parts: "Tarantara, tarantara..."
  • 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.
  • Talk About the Weather: The chorus indulges in this to give Frederic and Mabel some privacy.
  • Tenor Boy: Frederic
  • Title Drop:
    • "Don't believe them papa! They are pirates. The famous Pirates of Penzance!"
    • "For I am the Slave of Duty!"
  • That Reminds Me of a Song: Though G&S used this less often than most musicals do, "Hail, Poetry" and "Sighing Softly to the River" may qualify.
    • "Hail Poetry" comes out of nowhere, extols the vitrues of poetry in an acappella anthem, and is never mentioned again. The piece gets away with it by being a simply awesome choral number.
    • "Sighing Softly To The River" is a gag in which the major-general Failed a Spot Check ("It must have been the sighing of the breeze…") and proceeds to sing a random ballad about flowers and trees, accompanied by a chorus of the pirates and the policemen, none of whom have noticed each other. Still, it's sometimes cut for pacing, especially since the Major-General already has a perfectly good solo elsewhere.
  • Two Words: Added Emphasis: Subverted. The 'two words' are "we propose to marry your daughters."
  • Villain Song: "I Am a Pirate King."
  • Villains Out Shopping: Lampshaded in one of the songs as the reason why "A policeman's lot is not a happy one."
  • Weddings for Everyone: As usual in a G&S production, the entire chorus gets to Pair the Spares.
  • Weird Trade Union: Apparently, one can be apprenticed to a pirate, just like one could be apprenticed to a plumber or stonemason.
  • Who's on First?: The orphan / often routine.
  • With Catlike Tread: The Pirates sneak up on the General while singing, in chorus, fortississimo, with cymbals and drums, about how stealthy they're being. However, because the General never actually sees them, this is a subversion.
  • World of Ham: Oh yeah. Especially during the "With Catlike Tread" number.

Specific productions or adaptations provide examples of:

  • The Pirate Movie has its own trope page.

  • Adaptation Name Change: The Pirate King is regularly renamed Roderick because so many directors like to have Frederic, Ruth and the Pirate King perform some variation on "My Eyes Are Fully Opened" from Ruddigore.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: The 1983 film version (of the Broadway production, with Kevin Kline as the Pirate King and Angela Lansbury as Ruth) lampshades it:
    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?
    Frederic: What?
    Mabel: Can't you cheer him up?
    • At one point, the Pirate King's speech is so thick with this that he himself has to stop and ponder what he just said.
  • Ash Face: The 2003 revival performance by Essgee Entertainment sees this happening to the Pirate King, in lieu of a previous joke where he fell off the stage. Given Australia's lack of history with Africa (we have our own racial issues to contend with), this isn't considered as offensive.
  • Badass Bystander: In some productions, the pirate king picks a fight with the conductor, and the conductor manages to fight back for a while.
  • 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".
    • A 1990s production by amateur company The Young Savoyards had the policemen hiding in the front row of the audience.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Most productions will do this with the last verse of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General"...before returning to the original tempo for the final few lines. And then speeding up again for the encore.
  • 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", each more dramatic than the one before.
  • 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.
    • Averted in the 2015 ENO production directed by Mike Leigh: nobody wants a deaf middle-aged pirate maid any more at the end than at the beginning, and the show ends with Ruth sitting sad and alone off to one side of the general celebration.
    • The 1983 film version has Ruth paired with the Sergeant at the end.
  • Patter Song: Several productions interpolate "My Eyes Are Fully Open" (originally from Ruddigore).
  • Porky Pig Pronunciation: In the 1983 film, the second time the phrase comes up during his song, the Major-General gives up on trying to make a rhyme with "strategy" and just says "rode a horse."
  • Recitation Handclasp: In the 1983 film version (and in the Delacorte theatrical version from which it sprang), the womens' chorus assume this pose.
  • Speaking Simlish: In the 1983 film, in the pre-credit sequence showing the villagers, they babble in Simlish.
  • Two Words: Added Emphasis: 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 separate 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.

Alternative Title(s): Pirates Of Penzance