The Pirates of Penzance Trivia

The Pirates of Penzance Trivia No. 1.

The first collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan was Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old: not an opera but a lightweight burlesque for the Christmas season at the Gaiety Theatre. The score was never published and most of the music is lost, except for one song which was printed separately, some recently-discovered ballet music and the chorus “Climbing over rocky mountain”, later used in The Pirates of Penzance. Both Gilbert and Sullivan already had established reputations, and it is unlikely that either of them saw Thespis as the start of a long-term partnership.

The Pirates of Penzance Trivia No. 2.

The “Sir Garnet” mentioned in the Colonel’s first song in Patience is Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley, K.P., G.C.B., O.M., G.C.M.G., V.D., P.C., an Irish officer who served with outstanding distinction in the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Second Opium War in China, and numerous other campaigns. His “thrashing a cannibal” is a reference to his success in the Zulu War. He wrote an autobiographical memoir and works of military history, and had a reputation for smartness and efficiency. He is affectionately caricatured as Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance: “the very model of a modern Major-General”.

The Pirates of Penzance Trivia No. 3.

The dénouement of The Pirates of Penzance, in which the defeated pirates are saved by the revelation that they are “all noblemen who have gone wrong”, is a send-up of the stock situation in melodrama where a seemingly low-born character turns out to be the heir to a title or fortune. In the original production, the finale included the exchange: “Oh spare them, they are all noblemen who have gone wrong!” – “What, all noblemen?” – “Yes, all noblemen!” – “What, all?” – “Well, nearly all!”: a humorous reminiscence of the catchphrase “What, never?” – “No, never!” – “What, never?” – “Well, hardly ever!” from the previous opera, H.M.S. Pinafore.

The Pirates of Penzance Trivia No. 4.

The part of Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance, one of the biggest tenor parts in the canon, was created by Hugh Talbot.  His performance was slated by the press, and Sullivan in a letter to his mother described him as “…an idiot — vain and empty-headed.  He very nearly upset the piece on the first night as he didn’t know his words, and forgot his music.”  Talbot did not remain long with the company, but Gilbert and Sullivan pointedly wrote the romantic lead parts in the next operas, Patience and Iolanthe, for baritone voices and relegated the tenor to the secondary roles of the Duke and Lord Tolloller.

The Pirates of Penzance Trivia No. 5.

Several ideas in Gilbert’s libretti are re-workings of devices which he had used, or considered but rejected, in earlier plays or poems.  Our Island Home, produced in 1870, has a character called Captain Bang, who in his boyhood was mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot.  As another example, a surviving draft version of The Pirates of Penzance shows that the Pirate King was originally imagined as a humble figure who performed menial tasks for his crew.  This conception bears no relation to the Pirate King in the final version; but the idea re-emerges in The Gondoliers with the two kings who, in the name of republican equality, act as the servants of their courtiers.