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Actors Drew Fitzsimmons as The Pirate King and Darryl Maximilian Robinson as Major-General Stanley in the 2014 San Pedro Theatre Club 135th Anniversary Revival Production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." Photo by KOOP.

Edith, Mabel, Major-General and Kate Stanley.

Actors Michelle Reese as Edith Stanley, Jennifer Sperry as Mabel Stanley, Darryl Maximilian Robinson as Major-General Stanley and Kelsey Bullock as Kate Stanley in the 2014 San Pedro Theatre Club 135th Anniversary Revival Production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." Photo by KOOP.

Pirate, Major-General Stanley, Mabel Stanley.

Actors Fabio Di Nino as a Pirate, Darryl Maximilian Robinson as Major-General Stanley and Jennifer Sperry as Mabel Stanley in the 2014 San Pedro Theatre Club 135th Anniversary Revival Production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." Photo by Ruth Featherstone.

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Showcard for the 2014 San Pedro Theatre Club 135th Anniversary Revival Production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." Photos by KOOP.

Darryl Maximilian Robinson as Major General Stanley in Pirates of Penzance Act 2

Darryl Maximilian Robinson as Major General Stanley in Pirates of Penzance Act 2

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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. Hilarity Ensues.

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.

Tropes used in The Pirates of Penzance include:


  • Abduction Is Love
  • All There in the Script: 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.
    • Better yet, 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: Wouldn't be a G&S play without it.
    • 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.
  • Blue Blood
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: "I do not think I ought to listen to you..."
  • Drink Order: Apparently for reasons of scansion, these pirates prefer sherry to the more obvious rum.
  • Either or Title
  • 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.
  • Failed a Spot Check: "I thought I heard a noise."
    • He thought he heard a noise... HA! HA!
      • 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
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Hoorah for the orphan boy!
  • High-Class Glass
  • Honor Before Reason: Frederic's defining trope.
  • "I Am" Song: "I am the very model of a Modern Major-General", "Pirate King".
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: The pirates are too soft-hearted to be much good at piracy.
  • Irony: "With Catlike Tread".
    • Sung, of course, at the top of one's lungs. Often while performing a kick line.

 "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
  • The Ingenue: Mabel: a young soprano winning the affection of the lead tenor, whose role calls for some terribly soprano-ey cadenza runs (which are hilarious).
  • Insane Troll Logic: Major-General Stanley claims the portraits in his house are of 'his ancestors', even though he bought the house and moved in recently and the portraits show ancestors of the family who previously lived there, because he bought the house, they're his portraits, so therefore they're his ancestors!
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Ruth, or so she says
    • There are the remains of a fine woman about Ruth.
  • I Will Wait for You: Till 1940, when Frederic's indenture is finally up.
  • Large Ham: The Pirate King. And pretty much the rest of the cast too.
    • The Major General especially.
  • Lawful Stupid: Frederic, the eponymous "Slave of Duty".
    • Hell, the entire cast. The plot runs on it.
  • Leap Day
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: hence the desire to Talk About the Weather
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The 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, its a show-stopper.
  • Motor Mouth
  • Opening Chorus: "Pour, O Pour the Pirate Sherry."
  • Overly Long Gag: Often.
    • Often, often, often!
  • Patter Song: The Major General's Song is a shining example of the craft.
  • Pirate
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Police Are Useless

 Sergeant of Police: "They come in force,

With stealthy stride.

Our obvious course

Is now to hide!"

 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.

Specific productions or adaptations provide examples of:

 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?

 Pirate King: I can explain this to you in two words: Beach Party. And I am Frankie Avalon!


This work is referenced in:

  • Kate and Leopold: Leopold gets the plot wrong. He describes the main character as the Pirate king who falls in love, and claims that the pirate king has never seen a woman. The character he was describing was actually Frederic, the apprentice pirate and main character. This is exceptionally funny, since Leopold is supposed to be very educated. The actor brother recognizes the plot as described, even though it's incorrect.
  • Animaniacs: Though the play itself isn't directly referenced, a few of the music numbers from The Pirates of Penzance get some Weird Al-esque treatment from the Warner Brothers (and Warner Sister) in the pirate-themed Musical Episode "H.M.S. Yakko". For instance, the melody of "With Catlike Tread" gets used for "We Surf The Seas", and the melody of "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General" gets used for "I Am The Very Model Of A Cartoon Individual".
  • Doctor Who has a Sixth Doctor audio story called Doctor Who and the Pirates which turns into a piratical musical. In addition to using many tropes common to Musicals in general, including several lampshades about characters tendencies to break into song. The story even gives The Doctor the song, "I Am The Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer".
  • Runescape Has a song titled "The Pirates of Penance"
  • The West Wing episode "And It's Surely To Their Credit" has a Running Gag about the White House Counsel, Lionel Tribbey, mistakenly attributing "He Is An Englishman" to The Pirates of Penzance (it's actually from HMS Pinafore). Nearly everyone in the cast points out his mistake and that all of Gilbert and Sullivan's work is about duty.
  • Frasier, niles and,...uh...Major Winchester are familiar with, among other Gilbert and Sullivan works, Pirates of Penzance. Martin--not so much.

 Leland (singing):...With many cheerful facts about the square of the square of the hypotenuse!

Frasier, Niles, and Leland (harmonizing): With many cheerful facts about the square of the square of the hypotenuse, with many cheerful facts about the square of the square of the hypotenuse, with many cheerful facts about the square of the square of the hypotenuse!

Martin (attempting to join in): With many awful facts about the scary hippopotamus!

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