The Pirates of Penzance (or, The Slave of Duty)
rocky seashore on the coast of Cornwall. As the curtain rises groups of
pirates are discovered drinking and playing cards. Samuel, the Pirate
Lieutenant, goes from one group to another filling the cups. Frederic,
an apprentice pirate, is seated in a despondent attitude. Ruth kneels
at his feet.
With the closing notes of this chorus, the Pirate King congratulates
his apprentice Frederic on his successful grasp of the profession of piracy.
Frederic replies that he has done his best for the pirate band simply
because it was his duty, and he is "the slave of duty." He says that,
when he was apprenticed to the pirates, it was entirely through an error
an error that he refuses to divulge because it would reflect on Ruth.
The latter, however, tells the story. As a stupid nursery maid, she
had apprenticed Frederic to a pirate instead of to a pilot. When she has
finished this disclosure, Ruth is comforted by Frederic. He tells the
pirates of the dilemma he is in-for, though loving them all individually
he is such a slave of duty, that as soon as his apprenticeship is up,
he feels that he must devote himself to the extermination of them as a
The pirates bemoan the fact that they don't seem to be able to make
piracy pay. Frederic says that he knows why, and the Pirate King reminds
him that as he is not free from his indentures till 12 o'clock he must
tell them the fault that he sees. Frederic tells them that they are too
tender hearted with their foes, particularly when they happen to be orphans.
(The pirates themselves are all orphans.) Thus, the word has gone around,
and everyone they attempt to pillage says that he is an orphan.
Ruth comes forward and asks what is to become of her. The Pirate King
says that of course Frederic will take her with him when he leaves. An
amusing argument ensues. Frederic contends that as he has never seen
another woman he does not know whether Ruth is good looking or not.
Ruth assures him that she is. As Frederic leans toward letting her stay
with the pirate band, they endeavor to coax him to take her. Samuel says
"Yes there are the remains of a very fine woman about Ruth." She is
handed backward and forward, first to the Pirate King, then to Frederic,
until she finally remains with the latter. He, in bidding the pirates
good-bye, seeks to have them renounce their trade. The Pirate King refuses.
The Pirate King, Samuel, and all the pirates except Frederic and Ruth
leave the stage. Ruth begs Frederic to allow her to stay with him. He
questions her regarding her appearance, asking her to tell him quite frankly
whether or not she is beautiful. She says that she would be deceiving
him if she told him otherwise.
At this moment a chorus of girls is heard in the distance. Frederic
springs to the top of a rock to see who is approaching. He sees "by all
that's marvelous, a bevy of beautiful maidens!" Ruth realizes that her
deception has been discovered. Frederic turns upon her bitterly for lying
to him about her pulchritude. He renounces her, and she leaves in despair.
Frederic hides as the girls approach, singing.
Kate, Edith, Isabel, and all the other girls who have now arrived on
the scene are entranced with the beauty and apparent seclusion of this
seaside spot. They mention the fact that their father, because of his
age, has been left far behind.... But Isabel says, "Oh, he will be here
The girls now decide to go in wading, and are in the act of taking off
their shoes and stockings, when Frederic comes forward from the cave.
He admits he is a pirate and none of the girls will marry him to reform
him except, finally, Mabel, daughter of a major-general. Frederic and
Mabel make love, the other girls pretending not to notice.
The pirates enter stealthily, and each embraces a girl for his bride.
At this point Major-General Stanley enters, identifies himself, and protests
the union of his daughter and his wards with a band of pirates. After
Major-General Stanley has introduced himself to the Pirates, he demands
an explanation of what is transpiring. Samuel tells him that they intend
to marry his daughters.
The General does not recognize their uniform, and is startled to learn
that they are the famous Pirates of Penzance. He says that he objects
to pirates as sons-in-law.... And the Pirate King in turn retorts
that they object to Major-Generals as fathers-in-law, but they'll waive
Then the Major-General has an idea. He tells the pirates that he is
an orphan, and asks them if they know what it means to be an orphan. The
pirates are much disgusted seeing their prey slip through their fingers
in this fashion. (They are partial to orphans you know because they
are all orphans themselves.)
There is an argument between the Pirate King and the General over a
misunderstanding as they confuse the words "often" and "orphan." Then
the Major-General addresses the pirates explaining the situation in detail,
and winning permission to depart with his wards from the pirates' haven.
Act two opens upon a ruined chapel by moonlight on the estate of Major-General
Stanley. Crumbling pillars and arches at the sides. Ruined Gothic windows
at back. General Stanley is discovered seated pensively at the right,
surrounded by his daughters; presently Mabel and Frederic join them. Mabel
asks Frederic if he cannot in any way comfort her father. Frederic asks
the General why he sits "in this draughty old ruin." The reply is that
he has come to humble himself before the tombs of his ancestors in atonement
for the lie he told the pirates for he is not an orphan.
Frederic reminds him that he only just purchased this estate, wondering
how he can refer to those buried on it as "his ancestors." The General
answers that he does not know whose ancestors they are, but that he feels
he is their descendant "by purchase." Frederic endeavors to console him,
but is unsuccessful.
The General learns that Frederic will lead an expedition against the
pirates at eleven o'clock that night. He inquires if Frederic's followers
have arrived.... And the latter replies "They are; they only await
my orders." So, the General expresses the desire to give them his blessing,
but even in spite of it, they show great reluctance to leave. Mabel tears
herself from Frederic and departs, followed by her sisters, who try to
console her. The General follows the police.
Frederic remains alone and sits musing on his fate until interrupted
by the appearance of the Pirate King and Ruth at a window. Instead of
shooting him they explain that he is still bound to them, because having
been born on February 29, he has only served five, and not twenty-one
years of his contract counting only birthdays, of course. This situation
seems to amuse all three to an extraordinary degree. Frederic exclaims
that, on that basis, he must go with them . . . for "at any cost, I will
do my duty."
Then, he is suddenly reminded that as a member of the pirate band, he
must now divulge the truth about General Stanley. So he tells the Pirate
King that the General only used the orphan story as a ruse to save himself
and his daughters. . . . "General Stanley is no orphan," he says. "More
than that, he never was one!" Upon this disclosure the Pirate King announces
that his vengeance on General Stanley will be swift and sure. He and his
pirates will attack the General's castle that very night. Frederic tries
to plead with him but in vain.
Ruth and the Pirate King depart, and Mabel enters, finding Frederic
alone. He is determined to rejoin the pirates, and despite her pleading,
says farewell after promising to return for her in 1940, if he lives.
Mabel, left alone, decides to be as dutiful as her lover and she addresses
the Sergeant of police telling him how Frederic, who was to have led the
police against the pirates, has once more joined his old associates. She
says that she loves him all the more for his heroic sacrifice to duty.
But, he has made himself her foe . . . so she will do her duty, and regard
him in that light. She bids the police do theirs . . . and departs. The
policemen do not understand the situation. But, their "course is clear."
They must capture the pirates. The Sergeant bemoans their daily task of
depriving erring fellow-creatures of liberty.
The Pirates are heard approaching, singing gaily, and the police conceal
themselves. Frederic peers through a keyhole at the General, who evidently
suspects something is afoot. Mabel and all the general's daughters enter
curious to know why he is up so late. The Pirates and police struggle,
the former winning. The General is promised swift death for his "orphan"
lie, but when it is disclosed that the Pirates themselves are not orphans
but noblemen gone wrong, everyone forgives everyone else and the ex-pirates
win the girls after all.
[Plot summary from the book The Victor Book of the Opera, RCA
Manufacturing Co., Camden, NJ, 1936.]