This is my first foray into Gilbert and Sullivan, and I am
honoured and humbled to be cutting my teeth here in Stratford,
where there is such an illustrious Savoyard tradition. In
attempting to turn my inexperience to some advantage, I approached
the script with what might ironically be the radical presumption
that W.S. Gilbert is in fact a very, very funny writer all on his
own - and Sullivan every bit his equal musically - and that we
don't need to embellish them so much as uncover and exploit what is
already present in both the text and score.
To do that well one has to listen, and read, very closely. The
opening number, "Pour, Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry," contains a great
example. Sherry is neither ale nor grog. It's an upper-crust
beverage traditionally served in a dainty glass. If you understand
that, then you understand that Gilbert is tipping us off from the
start that this gang of pirates is really a bunch of wealthy guys
who've chucked it all to live a life glorious and free on the open
ocean. But - and this is Gilbert's real genius - they still have
vestiges of their old tastes: it's as if a group of lawyers and
bankers formed a biker gang but no matter how bad they think they
are, they still like a good pinot noir.
When Tyrone Guthrie embarked on his landmark HMS
Pinafore at Stratford in 1960, he asked, "Would it be a good
thing if the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition could be preserved
intact? I think not . . . to preserve the Savoy operas forever in
the style of the 1880s would be like embalming a dead body. The
flesh, the outward appearance would remain intact, but the breath
of life would not thereby be restored." I doubt a truer word about
the responsibility of interpreting a classic text has ever been
spoken. And I hope we fill the sails of this Pirates with
that breath - respectful of tradition but absolutely contemporary
at the same time.
Initially, set designer Anna Louizos and I were inspired by
backstage images from the Victorian era. It intrigued me how little
the basic mechanics of theatre-making have changed over the last
two hundred years. What is more, most of the original design for
rigging and other stage engineering was itself derived from
maritime models. As we searched for something that spanned the
Victorian while still retaining a contemporary edge, with costume
designer Paul Tazewell, we stumbled upon the "Steampunk" movement.
I was thrilled to learn more about these retro-futurists in our
midst and to incorporate into the design parts of their glorious
expression of neo-Victoriana through the lens of Jules Verne. I
think an important aspect of Steampunk is its effort to render our
increasingly invisible and virtual world into ostensible and
visible machines. The more our information, and even our art,
consists of bytes floating in a cloud, the more we desire to
literalize the wires and gears. But ultimately, the movement's real
appeal is that it asserts the endless ability of each person to
reinvent him or herself - and that is precisely what every
character in Pirates is doing, whether it's the pirates,
the police, the plucky girl-adventuresses, or even Ruth and the
I hope this production will appeal to G&S novices and
aficionados alike. I'd like to think that audiences will find this
work both entirely familiar and yet fresh at the same time. We've
hewed very close to the original script (I have even gone back to
some passages that were in the earliest drafts) but we have felt
free to invent and explore. I want to retain the great material
that G&S left us while invigorating it with a contemporary
sensibility - to find novel solutions to some of the traditional
conundrums of their brilliant topsy-turvydom.
"Wherever we went," recalled performer Martyn Green about one of
his world tours, "we were welcomed like members of a close and
happy family. 'Gilbert and Sullivan, eh?' a hotel porter said to
me. 'Oh yes, they're old buddies of mine. My father's buddies, too
- and my children.' " As with the novels of Charles Dickens, the
only other product of the era with which they can profitably be
compared, they have survived their age because they have
There were two reasons for the visit of Gilbert, Sullivan and
their energetic producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte, to New York in the
autumn of 1879. The first was the production of an authentic
staging of their phenomenal success HMS Pinafore, already
playing in a dozen unauthorized theatres in the U.S.A. The second
was a masterstroke planned to thwart the American "pirates." The
new opera was to have its première in New York, with a token
performance to be given in England at the same time to secure
copyrights in both countries. The consternation of the partners can
only be imagined when it was discovered that Sullivan had somehow
left the score of the new opera behind, and the music had to be
reconstructed from memory. A plaque at the site of his hotel (45
East 20th Street) commemorates this event.
In spite of all the difficulties, The Pirates of
Penzance had its world première at New York's Fifth Avenue
Theatre on New Year's Eve, 1879. Gilbert and Sullivan had hit their
stride. They had established a company of performers working under
a management that gave them a degree of control over their
productions unheard of at that time. Their names were rapidly
becoming household words; Sullivan considered the new show a great
improvement over Pinafore.
"The libretto," he wrote to his mother, "is ingenious, clever,
and wonderfully funny in parts, and beautifully written for music.
The music is infinitely superior to Pinafore in every way
- 'tunier,' and more developed." Gilbert would have agreed, though
he was no judge of music. "I know only two tunes," he once boasted.
"One is 'God Save the Queen.' The other isn't."
For the next decade they would turn out a rapid succession of
comic operas the likes of which the world had never seen before or
since - such treasures as Patience, Iolanthe,
The Mikado, Ruddigore and The Yeoman of the
Guard. In 1881 the Savoy Theatre was built to house these
operas. (Even today G&S players are known throughout the world
as Savoyards.) This new home caused quite a sensation; it was the
first theatre to be lit with electricity, its décor differed
radically from those of other theatres, and extra fees for program
and coat checking were abolished. Like everything else associated
with this partnership, the Savoy was first class.
The only trouble on the horizon was Sullivan's nagging doubts
about the comic entertainment's trivializing his talents and
inhibiting his gifts as a "serious" composer. Though he would
compose other music ("Onward Christian Soldiers," for example), it
was fortunate for posterity that he lived the life of a playboy.
Gambling at Monte Carlo, socializing with royalty and conducting
discreet affairs with many women demanded more money than serious
music alone could provide.
Gilbert, on the other hand, was much more austere than his
collaborator - qualities no doubt inherited from a stern father.
When little William was two, his parents took him to Naples on
holiday, where his simple-minded nurse was prevailed upon by
Neapolitan pirates to remove him from his perambulator and hand him
over to them. Ransomed for a paltry ₤25 by a predictably furious
father, Gilbert reimagined the episode for years: Pirates,
Pinafore and The Gondoliers all feature stolen
babies and confused nannies.
In any event, the two different personalities frequently
clashed, most seriously in the infamous "carpet quarrel," a petty
argument about who would pay for the cost of a new carpet for the
Savoy. The resulting breach was never fully healed.
The continuing popularity of the G&S repertoire can be
credited to D'Oyly Carte heirs, who produced periodic revivals of
the operas and ultimately formed a successful touring company to
take the traditional staging around England and the world. The
original Savoy stars - George Grossmith, Rutland Barrington and
Richard Temple - were replaced by new ones such as Martyn Green and
John Reed. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was synonymous with
G&S, and the original staging of the operas had its parallel in
the Moscow Art Theatre's privileged relationship with the plays of
Chekhov. Those stagings, however, ultimately became ossified, and
the company ceased to perform in the mid-1980s, a victim both of
Britain's economic woes and its own refusal to explore beyond the
bounds of tradition.
Gilbert and Sullivan operas have been filmed under various
circumstances, both fondly remembered (The Story of Gilbert and
Sullivan and Topsy-Turvy) and instantly forgettable
(The Pirate Movie); they have been televised (Groucho Marx
was an eccentric KoKo in a Bell Telephone Hour Mikado) and
rewritten for changing times (The Hot Mikado, Swing
Mikado and Black Mikado, among others). In the early
1960s, when the rights lapsed into the public domain, the famous
director Tyrone Guthrie made an impact with his decidedly
non-traditional staging of HMS Pinafore, which originated
in Stratford and played throughout Canada and the U.S. The
inventive and beautifully choreographed conceptions by Stratford's
Brian Macdonald in the 1980s and '90s set a new standard for
imagination and fun, establishing him as one of the world's leading
interpreters of G&S. By one contemporary count there are over
250 producing organizations throughout the world dedicated to
Gilbert and Sullivan.
The popularity of Pirates in North America was given a
boost in 1980, when Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare
Festival convinced Central Park summer audiences that British wit
and American showbiz know-how could combine to produce a
wonderfully nutty and affectionate appreciation of the comic opera.
Radically rethought by director Wilford Leech, one of its most
daring risks was the casting of rock stars Linda Ronstadt and Rex
Smith as the young lovers.
To make the opera more appealing to a Broadway audience, Papp's
creative team wrote new orchestrations for a synthesizer-based
orchestra. The "fight scene" between the pirates and police (to
which Sullivan had allotted only ten chords) was entirely rescored.
"Sorry Her Lot" from Pinafore was interpolated (to give
Ronstadt another number to sing), as was a slightly rewritten "My
Eyes Are Fully Open" from Ruddigore. The pirates' chorus
"With Cat-Like Tread" paid homage to Papp's own A Chorus
An undistinguished film version of this production, with George
Rose and Kevin Kline recreating their roles alongside Ronstadt and
Smith, failed to capture the nonsense and energy so evident on the
DVD of the Central Park production. While plenty of liberties were
taken, this is an affectionate treatment by people who obviously
loved the original version, and it reinvigorated the public's mania
The vitality of the Savoy operas, a century and an ocean away
from their original time and place, suggests an inner strength more
potent than we often suspect. Possibly we have reached the time in
which, as G.K. Chesterton prophesied, "it will be found that this
Victorian nonsense will prove more valuable than all that was
considered solid Victorian sense. . . . And it may be that in the
remote future that laughter will still be heard, when all the
voices of the age are silent."
Bob Hetherington is the Chair and Professor of Theatre and
Dance at The University of Memphis in Tennessee. He has received
two Guthrie Awards for contributions to productions at Stratford,
and is a frequent Stratford essayist.