Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
When one contrasts the most recent copyright protection afforded composers today with the flimsy provisions of American copyright law in 1879 permitting almost unlimited piracy of a published musical work like Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore for productions on American stages, one thinks of a paraphrase on that recurrent ad for a certain cigarette: "We've come a long way, baby!'
Richard D'Oyly Carte, William S. Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan had formed themselves into an equal partnership for financial profit. They were exceedingly loath both for financial and artistic reasons to see pirated productions of H.M.S. Pinafore, barely six months after its initial London premier, · enriching the pockets of American entrepreneurs. Such piracy was possible because in law once a score, even a vocal score, had been published, impresarios could legally produce the work unabashedly providing their own orchestrations. These orchestrations might skillfully or otherwise approximate Sullivan's original score. It was a relatively simple procedure for an orchestrator to elaborate this from the vocal score or relying on his memory at an authentic performance to create a reasonable approximation of the original. The American impresarios cared little for authenticity as long as box office results proved attractive. Gilbert and Sullivan received absolutely no royalties from such productions.
Richard D'Oyly Carte in 1878 decided to present Pinafore authentically in New York and other American cities. For this production Gilbert with his consummate expertise would be stage manager and director. Sullivan would conduct, lending a most impressive stamp of genuinity to their enterprise replete with British leads.
Carte likewise planned to launch a new operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan, hoping with the available protection of American copyright law to forestall future piratical forays. To this end, the three progenitors worked in utmost secrecy to produce The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty, to give its full title. Not only would they train a company for the New York production, but three or four other companies almost simultaneously for staging the operetta immediately in other American cities.
Carte arrived in New York in July, 1879 to prepare the ground work. Gilbert and Sullivan with important members of the company landed on November 5. Amid a social and concert whirl the two partners worked feverishly, first to prepare Pinafore for its opening performance on December 1, 1879.
After this initial authentic presentation the pace did not slacken. While in New York, Sullivan commenced his diary to which he would faithfully contribute until the near approach of death in November, 1900. This diary reveals Sullivan spending long periods into the wee hours of the morning composing The Pirates, much to the detriment of his health. He had, indeed, commenced sketching the work in England and had completed these for Act I. But in his rushed preparations to sail for America he had left these sketches behind in his London flat. Nothing would do but to rely on his memory. ''It is a great nuisance," he wrote his mother, "as I have to rewrite it all now, and can't recollect every number I did."
He spent all of Christmas Day, 1879, furiously composing. No doubt the irony of the subtitle "or the Slave of Duty'' came home to him, but it was done. While Sullivan composed, however, rehearsals for The Pirates had commenced on December 15. The premier took place at the Fifth Avenue Theater before a ''house crammed with the elite of New York" on New Year's Eve, 1879.
On New Year's Day, Sullivan cabled his mother in previously agreed on cipher which translated: "We played new piece last night, stop. Piece enormously successful, stop. Both words and music equally successful, stop. Both of us called on stage afterwards before a $1350.00 house, stop. Reviews generally magnificent." A $1350.00 box-office receipt was a princely first night return in those days.
Piracy was prevented through non-publication of the score. The manuscript copies were sedulously locked nightly in a safe.
Carte now sent three companies on tour with The Pirates. At the same time in fact on December 30, 1879, it had been produced in a somewhat truncated, provisional, but authentic version at the Royal Bijou Theater, Paignton in South Devon, this to secure English copyright protection.
The premier London performance at the Opera Comique occurred on April 3, 1880. Gilbert and Sullivan had returned to England to stage it at the height of the entertainment season. After its boisterous initial reception the operetta witnessed an unbroken run of 400 performances in London.
The London staging benefitted from highly experienced and well-known British actor/singers, veterans of the company. Sullivan according to his usual practice had winnowed some musical chaf from the American score and had fitted Act II with a stronger and more tuneful ending. Moreover, unlike his usual procedure, he provided his London production with an overture, a new one perhaps, or had radically revised the one written for the New York production by Alfred Cellier.
How did Sullivan assess his and Gilbert's accomplishment? A letter of January 2, 1880 to his mother summarized his views. "The libretto is ingenious, clever, wonderfully funny in parts, and sometimes brilliant in dialogue-beautifully written for music, as is all Gilbert does, and all the action and business perfect. The music is infinitely superior in every way to the Pinafore- 'tunier' and more developed, of a higher class altogether. I think that in time it will be more popular ... I send you all the morning papers except the Sun which is excellent also there is not a copy to be had. You will see that they don't go into the music much as they don't know much about it and it isn’t printed. So the New Year opens auspiciously for me ...”
The Plot: The Pirates, in almost every respect, is Pinafore translated from sea to land, as Isaac Goldberg has observed. Infants in the case of The Pirates get into mixed-up professions, piracy and police. Frederic is indentured to a band of buccaneers until his twenty-first birthday. He suddenly finds the charms of female company in a group of maidens protected by their father, Major-General Stanley. The pirates find their hearts harpooned by these maiden raiders-of-the-heart. All being orphans come under the protection of these pirates. Stanley protests the situation to his danger until it is discovered he too is an orphan.
Frederic falls in love with Stanley's daughter, Mabel. He looks forward in a few short hours to his freedom from the buccaneers and marriage to Mabel. Moreover, he has vowed upon his release from his indenture to destroy the pirates. Alas, however, Frederic learns that he was mistakenly released since, being born February 29, he has seen only his fifth birthday. He dutifully returns to the pirate band to fight against Mabel's father who turned out to be no orphan at all.
Mayhem is prevented by a patriotic unfurling of tiny Union Jacks at the sight of which the pirates desist from further action. Noble pirates they are, and all are now accepted as future sons-in-law by Major General Stanley. Frederic and Mabel and all shall quickly be personified
by a doctor of divinity
who is located in this vicinity.