The Pirates of Penzance

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He is the very model of a Modern Major-General. Publicity poster from an 1880 American production of the play.

The Pirates of Penzance, or: The Slave of Duty is a famous and much-parodied operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan (and itself redolent with parodies and lampshade-hanging), 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.

The Pirates of Penzance is the Trope Namer for:

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". Because he was indentured until his 21st birthday and not his 21st year, and he was born on February 29th, his sense of honor requires him to serve his indenture until he is 84 years old.
    • 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, it's 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!"

(Tarantara tarantara tarantara...)"

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?
Frederic: What?
Mabel: Can't you cheer him up?

  • Ash Face: The 2003 revival performance by Essgee Entertainment sees this happening to the Pirate King, in lieu of a previous joke where he fell off the stage. Given Australia's lack of history with Africa (we have our own racial issues to contend with), this isn't considered as offensive.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The 1994 Australian production (the one with Jon English and Toni Lamond) is filled to the brim with this, amongst Actor Allusions and Shout-Outs a-plenty. The revival production a decade later even referenced this -- Jon English stops to make sure that a number of gags from the original aren't repeated, with the explanation "they've all seen the DVD anyway".
  • Calling Me a Logarithm: Depending on the production, this can be the pirates' reaction to Major-General Stanley asking "You're not thespians, are you?". The non-verbal reaction of Jon English, playing the Pirate King in Australian productions, is a comic masterpiece.
  • Overly Long Gag: The 1994 Australian Production had the conductor force the pirates to perform four encores of "With Catlike Tread".
  • Pair the Spares: General Stanley and Ruth are often paired off at the conclusion. (The policemen also end up gaining wives along with the pirates, depending on the male-to-female ratio of the cast.)
    • It can also depend on the director's sense of humor. One production had enough daughters for every pirate and every constable, but the Sergeant remained alone because the Pirate King grabbed two girls!
    • The Pirate Movie had Mabel pause the action, spontaneously pair everyone up, and then note that two pirates were left over before pairing them with each other.
  • Recitation Handclasp: In the 1983 film version (and in the Delacorte theatrical version from which it sprang), the womens' chorus assume this pose.
  • Two Words: In some productions, the 'two words' ("We propose to marry your daughters.") are delivered as two words each by three different pirates.
    • Or, in The Pirate Movie:

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


This work is referenced in:

The Major-General Song has its own list of references in fiction; no need to list those here as well.


  • 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.

Live-Action TV

  • 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".
  • 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!


Video Games

Western Animation