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Setting the Scene
The History of Pirates of Penzance
Pirates of Penzance is a story filled with songs, puns, lies, more puns, paradoxes, hearing deficits, leap years, duties, Queens, and of course, pirates. As the audience follows Frederic throughout his journey as a former indentured pirate, we learn about the immoral yet oddly dutiful life of a pirate. Our modern audience is familiar with pirates from the modern interpretation of the peg-legged, parrot wearing, skull and crossbones buccaneer who speaks with many "Arrr's" and "Scallywags." Yet, how accurate is this depiction?
The act of piracy pervaded the trading world for hundreds of years. As civilization flourished and sea-fare trading encompassed global economics, pirates scoured the seas looking for gold, jewels and any other loot they were able to, well, loot.
Some pirates were associated with particular countries and agreed to share their stolen goods with the government for whom they worked. Other pirates were unassociated and ransacked solely to accumulate wealth. At one point, an entire piracy nation was actually set up in former Cilicia, a present part of Turkey. Queen Elizabeth reined during the Golden Age of Pirates, a time when pirates were encouraged to plunder in honor of England. The Golden Age began in the early 1500s and ext~nded into the 1790s. However piracy was common into the 1800s around the world, so the original audience of Pirates of Penzance were all too familiar with the infamous "career." Although no longer widespread, pirates are still in existence today, attacking private and commercial boats in certain maritime locations.
In Pirates of Penzance, we see pirates depicted as men full of duty. While the pirates loot and scheme, they feel a compelling sense of camaraderie among each other and an ultimate duty to a life of piracy. Not even true love can break the duty-bound union of a pirate to his vocation. In contrast to the police in the production who are portrayed as small-minded and dubious, the pirates seem to be truly noble men. The show allows the audience to question how a sense of duty and a life of crime can coexist. Is duty always noble or does it matter what the duty entails?
All action takes place at the time of Queen Victoria's reign
Act I: Morning. A Seashore on the coast of Cornwall in south-western Great Britain
Act II: Evening. A ruined Gothic chapel on the estate of Major General Stanley
Theatre and Performance Studies
La Salle University, "Pirates of Penzance" (2010). The Masque Programs. 123.