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The Pirates of Penzance Synopsis

Act I

On the coast of Cornwall, at the time of Queen Victoria's reign, Frederic, a young man with a strong sense of duty, celebrates the completion of his twenty-first year and the apparent end of his apprenticeship to a gentlemanly band of pirates ("Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry"). The pirates' maid of all work, Ruth, appears and reveals that, as Frederic's nursemaid long ago, she had made a mistake "through being hard of hearing": she had misheard Frederic's father's instructions and apprenticed him to a pirate, instead of to a ship's pilot ("When Frederic was a little lad").

Left alone, Frederic, who is to lead the group, pauses to reflect on his opportunity to atone for a life of piracy ("Now for the pirate's lair"), at which point he encounters Ruth and the Pirate King. It has occurred to them that his apprenticeship was worded so as to bind him to them until his twenty-first birthday - and, because that birthday happens to be on 29 February (in a leap year), it means that technically only five birthdays have passed ("When you had left our pirate fold"), and he will not reach his twenty-first birthday until he is in his eighties. Frederic is convinced by this logic that he must rejoin the pirates, and thus he sees it as his duty to inform the Pirate King of the Major-General's deception. The outraged outlaw declares that their "revenge will be swift and terrible" ("Away, away, my heart's on fire").

Frederic meets Mabel ("All is prepared"), and she pleads with him to stay ("Stay Frederic, stay"), but he explains that he must fulfil his duty to the pirates until his 21st birthday in 1940. He promises to return then and claim her. They agree to be faithful to each other until then, though to Mabel "It seems so long" ("Oh here is love and here is truth"), and Frederic departs. Mabel steels herself ("No, I'll be brave") and tells the police that they must go alone to face the pirates. They muse that an outlaw might be just like any other man, and it is a shame to deprive him of "that liberty which is so dear to all" ("When a felon's not engaged in his employment"). The police hide on hearing the approach of the pirates ("A rollicking band of pirates we"), who have stolen onto the grounds, meaning to avenge themselves for the Major-General's lie ("With cat-like tread").

The police and the pirates prepare for the fight ("Hush, hush! not a word"). Just then, the Major-General appears, sleepless with guilt, and the pirates also hide, while General Stanley listens to the soothing sighing of the breeze ("Sighing softly to the river"). The girls come looking for him ("Now what is this and what is that"). The pirates leap to the attack, and the police rush to the defence; but the police are easily defeated, and the Pirate King urges the captured Major-General to prepare for death. The Sergeant plays his trump card, demanding that the pirates yield "in Queen Victoria's name"; the pirates, overcome with loyalty to their Queen, do so. Ruth appears and reveals that the orphan pirates are in fact "all noblemen who have gone wrong". The Major-General is impressed by this and all is forgiven. Frederic and Mabel are reunited, and the Major-General is happy to marry his daughters to the noble pirates after all.