Pirates of Penzance played last night in Evanston. Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) is probably about the only company in Chicagoland that you could expect to do Gilbert and Sullivan well, and they did.
The show was two acts of one hour each, with an intermission, and it gave me more sheer delight than anything I can remember seeing in a long time. Not the whole piece, and it dragged, but in parts, the first act being the stronger, with the Pirate King song followed by the Major General’s song.
There were no supra titles, sadly, because it was hard to distinguish the words often; but with that song, thorough familiarity rendered the words perfectly intelligible, and the delivery (on the part of all the cast) was entirely spot on. To see “General Stanley” (a surname presumably inspired by the famous Americanized Welshman) strutting about, even if not up to the standard of every YouTube rendition, was pleasurable in context even more than as a detached excerpt. But so with G&S, at their best.
The humor derives (beyond Gilbert’s delicious sense of human irony) in part from the idea of the Englishman (though the famous “He is an Englishman” is a song from Pinafore, it might easily have been inserted into Pirates), which it simultaneously mocks and upholds. We no longer view the ideal of “faithfulness to duty” in the same way, nor is it possible to do so, so, although the wit derived from that paradox, time has rendered some of that wit just a little tiresome.
To be sure, Pirates of Penzance represents the best of popular entertainment of the day. If it is affected by the change in time to the world's conception of the Englishman as a type, and and the idea of “duty” addressed as something sacred, you wonder how so much of American popular culture will fare, given that so much of it seems purposively designed to bolster a certain ideal (which accounts for its worldwide appeal) of being an American.
With political events in the USA, that illusion is rapidly losing currency. The best of Gilbert and Sullivan survives because, despite being a product of its time, it is also constructed with genius (a double genius I might say) which allows it, if never entirely, to transcend the limitations of its time.