The world’s most popular Gilbert and Sullivan production “The Pirates of Penzance” premiered in 1879, first at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton before opening in New York. It was an immediate hit and within weeks of opening, touring and amateur performances were being arranged.
The show takes place at two nameless locations near Penzance – Act 1 at a small beach and Act 2 in the ruins of a chapel. Though the notorious pirate band are based in the south-western town, Penzance is never actually featured or referenced at any point.
The idea for the show was born out of the popularity of adventure novels such as “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe” and plays such as “The Pirate” by Walter Scott and “The Red Rover”. These codified the swashbuckling Romantic hero idea that still exist. Pirates were a real historical presence in Cornwall, though not in the Victorian period when this is set.
The name “The Pirates of Penzance” was created as a joke by the writers; “pirates” was a reference to the American theatre companies illegally performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s other hit nautical work “HMS Pinafore”. The choice of Penzance as a location was a joke for the home crowd.
Had the writers set their show in the 1700s, the choice of Penzance as a setting would have been quite historically correct. However, in the mid-1800s Penzance was considered a quaint and subdued holiday resort, newly accessible by the expanding railroad network. It is revealed at the end of the show that the infamous rollicking gang are not real pirates at all – they are in fact Lords who are shirking responsibility on the sunny Cornish coast.
This firm favourite of audiences and performers has left its mark on its namesake town. The Cornish Pirates rugby team was original called the Penzance Pirates after the opera, and they still have a training/games field there. The official heraldry granted to Penzance in 1934 features a pirate in an original Pirates of Penzance costume and a ship depicting the one the crew sails in the show.