Fending Off Theatrical Pirates: The Transatlantic Birth of an Operetta

The creation story of The Pirates of Penzance seems most appropriate to its subject matter, as legend has it that Sullivan accidentally left the completed score in London before his and Gilbert’s departure to America for the premiere, and completed it on the high seas; or that he intentionally finished the score upon arrival in New York in December of 1879 using cannibalized portions of Thespis, his earliest collaboration with Gilbert. In any case, the duo officially completed The Pirates of Penzance for an unusual triple-opening in late 1879-1880 to avoid repetition of the flagrant piracy surrounding the many unauthorized American productions of H.M.S. Pinafore. At the time, American copyright law did not protect the rights of foreign authors and artists whose work was often illegally performed in the U.S. in their absence; therefore, to secure copyright in America for The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan had to open an official production in America themselves. A very scaled-down British copyright performance was helmed by Helen Lenoir (who later became Helen D’Oyly Carte, wife of impresario and key Gilbert and Sullivan producer Richard D’Oyly Carte) at the Royal Bijou Theatre Paignton on December 30, 1879, with the cast of the previous evening’s H.M.S. Pinafore performing the new Penzance with scripts in-hand. The following evening, the show also officially premiered at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City, with Sullivan himself conducting. D’Oyly Carte launched multiple national touring companies to sate the American hunger for more Gilbert and Sullivan, and the London opening of The Pirates of Penzance at the Opera Comique in April of 1880 preceded a successful year-long run. While Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte still struggled with unauthorized productions of their musicals, many of their early legal efforts paved the way for today’s artists to retain control over the production of their work.

– Allison Horsley


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