Pirates of Penzance opens this Sunday! Here is a guest post from chorus member and Ridgewood Gilbert and Sullivan Players treasurer Philip Sternberg, in honor of Frederick and his birthday this year.
I’ve headed this article on the theory that the mere presence of the letters S-E-X consecutively in a title will increase readership by at least 50%. Now that I have your attention, though, I’ll go into what “bissextile” really means: leap year.
The relevance of leap year to The Pirates of Penzance is quite familiar. Frederic was born on February 29, the date that occurs only in leap year. He becomes free of his indentures on his 21st birthday, but since he celebrates a birthday only once every four years, his apprenticeship won’t end until 1940.
Now, it’s easy to calculate that the end of this month will mark Frederic’s 38th birthday. Just subtract 1940 from 2008, divide by 4, and add 21. The bigger questions, though, are when Frederic was born and when Pirates takes place.
The obvious calculations would be subtracting 84 years (21 times 4) from 1940 to arrive at 1856 as Frederic’s year of birth, and adding 21 to get 1877 as the setting, close to the 1879 Pirates premiere. It does not take place on February 29, 1877, though – that date never existed. February 28 and March 1 are both arguable for Act I, and remember that Act II takes place much later, as the Major-General has been sitting “night after night, in this draughty old ruin.”
The quadrennial leap year schedule dates back to the days of Julius Caesar, hence the phrase “Julian calendar.” It’s not astronomically perfect, though. By the 16th Century it was determined that there were about three too many leap years every 400 years, so by the authority of Pope Gregory XIII, the Gregorian calendar, the one we use today, was born. Years ending in 00 are leap years only when divisible by 400, as 2000 was, but as 1900 was not. Furthermore, years that shouldn’t have been leap years were shortened retroactively. That’s why, for example, George Washington’s February 11 Julian (or “Old Style”) birthday was converted to a Gregorian (or “New Style”) birthday of February 22, since the British Empire didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752, twenty years after Washington was born. Of course, it has since undergone further conversion to a “Three-Day Weekend Style” birthday, but that’s another matter entirely.
So did Gilbert take the anomaly of 1900 into consideration? If so, then Frederic had one eight-year stretch (1896 to 1904) between birthdays, requiring the adjustment of his birth year and the setting to 1852 and 1873 respectively.
I’m not going to argue for or against this adjustment. A renowned member of the G&S Society of New York, the late Isaac Asimov, did so a lot better than I could in “The Year of the Action,” an entry in his Black Widowers mystery series. Instead, I’ll try to determine how familiar Gilbert was with the Gregorian peculiarity. After all, one would think that if he could make a simple calendar oddity like February 29 a vital plot feature in a comic opera libretto, he could have a field day with calendar conversions.
Guess what? He did! In fact, he did so before he ever collaborated with Sullivan. One of his early partners was Frederic Clay, the composer of Ages Ago, Gilbert’s Ruddigore prototype that once shared a double bill with Cox and Box that led to his introduction to Sullivan. On May 26, 1870, Gilbert and Clay’s The Gentleman in Black premiered. The music has long been lost, but the libretto survives and demonstrates that as topsy-turvy a world as G&S gives us, Gilbert actually showed more restraint once he started working with Sullivan.
The central characters of The Gentleman in Black are the Baron Otto von Schlachenstein (“His hair is a fiery red, and his nose is diabolical; he has little green eyes, and his face is covered with moles like little hat pegs”), the peasant Hans Gopp (“A heavy, simple, idiotic fellow, but good looking and honest” and played by a woman), Bertha Pompopplesdorf (“Are you the prettiest girl in the village?” “I believe I am considered so”), and the title character, a. k. a. “the king of the gnomes,” whose first entrance Gilbert describes as follows:
“The Gentleman in Black walks quietly through the wall of the inn at a considerable distance from the door that the Girls are barring. He is eating a fork.”
Bertha is engaged to Hans, but to teach him a lesson for being jealous, she pretends to fall for the much older Otto. This makes Hans wish he were in the baron’s shoes; conversely, when Otto learns that Bertha is just using him, he becomes envious of Hans. The Gentleman in Black offers to make their wishes come true – he can transfer their souls into each other’s bodies, but “Only for one month. This is the thirteenth August, 1584, on the thirteenth September your souls will revert to their proper bodies.”
The swap is made, but before long Hans sees Bertha attracted to his former body with Otto as its new inhabitant, while Hans is now old and ugly, although rich, and saddled with a large family. Meanwhile, a youthful body and Bertha’s attentions don’t compensate for the peasant life Otto is now living, and he hatches a scheme. He tells Hans that as babies they “were fed by one common mother” – Hans’s mother, to whom the infant future baron was put out to nurse. Furthermore:
“The peasant’s babe, as he saw lavished on the young baron all the attentions that should have been his own, gnashed his toothless gums with envy, and swore to be avenged. One night – the babes were three weeks old, and were wonderfully alike – the peasant’s babe crept from his clothes basket, quietly removed the sleeping baron from his sumptuous cradle, placed the baron’s son in the clothes basket, and creeping into the baron’s cradle, covered himself up and went to sleep. The cheat was never discovered! The peasant’s son was brought up as the young baron – the young baron as the peasant’s son.”
Now we’re treated to a delightful twist of logic that could be useful in settling those arguments as to how Captain Corcoran and Ralph Rackstraw compare in age:
Hans: But I think you must be mistaken, for you are twenty years older than I am.
Otto: I am now – but when I was three weeks old, of course I was the same age as you were when you were three weeks old.
Hans (puzzled): Of course, I see.
Otto: You see I am naturally quicker than you are – besides, I’m ashamed to say I’ve lived a very fast life.
They sign a document attesting to all of this and agreeing to assume their rightful social positions immediately. For Hans, this means becoming a peasant in a baron’s body for now, but becoming a youthful baron for life on September 13. We soon learn that this is all a ruse so that Otto can immediately become a baron again, and before September 13 “I shall destroy the paper, and prove by the fact that I am twenty years older than he is, it’s utterly impossible we could have been changed at birth – I shall return to my rank, and he will be punished as an impostor.” Before Otto can accomplish this, though, an announcement is made:
“Proclamation! Whereas certain irregularities have crept into the calendar in the course of the last 1584 years, and whereas these irregularities (although in themselves unimportant), constitute in the aggregate a considerable space of time, be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted, that from this date forward, thirteen days be omitted from the calendar, whereby this third day of September under the Old Style becomes the thirteenth day of September under the New Style!” [Can somebody tell me why the hell the block quote button is block quoting my entire entry instead of just the selected paragraph?!?!?!-AW]
The mathematics of this proclamation are slightly off and might be attributable to sloppy proofreading when Gilbert’s libretto was published, but the outcome is inevitable – Otto and Hans are immediately switched back to their original bodies, because they were exchanged “Not for a month – it was from the thirteenth August to the thirteenth of September, 1584.” The baby-switching document enables Hans to begin a life of youthful nobility with Bertha as his baroness.
Doesn’t Pirates seem more believable now in comparison? Just be thankful that I didn’t go into Our Island Home, the Gilbert and German Reed piece with an apprentice pirate (who was supposed to be an apprentice pilot) whose indentures expire prematurely when he realizes he was born in a different time zone!
Thanks Phil, and happy belated Frederick!