Gilbert, Sullivan, Penzance, Diamonds, Pirates, Smugglers and Jews

All of the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals are so good, and so timely, and it is always surprising to me (and to many others) that they don’t seem to be performed very much any more.  When they are performed, the shows tend to be “H.M.S. Pinafore” or “The Pirates of Penzance”.  This is both too bad (so many others are so rarely seen) and very good (because how can you do better than “Pinafore” or “Pirates”?).

The Victorian Lyric Opera Company of Rockville MD is one of those companies that performs G & S on a regular basis, and produces the entire G & S repertoire.  For example, next year, it is putting on “Ruddigore”.  And this year, in fact right now (June), “The Pirates of Penzance”.

You probably know the general story line.  Frederick is turning 21 and about to leave his indenture to the Penzance pirates.  He announces that he will leave the ship and devote his energies to the destruction of his former comrades, whom he loves individually and despises as a group.  Leaving the pirates and his nursemaid Ruth behind, he sees the first females he has seen, other than Ruth, since he was 8 and falls in love with Mabel, one of the wards of The Model Major General, General Stanley.  When it comes out that Frederick was born on February 29, in a leap year, and that he has lived 21 years, but only had 5 birthdays, it becomes clear that he cannot be released from his indentures until 1940.  A slave of duty, Frederick changes sides once again, until the show reaches its exciting climax.  What happens at this climax?  Let it just be said that this show is no tragedy, and that this is a show about duty above all.

The VLOC production, which I saw last night, is a lot of fun, with a first rate cast.  The production is well directed and choreographed, and even has surtitles for the musical numbers to help the less familiar members of the audience understand the quick patter.  It will be at the Rockville Civic Center another two weeks.  See it if you can (and if you can get tickets).

Is Gilbert’s script based on historical fact?  Not that I know of; I think it is just one of a large number of 19th century stories about pirates.  But of course there were pirates off the coast of England, and Penzance, located in the far southwest of England in the ceremonial county of Cornwall.  Penzance is a relatively small coastal town of about 20,000.  I was there years ago and was surprised to see that one of the main streets through town is called Market Jew Street.  Although there is not much of a (or perhaps no) Jewish population at all, at one time there was a Jewish population in and around Penzance.  And, from what I have read, the Jewish presence was not necessarily the result of piracy, but rather of smuggling.  For Penzance, I understand, was at one time a port where diamonds from Brazil were smuggled into England from Brazil, transported to London (where they were financed) and then shipped to Amsterdam, where they were shaped and cut.  And most of the middlemen concerned in this trade were Jews or hidden Jews.

How did this work.  Portuguese Jews were all magically baptized and Christianized in 1497.  Many or most continued their Jewish practices in hiding.  But to escape Portuguese discrimination, some of these hidden Jews emigrated to Holland, where they could live freely, and to the north of Brazil (which was for a short time under Dutch sovereignty).  In Brazil, many were involved in diamond mining, and in transporting the diamonds back to Portugal – but many of the shipments never got to Portugal and in fact were diverted to England (Penzance), operations financed by Jewish bankers in London and then cut and marketed by Jewish diamond cutters and sellers in Holland.  And nobody knew.

At any rate, this is what I have read, and it makes a great story.  Is it true?  I think so, but I really don’t know.


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