Which Paradox? Why the piratical one, of course, woven around Leap Day in Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. If you haven't seen this silly bit of business about aristocratic pirates and an incompetent general with a lot of daughters to marry off, you should. The traditional and correct G & S version is available in several forms on disc from you-can-guess-where online. But the most accessible way to see it is to track down the movie version with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. It takes a few small liberties with the score so Angela Lansbury can sing the fabulous tune,
"This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter
Isn't generally heard, and if it is it doesn't matter!"
But in return you get the angelically divine Rex Smith, and Kevin Kline as the pirate king swinging from the crows nest wearing a mustache and flowing, open-necked shirt. Tame by today's standards, perhaps, but still worth watching.
"And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a Pirate King!"
The Paradox revolves around Frederick, a young man freshly released from servitude to the dread Pirates of Penzance after attaining his 21st year. Frederick meets and falls promptly in love with the virginal Mabel, daughter of "the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," who has lied about his parentage to save himself and his daughters from the pirate's clutches.
The only problem is, Frederick wasn't signed up to serve till his 21st year, but his 21st birthday. And since he had the strange luck to be born on February 29, he's only celebrated five of them. When this is pointed out to him, the "Slave to Duty" tells Mabel he must return to the pirate band for another 60+ years. "It seems so long," she laments as she promises to wait for him.
In the mean time, the local constabulary is screwing up it's courage to capture the fierce pirates, lamenting as they sneak about that, "A policeman's lot is not a happy one." But don't worry, in the end the pirates are tamed, and Mabel and Frederick aren't the only ones who get their Happily-Ever-After.
I have a college friend who performs a Gilbert and Sullivan play every year with a local group in Michigan. I think I saw that they're doing Pirates this year. I wish I lived close enough to go. There aren't many chances to see any of the operettas these days, and that's a pity. At their best they are bright bits of fun with catchy tunes and clever lyrics. Perhaps the most famous piece G & S wrote is the Major-General's song from this one:
"In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery—
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy—
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat has he.
For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General."
When you think about it, Leap Year doesn't get much respect as a holiday. No songs, traditional foods or raucous parades. And that's a pity, because a day that only comes around once every four years deserves more. So this year I'm inviting you to join me in celebrating the paradox of February 29 with a trip to the coast of Cornwall, and a rousing chorus:
"Hurray for the Pirate King!
Hurray for the Pirate King!"