Literary mysteries of leap day -- continued

March 07, 2004|By Michael Blum | Michael Blum,Special to the Sun

Victoria Brownworth wrote here last week, "Magical is how critics have described Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. Act 1 opens on leap day 1897 with Frederic, an indentured young pirate, turning 21 and thus free from his indenturing. But as the plot progresses (with some of the most hilarious lyrics in the history of musical theater), it becomes known that Frederic, a leaper, has actually passed only five birthdays and a little more, and thus he must desert his love, Mabel, whom he asks to wait for him (neither seeming to have actually calculated the 60-odd years it will take for him to celebrate the remaining 16 birthdays) and return to the pirates, proving that being a leaper, while unique, isn't always fun."

It breaks my heart to correct the above earnest account, but, as a Savoyard, I have no alternative. The Pirates of Penzance premiered on Dec. 31, 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York. Its events must take place beginning on March 1, 1877, due to three pieces of internal evidence: first, the Major General confesses that he can "whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore"; H.M.S. Pinafore debuted in London in 1876, and was playing in pirated (no royalties) productions simultaneously at no fewer than 10 theaters in New York when Pirates debuted (this fact might explain the debut location of Pinafore's successor opera!).

Second, all the characters admit that Frederic may be 21 years old, but "going by birthdays, you're only five -- and a little bit older!" Thus the action must take place on March 1 of the 21st year after Frederic's birth, and that year must be after 1876.

Finally, contrary to what Ms. Brownworth says, Frederic not only understands the length of time he is asking Mabel to wait for his piratical indentures to expire, he specifies the year: "In 1940 I of age shall be; I'll then return and claim you -- I declare it!" Mabel, sensibly, responds, "It seems so long!" Frederic is, however, adamant: "Swear that, till then, you will be true to me!" he says. "Yes, I'll be strong!" Mabel answers.

So, if a "leaper" celebrates his 21st birthday at the age of 84, and Frederic is 21, then the action of Pirates takes place in 1940 minus 63 years -- 1877.

Or does it? For, in a truly Gilbertian twist, the year 1900 was not a leap year! This is because, as Gregory XIII's astronomers realized, adding one day to every fourth year added just a wee bit too much to the calendar! So they decreed, in word succinct, that years ending in 00 would only be leap years if they were divisible by 400! This balanced the calendar perfectly, and explains why 2000 was a leap year but 1900 was not.

If Frederic is right about 1940 being the year of his 21st birthday, then he must have been born in 1852, not 1856. But in that case, the action takes place on March 1, 1873 -- three years before Maj. Gen. Stanley could have heard the tunes of "that infernal nonsense, Pinafore!"

So -- was Gilbert astray? Did Frederic get his maths wrong (as the Brits might say)? Or is a more sinister force at work? Time alone will tell ... time alone will tell!

Michael Blum was one of the founders of the Young Victorian Theater Company in Baltimore in the mid-1970s. An occasional free-lance writer, he runs a small advertising agency in the Baltimore area.

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