Monday, November 22, 2010

The Pirates of Penzance from an International Relations Perspective

As a number of you know, I had to miss last Wednesday's lab to play a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance. Although I was not able to explore the National Museum of the American Indian, my experience was not completely void of reference to world politics and international relations theory. From the characterization of the “modern” Major-General to the constructivist focus on identity and how it affects relations between, in the case of the operetta, the Pirates of Penzance and the Major-General and his daughters.

The characterization of being “the very model of a modern Major-General” is not an uncommon popular culture reference. The term has been used to describe individuals from George Washington to General Barney-White Spunner, a British general who played an instrumental role in the British involvement in the Iraq War, to even Kim Jong Eun, the possible successor to Kim Jong Il. It has its roots in the Major-General's patter song, possibly the most famous work in the Pirates of Penzance, used to describe the Major-General's impressive education and well-rounded knowledge of the world in a satirical manner (lyrics). Apart from the comedic genius of Gilbert and Sullivan, this song contains some important political commentary regarding the importance of a general education not only for the general work force but for political and military leaders as well.

In addition to characterizing common players in the international realm, Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta gives a compelling argument in favor of certain constructivist tenets, specifically the role of identity. The plot of The Pirates of Penzance is built off of the changing identity of the Major-General in relation to the altercasting of the Pirates of Penzance (synopsis). The Pirates of Penzance are described as being a band of orphaned young men. Therefore, to elicit their sympathies and escape the pirates unharmed, the educated Major-General creates a fake identity by claiming to be an orphan himself. This scene argues the constructivist belief that the relations within our international system, whether between states, NGOs, or a mixture, can be drastically affected and changed depending upon the perceived identities of the two parties. Additionally, the role of altercasting is instrumental to the development of the second act of the operetta. It is discovered towards the end of the work that the pirates were all, in fact, noblemen that developed into the pirate gang the audience sees through the altercasting of the orphanage and society in general. However, as soon as this information is revealed, the identity of the Pirates of Penzance changes dramatically back to being respected noblemen, resolving the conflicts between the previous pirates, the Major-General, and the Crown. Therefore, although Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance is a genius comedic operetta, it is also has significant value as a microcosm of constructivist international relations theory.

1 comment:

  1. Contrary to an old saying you can truly "make a silk purse from a sows ear"! It is amazing how you were able to see how the essence of the operetta can be seen as a "significant value as a microcosm of constructivist international relations theory" and were able to identify the specific aspects that led to that conclusion.

    Good job!