The Slave of Duty

Internal conflict within the plot comes from diametrically opposing forces influencing a character’s choices. These forces are: what the character desires to do, what others desire the character to do, what is morally right to do, and the action ultimately taken. In a perfect, conflict-free world all of these choices would be identical and characters would make the right choices every time. This might lead to a harmonious world, but it makes for pretty poor drama. Drama results from the effort to bring these forces into alignment.

In “The Pirates of Penzance”, Frederic describes himself as “the slave of duty”. The story results from Frederic’s choice to act according to the wishes of others (the dictates of duty) even when those actions run contrary to both his own desires and his conscience (the moral right). Frederic acts according to the moral right, which is already in line with his desires. Conflict enters when the dictates of duty pressure him to act differently from both his conscience and his own desires. Frederic’s quest to resolve his internal conflict forms the basis for one of the most successful comedies of all time.

At the beginning of a story, these four things are out of line. Good conflict happens when the character’s choice increases the imbalance between them. As one or another of these forces becomes more important to the character, he will base his choices more strongly on that motivation. These choices form a character’s journey and chart his growth through the story. “The Pirates of Penzance” exmplifies this journey is three different types.

The Pirate King acts according to his own desires. He is essentially a selfish and prideful character who pressures others into conforming to his will. He experiences internal conflict because he knows that he acts against both his duty to the Queen and the moral right. He attempts to reconcile these differences by being a tender-hearted pirate who never attacks those weaker than himself and shows mercy to orphans. In his character journey, the Pirate King learns to act according to his duty as a nobleman and to do the right thing for its own sake, which ultimately leads to his confession and reform.

Frederic subjects his own desires in favor of performing his duty as an apprentice pirate, even though he knows it’s morally wrong to do so. Because Frederic allows others to define his duty and acts according to their direction, he constantly experiences a state of emotional turmoil. Only when Frederic’s duty is clarified as being to the Queen and to the moral right is he able to resolve the conflict within himself and earn the love of Mabel.

Major-General Stanley is in complete possession of his faculties. He knows right from wrong. He is clear on his duty to the Queen and to his daughters, and his responsibilities as a Major-General. He desires to perform each of these roles to the best of his abilities. Stanley experiences internal conflict when he claims to be an orphan-boy in order to escape the pirates. This deception causes him a great deal of distress until it is uncovered at the end of the play and Stanley is able to make things right.

Being a comic opera, “The Pirates of Penzance” takes these character archetypes and journeys to an extreme expression of their execution. It is useful as a study in the basic types of internal conflict. One might even say it is the very model of the modern character-general.

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