Letter: A paradox of birth
Caitlin Causey’s front-page article on leap babies (Post Independent, 02/29/16) reminded me of a famous leap baby, Frederic, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty,” another of their delightful satires on Victorian mores.
The plot centers on Frederic, who, having completed his 21st year, is released from his apprenticeship to a band of tender-hearted pirates. He meets Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley, and the two young people fall instantly in love. Frederic soon learns, however, that he was born on 29 February, and so, technically, he only has a birthday each leap year. His indenture specifies that he remain apprenticed to the pirates until his 21st birthday and that he must serve for another 63 years. Bound by his own sense of duty, Frederic’s only solace is that Mabel agrees to wait for him faithfully.
This anomaly is revealed to him by Ruth and the pirate captain in the famous “paradox” song:
“For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I’ve no desire to be disloyal,
“Some person in authority, I don’t know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
“Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February,
“twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,
“One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
“Through some singular coincidence – I shouldn’t be surprised if it were owing to the agency of an ill-natured fairy –
“You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year, on the 29th of February;
“And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you’ll easily discover,
“That though you’ve lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays,
“you’re only 5, and a little bit over!
“A most ingenious paradox!
“We’ve quips and quibbles heard in flocks,
“But none to beat this paradox!”
If you’ve never seen the play, get the Joseph Papp production starring Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury and Linda Ronstadt on DVD and settle down for a delightful viewing experience.
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