Pirates & Pretending

Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Disney's "Treasure Island" (1950)

Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Disney’s “Treasure Island” (1950)

The theatrical gorgeousness of being a pirate!

Ah, the theatrical gorgeousness of being a pirate! With an eye patch and swordplay. Flying the skull-and-crossbones. The lively lingo: “Avast!” and “keelhauling” and “walking the plank.” Parrots and treasure maps, doubloons and pieces of eight. The easy mention of–and wonderfully named–Blackbeard and Captain Kidd.

It all began, more or less, with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island where the boy Jim Hawkins falls into the company of buccaneers lead by that rogue Long John Silver, the peg-leg pirate with a parrot named Captain Flint. But as a realistic as that novel was, the Pirate Story soon veered in the theatrical direction of Penzance.

A few years later, James Barrie repositioned the Pirate Story to fantasyland when he transported Stevenson’s buccaneers to Neverland. That Peter Pan was first a play may not be surprising. Its villain Captain Hook is theatrical and gorgeous, dashing and swashbuckling, all smarted out in his jacket and frills. Dustin Hoffman plays a wonderful version of him in Steven Spielberg’s sequel to the story, the movie Hook.

Of course, it’s not a far step from there to Johnny Depp in the wonderful film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (I confess that I don’t much care for the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest). Depp moved the seagoing villain in an even more histrionic direction by adding a gay sensibility to the mincing menace of Hoffman’s Hook. With his eye shadow and swish, Depp’s Captain Jack Swallow is doubly theatrical: RuPaul playing a pirate.

To understand the Pirate Story’s vector into increasing heights of staginess, we can turn to a lovely book written between the two world wars: Swallows and Amazons. Arthur Ransome’s children’s novel tells of youngsters passing their summer holidays on a lake in England, making their time more interesting by pretending to be pirates, dodging each other in their sailboats and raiding each others’ camps. They also harass Uncle Jim, an adult and a writer who is trying to finish a book, by fancying him (in a bow to Treasure Island) “Captain Flint,” warning him with the Black Spot, and attacking his cottage.

Ransome’s book reminds us how youngsters before puberty spend extended time in make-believe, rehearsing life in theatrical ways. How many adults have attended backyard “shows” put on by kids for neighborhood audiences? How many can recall afternoons spent imagining with playmates: “You be the Teacher and we’ll be the students” or “You be the Baby and we’ll be the parents”? These prolonged stays in periods of pretending are a perquisite of the young. To be sure, there are beefy adults who gather on weekends in medieval attire at meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism and others who become Confederate soldiers for Civil War re-enactments, but the grown-up who comes to work on Monday dressed as a Star Trek Commander is cause for apprehension and concern. With some exceptions, protracted make-believe is mostly for the young.

So, interestingly, the Pirate has been relocated from history and become a stock character in the Theater of Childhood, a figure from general casting under the category of Outlaw, and someone who has counterparts in other game-like scenarios known as “Cops and Robbers” and “Cowboys and Indians.” For these roles, junior actors and actresses have done research. Waving their light sabers, they know “Star Wars” by heart. Studying television characters, they arrange to perform with Barney and Strawberry Shortcake.

A young Barack Obama in costume with his mother in Hawaii.

A young Barack Obama in costume with his mother in Hawaii.

Still, other junior dramaturges have prepared for their roles by reading. This is the case with Tom Sawyer who knows the story of Robin Hood so well that when he and a friend re-enact a scene, Tom can confidently object to his companion’s performance: “That ain’t the way it is in the book.” Still others have studied piracy and at this very moment, or while you are reading the newspaper, they are stealing up unnoticed, to attack and plunder your ship.

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2006). 

(author on right)

(author on right)


19. September 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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