Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
When pirates stepped onto the English and American stage, they fell into one of two categories. They were either ruthless and bloodthirsty or swashbuckling adventurers. Some actors, like Henry Stephen Kemble, played both. How did audiences receive such portrayals? That is one question the authors of this study examine. They also explore the effect on these performances in theaters located in port towns where pirates and smugglers might attend. Was the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief” achieved or did the deception and illusion fail to succeed in this? They also compare and contrast pirates on stage with their depiction in novels, as well as how such portrayals evolved with the passage of time.
Chapter one, “A Nation of Pirates,” focuses on the history of maritime piracy from 1650 to 1835. The authors begin by examining the various terms used when referring to pirates, although the primary focus is on “true” pirates, the enemies of all mankind. From there they discuss English pirates and how they are portrayed in Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, which was first published in 1724. To further narrow the topic, they then look at Madagascar, a pirate haven, and the legendary pirate captain, Henry Every (also spelled Avery).
“Pirates on Stage,” the second chapter, looks at the adaptation of pirate tales for the stage and how fictional pirates differed from their historical counterparts at a time when music and love intrigues were central to these dramatic renditions. These portrayals are divided into subsections devoted to pirates and smugglers, Blackbeard, Sir Francis Drake, pirate commerce and contraband, the slave trade, Captain Kidd and Franҫois L’Olonnais, and nautical gothic melodrama.
The next three chapters explore the fictional pirates created by Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and James Fenimore Cooper, and the theatrical adaptations of their most famous pirates found in The Corsair, The Pirate, The Pilot, and The Red Rover.
Chapter six, “Pirate Sex,” discusses sex appeal of theatrical pirates, how women were portrayed, marriage and polygamy, sex on land and at sea, and pirates as plot elements. The general theme here is women and how they are used by or affect male pirates. The other side of the coin is presented in chapter seven, “She-Pirates,” which explores female pirates. Just as in real life, those who appeared on the stage were equally rare, and the authors examine why this was and how their portrayals changed over time. Particular emphasis is given to Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and the fictional females who followed in their wake.
The final chapter focuses on “Pirate Clichés” – the elements that make pirates easily recognizable to the audience and readers. These cues might comprise behavior, speech, and appearance, but also include such devices as the pirate code, peg legs, parrots, the Jolly Roger, pirate songs, walking the plank, the gentleman pirate, the reluctant pirate, and pirate dynasties.
In addition to a small sampling of black-and-white illustrations, the book includes an appendix of pirate plays in Britain (listed in chronological order), end notes (some of which provide additional information with the source citation), a bibliography, and an index.
At first glance, this might seem to be a study specifically of the theater and literature, but in reality is it also a history of maritime piracy. The authors provide factual information to ground the reader before showing how authors, playwrights, and actors manipulated the facts to craft and present fictional tales of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pirates. Rather than just listing titles and actors, the authors summarize the plays so readers unfamiliar with the works understand what occurs in them and how the fictional rogues differ from the historical pirates who served as the models for the various characters. It is astounding to see how inventive the special effects of this period were, and while they don’t compare with those that modern audiences are familiar with, they are no less intriguing to read about. Equally enlightening are the tropes associated with theatrical pirates that have their origins in earlier periods of stage performances. While the preponderance of examples used in this book stem from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mention is also given to such modern films as The Princess Bride and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. British Pirates in Print and Performance is a highly readable account of theater and literary development, while also being an entertaining look at real and fictional pirates.
Review Copyrighted ©2015 Cindy Vallar
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