Treasure Island: DER BILDUNGSROMAN

Happy May, everyone! I have a special treat for you all today! It’s another blog, about the intended audience and literary structure of Treasure Island. [wait come back -KH] Ordinarily I would sit on this blog post until Opening Night, but since we are opening Treasure Island on a Saturday, and people spend less of their time on Saturdays goofing off on the internet, I thought I would run it out a little early, as a reward for you all for being such a loyal audience. And also for our adoring audience members who may have, through no fault of their own, neglected to purchase their tickets for Treasure Island so far, it may serve as a passive-aggressive friendly reminder to do so!

Originally serialized in the 1880s in a magazine named [with traditional 19th century brevity -ed.] “Young Folks: A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature”, Treasure Island is clearly marketed towards, and written with an eye for the interests of, children, in a way that many books that had come before were not. Treasure Island is what I would describe as a second-generation Young Adult novel, an at-the-time comparatively recent innovation in literature of a story aimed specifically at children. Following in the footsteps of Carroll, Dickens, Alcott, and Twain, Stevenson had learned the primary lesson to engaging young readers: make the protagonist a child.

Treasure Island Norman Price

From Treasure Island, 1947. Illustration by Norman Price.

 

This is the closest to a unifying feature that YA stories get, and even it is not universal. Young Adult novels, in an uncomfortable parallel to pornography, defy definition but can easily be identified. It is tempting to think of it as a genre unto itself, and many of the books share enough difficult-to-define similarities to justify such a grouping, such as length, simplicity of language, or occasional tension-breaking silliness. But [if you’ll pardon me putting on my Librarian Hat for a second -KH] it is in my opinion more helpful and accurate to make it an overarching category, one that any sort of book can belong to and still fall into other, more specialized categories. This way you retain the helpful audience label of YA but you don’t sacrifice the association with their stylistic genre. Compare, for example, the Hardy Boys to a James Bond story, and then to The Outsiders. Or for a more extreme comparison, read The Hunger Games, and tell me if it has more in common with 1984 or Great Expectations. Their audience may always be children or teens, but just like with adults, different children have different interests and what appeals to one may not appeal to another, so I think a more reasonable cataloging style would be, for example, YA Fantasy, or YA Mystery, or YA Historical Fiction. By this metric Treasure Island would fall into the wide category of Young Adult Adventure Fiction, among such rarefied company as Tom Sawyer, The Book of Three, Hatchet, and The Golden Compass.

Tom Sawyer Bats

“Tom and Becky Lost in the Caves”, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876. Illustration by True Williams.

I won’t bore you overmuch right now with further discussions of the adventure genre, which I have already covered in detail here. But Treasure Island ALSO happens to be a Bildungsroman, as YA Adventures reasonably tend to be, and I would be happy to bore you with discussions of that!

And the best way to bore someone is to lecture them about the terms you will be using, terms with which they may well already be familiar. The Bildungsroman, literally “novel of education”, is also referred to as a “coming of age” story, so you can see why it might be so heavily associated with the Young Adult genre. Though not universally a story about or for children (the “age” to which one might “come” can be metaphorical, and refers to any sort of maturing and coming into one’s own) it often tracks the growth of a young person as they discover that there is more to the world, both for good and for bad, than they had initially understood, and of them consequently understanding their place in it. It has a very straightforward and approachable story design, generally adhering closely to the Hero’s Journey that I described for you oh those many moons ago for our selected readings from Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. This is unsurprising because Star Wars is also about as Bildungsroman as you can get, what with the young man leaving his home, meeting a mentor, learning about the world outside of his small experience, and discovering the person he was truly meant to be. These traits are clearly mirrored in Treasure Island as well. When our story begins Jim Hawkins has probably never been more than 5 miles away from the Admiral Benbow in his life, but by the end he has learned about sailing, loyalty, and greed, and has made his family more money they could possibly spend.

Treasure Island Mervyn Peake Gold

From Treasure Island, 1949. Illustration by Mervyn Peake.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned a whole lot of plays, or anything about theatrical theory and history, as regards Treasure Island or any of these other YA Bildungsroman adventure stories. That is by design. Barring Peter Pan [another stellar Bildungsroman also regularly on my pitch list at season development time -KH], adventure stories are seldom produced on stage, and when they are it is usually in the context of children’s theatre, like our colleagues at the aptly-named Adventure Theatre. Even Billy Shakes’ much-beloved Pericles is rarely seen performed. Adventures are often dependent on large-scale dynamic scenes with a lot of moving parts; what are often confusingly referred to as set pieces in the movie world. Battles, or heists, or explosions, or chases, or whatever sort of heart-pounding action and excitement the setting will afford. They are action-oriented, and the stage is not an ideal medium for action-heavy performances.  Depending on how forgiving your audience is, or how audacious your company is, you can get away with a little more, but a stage can only be so big and even the biggest companies cannot match up to a film studio or the power of the human imagination. The entire prologue of Henry V is an apology for theatre’s inability to truly capture the excitement of war.

But as I’ve said before the Prologue to Henry V is also a thrown gauntlet to prove it wrong, and we here at We Happy Few like a challenge. Whether that challenge is creating an exciting pirate adventure with four actors and as much set and props as we can fit in the trunk of a car, or taking a story written for 19th-century tweens and making it interesting, accessible, and exciting for a 21st-century audience of all ages [we’ve got a secret weapon in our signature cocktails for that second part -KH]. If you want to go on a pirate adventure with us, and maybe discover something more about yourself and the world around you while you do it, please join us for Treasure Island! Tickets are available now!

Treasure Island: Pirate History Lesson!

Truly there is no rest for the wicked. Macbeth just closed a few weeks ago and we’re already only another few weeks away from opening our third and final show of the season. Which means it’s about time for me to lecture you all at length about the history or cultural significance of whatever project we’re working on. I always look forward to doing this, because there is little that nerds love more than getting to show off how much more they know than other people. But I’m even more excited about this one than I usually am, because we’re putting on an adaptation of Treasure Island and that means that the topic of my lecture today is pirates!

I should clarify that I am specifically talking about Caribbean pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, between the 1680s and 1720s. Pirates have always existed, wherever people have transported goods on the water and other people have stolen them, but the image you have in your head, with the cutlass and the Jolly Roger and the ruffled shirt and the bottle of rum, come to us directly, and surprisingly accurately, from the Caribbean. [Treasure Island is actually responsible for one of the only falsehoods we generally believe about pirates; that they buried their treasure, when instead, of course, they spent it. -ed.] Allow me to elaborate for 1500 words.

Capture of Blackbeard

“The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718”. By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920.

The reason that our image of pirates hews so closely to reality is due in large part to the fact that pirates were consciously cultivating and trading on their reputation and image. They actively sought to create an aura of menace to cow their victims with the terror of a pirate attack, so they took every available opportunity to make themselves look fearsome and desperate. The Jolly Roger flags they flew were adorned with totenkopfs, bleeding hearts, daggers, skellingtons…all manner of sinister imagery to terrify their victims. Blackbeard grew out his beard and hair and stuffed burning fuses in them so he would look like a demon during raids. This curated savage appearance made them intimidating and marked them as outsiders with dangerous and antisocial ideas. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the society from which they had been voluntarily exiled. Being a pirate was about freedom, and they wanted to celebrate that freedom. Outlaw bikers and punks dress and act in a very similar style for more or less the same reason; to shock the normals and consciously make a distinction between themselves and society. 

Our stereotype about pirates’ drunkenness is also borne out by the historical record. But all sailors were drunk; the difficulty of keeping fresh water fresh on a ship travelling across the ocean meant that the only drinkable fluids had to have alcohol in them. Plus sailing was hard, dangerous, boring work, and getting drunk every day was one of the few sources of reliable entertainment and escape available. English sailors had a daily ration of booze, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of a gallon of beer, 8 ounces of rum or brandy, or a bottle of wine. Pirates were simply less constrained in their consumption than ordinary sailors, being governed democratically [more on this in a second -KH] instead by of a top-down bureaucracy. Many of the extant pirate contracts and accords set it in stone that there is to be no rationing of alcohol or food consumption on the ship, unless there was danger of running out. This meant that securing sources of alcohol was often the highest priority. There are multiple accounts of pirates seizing a ship and only taking their wine, or of expeditions turning around because their supply of rum had run out or been destroyed.

Rum Bottles

There’s a reason rum brands are so thoroughly associated with sailors and the ocean. Photo by Tim Nusog.

As I mentioned above pirate ships were governed democratically; every crew member got a vote on the ship’s council, and the whole crew got a roughly equal share of any treasure. Rules were agreed upon and a contract signed before the ship sailed, and any disputes while on the journey would be decided by the ship’s council. The captain was in command during battle only, and for the responsibility received only a double share. The captaincy was also democratically elected and could be (and frequently were) deposed at more or less any time. This is in marked contrast to most navy and civilian ships at the time, which paid a fortune to their captains and a pittance, when it paid at all, to their crews, and were run like dictatorships. Floggings, beatings, and other, more arcane corporal punishments like the keel-haul or the gauntlet were common. The English navy in particular also had a nasty habit of “pressing” sailors, abducting them from merchant ships or literally kidnapping them off the street and forcing them into service It should not be surprising that most pirates started out as ordinary sailors who either deserted (often when they were boarded by pirates themselves) or mutinied.

There were also both unofficial pirate havens and settlements that were inhabited and run solely BY pirates. There was minimal presence in the area from colonial governments and pirates would routinely outnumber and outgun any garrisons. The heaps of treasure pirates had at their disposal made it extremely easy for them to dole out bribes, and their intimidating reputation made taking those bribes an easy choice for most mayors and colonial governors. Tortuga and Port Royal (until its destruction in an earthquake) were major hubs of pirate activity. In addition to these unofficial havens were settlements and ports actively and entirely under the control of pirates, in a conscious effort to recreate a similar pirate society on the island of Madagascar. Nassau in particular became the ‘capital’, if such a thing could exist, of the Republic of Pirates in the Bahamas.

Pirate Haven

From Sid Meier’s Pirates!, 2004.

Demographically pirates were more diverse than ordinary European or Caribbean society. The majority were English, and then a melting pot of Northern European nations, including French, Irish, Scottish (including many partisans of the exiled Stuart dynasty), Dutch, Danish, and Swedish, with a handful of Native American, mestizo, and African sailors as well. Having African sailors as crew members instead of as slaves seems to have been a ship-to-ship, and even person-to-person, decision; there were free black pirates on ships that re-sold slaves from captured slaver ships. There are also on record two female pirates at the time (and on the same ship under Calico Jack Rackham), Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And were I a gambling man I would wager there were many more who we don’t know about; existing as it did on the fringes of society, piracy would be likely to attract all manner of misfits and outcasts, including women seeking agency in their own lives.

Anne Bonny Mary Read

L-R: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Illustration from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, 1724.

Contemporary accounts usually painted pirates as treacherous, greedy, cowardly, and vicious, because the contemporary accounts were written by authorities who had a vested interest in making piracy seem as hideous as possible. Elements of this reputation were in many ways welcomed and encouraged by the pirates themselves, because it made it much easier to intimidate civilian crews into surrendering (and because it suited their self-identity as outsiders). While it is certainly true that there were some pirates who tortured or executed prisoners it was very uncommon and frowned upon; Charles Vane was famous for his cruelty, but was also stripped of his captaincy and marooned by his crew for it. For all his fearsome reputation and appearance Blackbeard was never once known to execute anyone.

The historiography on piracy has undergone a recent shift to more accurately and sympathetically examine pirates, and the historical record is now much kinder to them. Pirates are now seen as more akin to the Luddite machine-breakers; disruptors, anarchists, and proto-socialists who scorned the society that would rather see them dead than equitably treated, or to frontiersmen who found autonomy in the absence of laws. This is not to say that pirates were maligned and persecuted heroes of yesteryear; they still made their living by theft and terror and by preying on the defenseless, and although they were mostly not sadists they were also certainly not opposed to killing. But the romantic, swashbuckling, devil-may-care reputation that they now enjoy is certainly how they saw themselves.

Will Turner

I swear I tried to avoid using pictures from these movies. Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

 

A reputation that they currently enjoy in large part due to books like Treasure Island! Despite being written under the older historiographical model, in which pirates were villainous scum, this story and others like it were key to romanticizing the lifestyle and keeping them in the public eye. All media that depicts pirates, even the stories like this one or Peter Pan where they are the villains, inescapably serve to romanticize them. Just like, as Truffaut says, it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, you cannot include pirates in a story without making them seem cool. Everyone wants to be a pirate, because pirates are the coolest.

If YOU want to be a pirate, or at least see us pretend to be pirates, please join us for Treasure Island! We will be performing at various locations throughout the city in May and June, and we’d be happy to have you join us! Tickets are available now!