- British Pirates in Print and Performance by Frederick Burwick, Manushag N. Powell
The product of deep research into the history of the theater, British Pirates in Print and Performance, brings fresh light to the reception of pirate histories in Britain and the United States. In tracking depictions of piracy on stage and in print, Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell also succeed in illuminating historical acts of piracy. They focus chiefly on theatrical productions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and particularly on the legacy of Caribbean pirates. They conclude with a useful chronology of pirate plays in Britain.
The authors identify two kinds of stage pirates: ruthless, blood-thirsty villains and swashbuckling adventurers seeking a life of freedom on the sea. The text is lively and often perceptive, as when describing the acting of Henry Stephen Kemble, who was not blessed with the family talent: “Kemble’s blank face, otherwise a disadvantage, worked very well as an expression of duplicity wearing the mask of naive innocence” (3). There are energetic descriptions of the settings stage mechanists designed for shipboard scenes: “swaying decks, blasting cannons, toppling masts, and a raging down-pour” (90).
Burwick and Powell establish that plays about piracy were adapted to the location of the performance. Plays featuring John Paul Jones, a Scottish American commander who in 1779 trounced the British in a battle off the east Yorkshire coast, were modified to suit the allegiances of British or American audiences. That piracy’s reception is dependent on its audience is a point well-made. When addressing plays staged only in Britain, however, it is more difficult to base arguments on audience composition. We are told that nineteenth-century stage pirates were given different nationalities, “for the landlubbers of the theater” (49). Elsewhere, the text argues that seaside audiences in the 1820s and 30s enjoyed The Pilot (1824), about John Paul Jones, since they would be familiar (forty years later!) with the battle—though, as the seaside theaters footnoted were in Swansea, Hastings, and Southampton (all distant from Yorkshire), it is unlikely that residents would be any more knowledgeable than those further inland. The authors are on surer ground when they assume that audiences at the Woolwich theater included employees from nearby naval dockyards, though apparently its nautical productions failed to attract a full house.
The authors’ insights include the argument that piracy is detailed in newspapers and ballads when frightening, and only fictionalized or personified on stage when it has become less so. This helps to explain the enduring popularity of the “Golden Age” of [End Page 151] piracy (1650–1726). There follows a subtle and convincing analysis of the growth of literature related to the exploits of the pirate Avery. Burwick and Powell also point out that pirates of the Golden Age appropriated Jacobite rhetoric in a casual way. Pirates were essentially motivated by greed; they never rigorously opposed Hanoverian rule, since to be truly Jacobite they would have had to renounce their way of life and submit to higher authority.
Such perspicuity derives from scrupulous reading and precise expression, but occasionally the authors show a greater willingness to stretch a point. A description of the economy of the Yorkshire coast in the 1770s conflates piracy with smuggling. A discussion of theatrical productions during the Napoleonic Wars similarly infers that “pirate commerce” and the “smuggling trade” went hand in hand (37). Also, the authors suggest that, in port towns, the reception of contemporary plays would have been affected by the presence of pirates and smugglers in the audience. But while smuggling was rife in this period, piracy was not. Also, many plays discussed in the section on pirates and smugglers date from the 1820s—well past the heyday of smuggling. “Piracy” is even misleadingly conflated with the work of press gangs. The authors imply, too, that there were frequent mutinies during the Napoleonic Wars, when crews made off with their ships, but other than the fleet mutinies...