Why Pirates?

Classic Arts Features   Why Pirates?
Avast, ye land-lubbers! As The Pirates of Penzance sets sail at New York City Opera in March, a pair of old salts offers us a primer in "pirattitude."

Why pirates?

That's the question we'd like you to consider while you're sitting there in your seat, ready for the curtain to go up on this delightful production.

Why pirates?

We get asked that a lot, especially around September 19, when the world celebrates International Talk Like a Pirate Day. As the two guys who accidentally created this holiday (helping to lay the foundation for an entire pirate subculture), dealing with this question is an occupational hazard. But it's worth considering, especially since you still have a few minutes before the overture begins.

So why are pirates so popular? Is it their fierce personas? Their impeccable fashion sense? Their colorful vocabularies?

No. It's simpler than that. Pirates are cool. Pirates are cooler than anyone, with the possible exception of Samuel L. Jackson.

And that's probably all we really need to say: "Yep, pirates are cool, you know that, now enjoy the show." But, that won't make the curtain go up any faster, and it was your decision to get here early, so you can either stare at the back of the head of the person in front of you, worrying about whether you left the oven on before leaving for the theater, or read what we've written here. After all, that's why New York City Opera asked us to write this material — to keep you amused while you wait for the show to start, so you won't cause trouble.

So let's consider why pirates are cool. The Pirate King in the show you're about to see says it best:

      Oh, better far to live and die
      Under the brave black flag I fly
      Than play a sanctimonious part
      With a pirate head and a pirate heart!

Uncompromised freedom. That's what it's all about. Pirates don't settle, and they're not afraid to show the world their true colors. As historian Marcus Rediker has said, "Pirates were the freest people on Earth."

Everything we respond to about the life of a pirate flows out of that. In a world dressed in severe blacks, grays and browns, pirates sport flashy, flamboyant fashions because they don't care what anyone else thinks about their wardrobe. They like it, and that's good enough for them. In a repressed world where only the rich seem worth noticing, pirates swagger through life, talking loudly and boldly in their own argot.

Pirates do what they want to, when they want to, in disregard — even contempt — of what the rest of the world tells them is appropriate.

It is that sense of freedom, coupled with a natural curiosity and willingness to be an outsider, that embodies the concept of "pirattitude" — the attitude of a pirate. (Pirattitude is also, we should mention, the name of our book, which is probably available at a bookstore near you and makes a great gift. We're just saying ... Next time you go to a show you could bring a copy with you and not have to rely on the program notes.)

William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan must have had a fair supply of pirattitude. They were certainly willing to break the mold, giving us as heroes a pack of pirates whose chief focus is less on finding treasure than on finding nice girls to settle down with en masse.

      Here's a first-rate opportunity
      To get married with impunity,
      And indulge in the felicity
      Of unbounded domesticity.

That kind of "outside-the-box" thinking is what led actor Johnny Depp to take a Disney pirate and turn him into a hybrid of Errol Flynn and Keith Richards, with a touch of Blanche DuBois thrown in for good measure. Pirattitude feeds on unconventionality. In fact, it could be considered "anti-conventionality" — that direct defiance of expectation and normalcy to which the rebel in each of us is drawn. When it comes time for the Christmas pageant, no seven-year-old ever says, "Oh! Let me play the sheep!" And a crafty eight-year-old would find a way to squeeze a pirate into the manger scene.

American cinema has been chock full o' pirates ever since Douglas Fairbanks donned a huge belt buckle over short pants and bucket boots in the 1926 classic, The Black Pirate. He set the standard for the cinematic swashing of buckles for those who followed, from his son to Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power to Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley. But it was Cornish actor Robert Newton who taught us all how to talk like a pirate in Disney's classic Treasure Island in 1950.

Three years and five months before Fairbanks was born, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty had its world premiere at New York City's Fifth Avenue Theater on New Year's Eve, 1879. (This, by the way, was the only Gilbert and Sullivan work to premiere in New York rather than London, but that's the sort of historical note that really belongs in an informative, scholarly article by someone who knows something about opera. Or pirates. Or something.)

Three weeks before the opening, Gilbert wrote to his mother, "I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny and the music is tuneful and catching." The show opened in London on April 2, 1880, and ran for 363 performances; it was, as Gilbert had prophesied, "a great success", and continues to be the team's most popular work today, more then a century later. But it was surely not the first time pirates took the stage, not by a long shot.

Shakespeare (Perhaps you've heard of him?) used pirates as a sort of deus ex machina in Hamlet, to spare his title character an ignominious death on the business end of an English axe. Of course, the audience only finds out about his daring rescue at sea by pirates via the time-honored theatrical device commonly referred to by theater professionals as "the expository letter to the character who is the friend of the title character." But perhaps the Bard penned a scene — now lost, like so many pages long forgotten — in which Hamlet falls in with his new pirate friends and goes on a seven-seas killing spree before returning to Denmark for that final get-together with his uncle. One passage may have read very much like this:

      Oh, salty sprites whose bloody deeds and hands
      Hath spared my life from plots in foreign lands
      Hast now a friend of measure and of weight
      Who'll search for buried treasure as thy mate.
      And many dockside wenches shall I woo
      When thrice they hear our tales of derring-do.

      Pirate Bob

      Well sayest thou, olde Salt!

      (Exeunt, pursued by an albatross)

Pirates represent possibilities. Far from being an elite group or the cream of the proverbial crop, they are the discarded, the damaged, the damned. And they are damned by their own hands, their own choices. Yet there remains something redeemable in the pirate. Each morning is a reminder of having survived the previous day, and of the chance that great fortune may be yours before the sun sets. The pirate is the unlikely and reluctant hero who just happens to be the right person at the right time, and who does, albeit grudgingly, the right thing.

While playing pirates, as a child, with wooden swords, one neighborhood playmate who had been "killed" by a cannon blast miraculously sprang back to life in order to throw himself into another melee. When it was pointed out to him that he was already "dead," he argued, "Yeah, but when you're a pirate, anything can happen."

That lesson, of course, is underlined in the finale of The Pirates of Penzance. After all the tongue-twisting and topsy-turvy trickery have played themselves out, Gilbert and Sullivan offer us two words to remind us of the endless possibilities and the hope of brighter times ahead, even on the darkest of days: Take Heart!

Remember, when you're a pirate, anything can happen!

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur and Mark "Cap'n Slappy" Summers are two friends from Oregon who accidentally invented International Talk Like a Pirate Day, then took the idea way too far, especially in their book, Pirattitude!, their website www.talklikeapirate.com, and appearances on CNN and radio worldwide. Cap'n Slappy actually played the Pirate King in a local production of The Pirates of Penzance.

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