Why do we love pirates? The arts have a lot to do with it.

Ahoy, me hearties! As you might have come to recognize, we love celebrating national days here at The Straz, and September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. And being in Tampa, this is one holiday we cannot pass up, since no one knows and loves pirates quite like those from the home of the legendary Jose Gaspar. Oh, and those Buccaneers.  

The Talk Like a Pirate holiday was created in 1995 by John Baur and Mark Summers (also known as Ol’ Chumbucket and Cap’n Slappy) while they were playing racquetball. One of them received an injury while playing and reacted in pain, screaming “arrrr!” – and it was then they decided pirate-ese deserved more recognition. It mostly remained an inside joke until 2002 when they pitched the idea to humor columnist Dave Barry, who liked it so much he decided to write an entire column about it, making it a global sensation.   

But the real question is: why do we love pirates so much when history has taught us they did horrible things? The answer is complex but can be found by looking at how pirates have been portrayed in stories and entertainment over time – and by understanding human emotion.   

With Talk Like a Pirate Day fast approachin’, tis the perfect time t’ hoist the jolly roger and explore how pirates ‘ave come t’ be loved ‘n celebrated through th’ performin’ arts. Arrrr ya ready? Cast off!

 

The Pirates of Penzance

Pirates have been a part of popular culture since the 18th century. Tall tales and legends surrounding famous buccaneers like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd among others swirled during the Golden Age of Piracy, and the horrendous acts of savagery committed by pirates was well known. When pirates started to appear in literary works, however, perception of them started to change. Romanticized, loveable and dashing figures replaced the once ruthless profile – enabling them to become symbols of freedom and adventure. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance was no exception to this changed perception. In this story, we see pirates not only sing and dance adorably, but they hold high values of duty, fall in love and even pass off as respectable nobles gone wrong. Pirates has been regularly staged in theaters and beyond since the 1870s and has remained a hit for decades, not only because of its brilliant comedy, ridiculousness and satire, but because it’s about pirates – and people can’t get enough.

  

Le Corsaire (The Pirate) 

Le Corsaire was the first act of Next Generation Ballet’s mixed rep production of Pirates and Cowboys in 2019.

Pirates weren’t only popular in literature and theater – they even crossed over to ballet. A swashbuckling ballet, you ask? That’s what you get with Le Corsaire, a classical ballet that is loosely based on the poem “The Corsair” by Lord Byron, which was published in 1814 and sold 10,000 copies on its first day of sale. First performed in 1858, we see similar romanticized perceptions of pirates in this story. Maidens in distress are rescued by heroic pirates – one in particular, Conrad, seeks to save his love from the Pasha, who is intent on bringing her into his harem. What follows is a tale of great adventure and passionate romance. Story ballets have stood the test of time because they play on human emotions – and in the case of Le Corsaire, the story surrounding Conrad and the pirates represent a way we all want to live – free and full of adventure, thrills and romance.

Le Corsaire has been revived many times throughout its long performance history and has many celebrated passages that are often extracted and performed independently. One of the most celebrated is the Pas de Deux, which is among classical ballet’s most iconic and performed excerpts.

 

Peter Pan

Captain Hook and Peter Pan, an illustration by Francis Donkin Bedford, 1912.

Captain Hook from J.M. Barrie’s children’s book Peter Pan was and still is a huge influence on modern day perceptions of pirates. For many of us, Captain Hook was our first meeting with a pirate. Described by Barrie as “cadaverous and blackavised, his hair dressed in long curls which look like black candles about to melt”, he also fashioned an iron hook that replaced his hand that was cut off by Peter Pan in battle. Interestingly enough, it is implied in the play that Hook also was once of the upper class, having attended Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, and that his last words before being thrown overboard were the Eton motto. And although Hook was described by Barrie as callous and bloodthirsty, he made it clear that he had qualities that made him a “magnificent pirate and not wholly unheroic,” similar to previous perceptions as pirates being of fallen nobles or soldiers. 

The first major literary work to popularize pirates was A General History of Robbery and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson, published in 1724. As the prime source for many biographies of pirates from the Golden Age, it heavily influenced both Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island. Captain Hook is still one of the most famous fictional pirates known today and is portrayed in several different works of art, and although in some of his depictions he is less joyful or romantic, he still is portrayed as having some good or noble qualities.    
 

Treasure Island (film)

Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Treasure Island, 1950.

While the previous shows mentioned introduced a new and different perspective of pirates, it was Hollywood that brought pirate-ese into existence as we now know it. Most scholars think English-speaking Golden Age pirates spoke exactly the same as English speaking merchants of the time. And although the idea that all pirates shared a common accent is absurd, the creators of Talk Like a Pirate Day among others credit Robert Newton’s performance in Treasure Island as the inspiration for modern pirate dialect. Dubbed the “patron saint” of the holiday, Newton portrayed pirates in several films, including Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island, and the 1954 Australian film Long John Silver, as well as the title character in the 1952 film Blackbeard the Pirate. The West Country, which is the southwest corner of England, has a long seafaring tradition, having been attacked by pirates many times – so it’s no surprise that Newton’s native West Country English dialect heavily influenced how pirate-ese is spoken today.  

There are many ways to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day, but chances are if you’re from or live in Tampa, you already know how to celebrate like one. If you want to talk like a pirate and aren’t sure how, you can check out this booty of a pirate translator and transform your speech. Whatever way you choose to celebrate, we wish ye’ fair winds! 

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