Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell

British Pirates in Print and Performance


Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell. British Pirates in Print and Performance. (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), X + 231pp. ISBN-978-1-137-33991-1; $95 (hb) $90 (pb).


Reviewed by Sarah Sharp, University College Dublin (September 2018)


‘To speak very generally, pirates are always of interest to the reading public’, Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell boldly assert in the first chapter of their book: a statement which in any academic monograph could quickly become a hostage to fortune (15). Luckily, the authors’ early confidence in their subject matter proves to be well placed. British Pirates in Print and Performance is an often highly readable study of the buccaneers and privateers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century stage and page. Engaging chapter titles (‘Pirate Sex’, ‘She-Pirates’), a generously intergeneric approach, and an overall conceit designed to appeal to readers far beyond maritime studies, mean that this is a book which will doubtless draw in many a curious reader.

In their introduction, ‘Striding the Deck, Strutting the Stage’, the authors argue for a synergetic relationship between pirates in performance and the performativity of historical piracy. Cross-dressing, disguise and false flags feature heavily in the texts which Burwick and Powell examine, with stage and ship’s deck often operating interchangeably. The authors argue for pirate texts as a broad grouping of narratives whose theatrical representational strategies carry across genres: “British pirates, in both print and performance, should be perceived within a loose, self-informing nexus of influence that cares very little for generic distinction beyond the constant performativity’ (11). This early identification of an intergeneric cluster of texts allows the study to convincingly draw out the shared features of poems, plays, novels, and historical accounts of piracy. The early attention paid to one of these historical accounts, Charles Johnstone’s genre defining A General History of Pyrates (1724–1728), provides valuable context for the analysis which follows. In exploring the General History’s ‘strange mélange of news, history, and fantasy’ the authors are able to explore the way in which history and myth have wound themselves together around the figure of the pirate (19).

British Pirates in Print and Performance mixes detailed chapters on specific stage adaptations of Scott, Cooper and Byron with broader thematic chapters which engage with the full breadth of possible pirate texts. The chapters which explore representations of pirates on stage are painstaking in their careful attention to the details of individual adaptations, offering a wealth of information for the scholar of popular theatre. Sections exploring ‘Pirate Clichés’, ‘Pirate Sex’, ‘She-Pirates’ and the national symbolism of the pirate come together to provide a broad and engaging general overview of the development of the pirate figure in British literary culture.

However, the way in which the two categories of chapters interface with one another is arguably the least successful aspect of the book. The difference in scope between general thematic chapters and more focused chapters on theatrical performances at times creates an uneven reading experience. Both areas of study are ably covered and full of entertaining and original insight but the transitions between the two approaches and perspectives often feel abrupt.

Burwick and Powell’s ambitious scope means that the book will have relevance to readers with interests across eighteenth and nineteenth century literary and cultural history. The length of individual chapters also makes them well suited to being used as set texts on advanced undergraduate courses. The authors’ commitment to an intergeneric approach to pirate literature and the expansive time period covered allow for the identification of interesting shared tropes. In British Pirates in Print and Performance Burwick and Powell combine their extensive specialist knowledge in a book which will appeal to a wide range of possible audiences. Their expansive and inclusive approach to the topic open space for a wealth of future studies.

© Symbiosis, 2018