The great melodrama vogue that swept through the 19th century, would begin taking on piracy as a favorite theme, and there were even a number of wildly popular pirate operas. Thus, we have popular entertainments, like The Pirates of Penzance, or the Germany Störtebeker Festival, which is an annual open-air theatrical celebration of clouds, Störtebeker, and the Victual brothers, who were 14th-century privateers.
Emergence of Opera
In 1728, John Gay staged the runaway hit The Beggar’s Opera, which was a new musical form called ballad opera. In that form, the songs consisted of new words, sung to already popular tunes. The play takes place in the wake of the scandalous stock market crash, referred to as the South Sea bubble, which was enabled by a pirate’s theft of Spanish maps of the South Seas.
It’s about the adventures of the polygamous gentleman highwayman Macheath. But its general message was that decay in the government, and the upper ranks of society had spread so thoroughly down through the ranks, that it was no longer possible to tell a robber from an MP.
The play’s deus ex machina was the happy ending, in which Macheath unexpectedly escapes punishment, emphasizing this equivalency in a way not dissimilar to the ending of the Pirates of Penzance. Gay’s message is that you can have a moral ending or a popular ending, but not both.
Government’s Aversion to Ballad Opera
The Beggar’s Opera had a sequel, called Polly. In that play, Macheath has been indentured and transported to the West Indies, but he escapes his indenture and is terrorizing the countryside disguised as a black pirate while being hunted by two of his erstwhile wives.
One of these wives is Polly Peachum, who was the heroine of the Beggar’s Opera, and she turns pirate herself without ever actually recognizing him. The general idea is that the raw and corruption of the first play is now being exported via the engines of colonialism and enslavement.
Unfortunately, the British government—led by the notorious Robert Walpole, a prime minister distinctly unfriendly to the arts—was still pretty upset by the success of The Beggar’s Opera, and it banned the performance of Polly. But this did nothing to slow the sale of the print version of the play.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Shift to Melodrama
Melodrama features easily recognizable plots and characters, music, singing, and dancing. Its register was sensational and emotional. Often, even the spoken dialogue was accompanied by music. There was a special reason the English stage was ripe for melodrama.
In 1737, Walpole’s Government, far from recovering from its exasperation with John Gay, had just about had it with stage satires which continued to flourish. The Licensing Act of 1737 required all new plays to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office before the performance.
Sex and violence were usually just fine. You had to steer away from criticizing the government or the church. Unlicensed theatres, however, were permitted to stage pantomimes and musicals, and they flourished.
So, by the 19th century, the English environment was primed for melodramas, plays that combined bits of recitation with musical, orchestral, and dance interludes.
Themes of Melodrama
The audiences for many of the melodramatic theaters were full of merchants, sailors, and members of the laboring classes. The stage reflected their interest back to them by developing play after play about the sea, sailors, pirates, exploration, and increasingly, such serious issues as labor abuse, colonialism, and slavery. As a form, melodrama could be both conservative and radical, even abolitionist.
These melodramas most often featured pirates as villains, although pirates also made appearances as tragic heroes and or wistful lovers. This is where we start really seeing the dark and sexy pirate figures stomping across the stage.
There were a lot of these plays, and it’s interesting how often they returned to a couple of common piratical trips. Pirates are introduced on stage, accompanied by music, and are shown drinking. In fact, in a plurality of pirate melodramas, the pirates are introduced economically via a drinking song.
One of the most popular musical entertainment of the early 19th century, John Cartwright Cross’s Blackbeard or the Captive Princess, raises the curtain on a pirate band singing, “War the jolly, jolly grogs afloat/we bid care push off his boat”. It’s not far off from the first song of the Pirates of Penzance, “Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry”.
Although that comic opera appeared most of a century later in 1879 and the pirates appeared to have enjoyed a pleasant upgrade from grog to sherry in their flagons.
In between these two examples are many more. The 1836 melodrama, Bound ‘Prentice to a Waterman, ushers in its pirate villain, our trolley tour with music and proceeded by six dancing girls with tambourines.
Rule Britannia, a hit from the same year, opens with the chorus of smugglers singing, “We sail with both profit and glee”, followed by the direction—“Music—The Smugglers … bring forward a keg and begin drinking”.
My Poll and My Partner Joe, like Prentice to a Waterman, opens in a public house and shows, “Waterman discovered seated, smoking and drinking, the company laughing”. The Wizard of the Wave opens on pirates, “Some drinking, other smoking cigars… several youths and girls of the island dancing, a general shout and laugh as the curtain ascends—music”.
To sum up, pirates liked music, they were also featured in music, ballads, and on stage. And there’s something rather appropriate about the way the profession of piracy, which required high drama, intimidation, and deception on the high seas became popularly translated to the stage once the pirates themselves no longer represented much threat to English audiences.
Common Questions about Pirate Operas and Melodrama
In 1728, John Gay staged the runaway hit The Beggar’s Opera, which was a new musical form called ballad opera. In that form, the songs consisted of new words, sung to already popular tunes.
Melodrama features easily recognizable plots and characters, music, singing, and dancing. Its register was sensational and emotional. Often, even the spoken dialogue was accompanied by music.
The audiences for many of the melodramatic theaters were full of merchants, sailors, and members of the laboring classes. Hence, the stage reflected their interest back to them by developing play after play about the sea, sailors, pirates, exploration, and increasingly, such serious issues as labor abuse, colonialism, and slavery.