Pirate historian Mark Hanna talks to ‘St. Louis on the Air’ ahead of UMSL Opera Theatre production

The Pirates of Penzance

Cast members in UMSL Opera Theatre’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” perform during a dress rehearsal Wednesday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Pirates are set to overrun the stage this weekend at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

The UMSL Opera Theatre is staging three performances of “The Pirates of Penzance,” the classic comic opera from Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert.

Stella Markou, director of vocal studies in UMSL’s Department of Music, will direct a cast of students in the production, debuting at 8 p.m. Friday with additional shows at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

It will be equal parts swashbuckler and scallywag, sword fighting and slapstick. Audiences can even expect to see a parrot perched on a shoulder and a mustachioed mermaid.

Mark Hanna

Mark Hanna, an associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, is the author of the 2015 book “Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740.” (University of California, San Diego photo)

Each performance will also be preceded by a lecture from Mark Hanna, an associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the 2015 book “Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740,” beginning 45 minutes before showtime. Hanna will share some of the real history of piracy, which originated almost as soon as people got in boats and continues in the present day.

Hanna previewed those talks Thursday when he joined host Don Marsh on “St. Louis on the Air” on St. Louis Public Radio | 90.7 KWMU.

One question Marsh asked was how typical portrayals of pirates square with the historical record.

“A lot of it is true, and a lot of it isn’t true,” Hanna said. “The walking the plank doesn’t really exist. There’s a reference to someone doing that in the 19th Century with a Spanish captain, but it is not a thing that really happens.

“Keeping animals as pets would have been pretty common. In fact, William Dampier, a man who had committed an act of piracy but then later on went on to publish his own sort of life story described keeping animals as pets. Of course, if you’re on what you thought was going to be a three-week cruise that turned out to be a six-week cruise, that animal’s not going to last very long.”

Likewise, Hanna said the notion missing limbs also lines up with the historical record.

“In a rough life at sea, if you are injured in your leg or your arm, typical surgeons’ tools in the 17th Century consist of saws,” he said. “You were not going to keep that appendage very long, so it’s pretty common to be missing arms and legs.”

He added the image of captains with frilly shirts and jackets also is rooted in fact as captains would have likely have stolen the fancy clothes found on ships they attacked to give them a sense of power and authority visually.

Typical thinking places pirates in the Caribbean, but the reality is piracy has occurred all over the globe, most famously in the present day off the coast of Somalia.

But Hanna said there was reason for pirates to congregate in the warm waters of the Caribbean.

“If you think of all the silver of the new world – there’s millions and millions and millions of pesos of silver – it has to pass through very specific channels,” Hanna said. “So it makes logical sense the Caribbean would be a place where people would focus on their plunder. It’s also a place where lots of different nations are leading and competing with each other.”

Listen to the entire interview here.

To purchase tickets for UMSL Opera Theatre’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” click here.

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