Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. Were your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’re discussing queer and women pirates in popular culture.
LC: But before we get into that, let’s discuss Fact or Fiction. Unfortunately, Alyse can’t make it today, so we’re going to speculate. And Alyse is going to send us a voice memo with the answer, which I am sitting on, by the way, so…
EB: So ready for it.
LC: You’re lucky I’m not a cheat, Ellie, because I could totally cheat right now. Okay, here’s Alyse.
Alyse Knorr: The Fact or Fiction this week is: are pirates all gone now?
LC: Alright, Ellie. I feel like I know the answer to this.
EB: So do I, to be honest, like it’s an obvious answer. Not obvious, but like–
LC: Obviously, they’re all gone, Ellie.
EB: Like, the answer is two-fold. But like, pirates, as they were in the Golden Age, are gone, I would say.
EB: But there are still pirates.
LC: For sure.
EB: Right? Like, I think, just like the way we envision them is different. Like, they don’t dress the same, right? And there’s not like, as we’re talking about pop culture, this like pop culture surrounding them. But there are still–if we look at the definition of pirates, right, as basically like, people who live on the water, people who steal things from sanctioned government agencies on the water, right. There are still pirates around today.
LC: I mean, yeah, we know that there are. I mean, obviously, the one that comes to mind that has been the most like, I guess, well known is the Somali pirates. I’m also thinking about–so next week, and you weren’t in this interview, so you didn’t meet them. But we’re doing a bonus episode on this organization called Be More Pirate, which is like, basically using ideals from piracy in business. And I know, I’m going to make this reference for Allison, this is not for you, because I know you’re not going to know it. But I think it’s at the beginning of one of the Monty Python movies, I think it’s The Meaning of Life. There’s this whole thing, and it’s like, these businesses, like–it makes me think of like, corrupt business practices, you know, like this like stealing from the government thing. And they like, take it to life and like the buildings turn into ships, and they’re all like pirates. It made me think of that. So for anyone who’s a Monty Python listener–I hope some of our listeners are, because I referenced Monty Python way too much.
EB: I mean, they are, they have to be. I’m sorry that I’m not.
LC: It made me think about that. No, it’s okay. It’s like, the older I get, the less people that know Monty Python. And you know, it’s just something I have to live with. I’m becoming irrelevant.
EB: But you know, it’s not irrelevant. It’s pirates.
LC: No, it’s not. And absolutely not, and I feel like pirates, you know, live inside all of us as well. Like it’s become this really big, queer movement, especially on TikTok, which I love, shanties are alive and well. Anyway, I’m gonna play Alyse’s clip, and we’re gonna see that we’re right, because we’re right. Let’s see, okay.
EB: We’re right.
AK: That is fiction.
LC: It’s fiction. Oh, my God. I never would have guessed.
EB: Did she say fiction?
LC: Yeah, it’s fiction, because “pirates are all gone now” is a fiction.
EB: Oh, yeah. Surprise, surprise. We were correct.
LC: I miss Alyse.
EB: I know.
LC: I know.
EB: Just hearing your voice on a voice memo, you know, it doesn’t really do it for ya in the same way.
LC: It’s not the same as having her presence here. Very, very sad.
EB: Yes, exactly. But I’m glad we were vindicated. I mean–
LC: And we were both right, you know, in the last episode.
EB: There was no way that I could in good faith try to argue the opposite. Just because–I just, I can’t pretend that–
LC: I felt like you were going somewhere with the Golden Age of piracy thing, you could have been like, “What is a pirate? Can we call them pirates, really?” We could have gone with that, we could have riffed.
EB: Yeah, like, did they call themselves pirates? But like, did pirates in the Golden Age call themselves pirates as well?
LC: I have no idea. And we don’t even have our pirate expert here, so we just have to speculate.
EB: We’re just speculating, but as we continue to speculate, we will be back after a quick break.
LC: And we’re back. So today we’re going to be talking about queer and women pirates in popular culture. I just want to flag it here. Oh, that’s an interesting choice of words. So we recorded these interviews before the beginning of the season, so Our Flag Means Death was not yet out. And it isn’t part of any of these interviews. However, this is a very good time to tell you that we will be doing a bonus series at the end of the season covering the show for our patrons. So please sign up for that, if you want to hear us talk about it, we have been loving it, I can’t wait to watch it again to do this podcast series. It’s so good.
EB: It’s gonna be great. But first, we’re gonna hear from pirate expert Rebecca Simon, who gave us an overview of the history of pirates in pop culture.
Rebecca Simon: I think–I mean, I can’t speak for everyone, I can speak for myself. So I think that they’re very popular, because these are people who are essentially, you know, they’re going against authority. They don’t care what people think, they take control for themselves, a lot of them are portrayed as kind of being these very morally ambiguous figures. So kind of both villains, but also kind of the good guys at the same time. And that, I think, has always been a very fascinating type of character in pop culture. And I think also, they’re very anti-establishment. And I think depending on what’s going on politically, we tend to become more attracted to anti-establishment at certain times. So I think, you know, we’ve had lots of times of conflict since 9/11, of course, and that’s kind of around the time pirates got very popular again. And so kind of some more anti-establishment times. And then I think it’s just kind of, you know, the idea of people sailing on these adventures, you know, looking for buried treasure, treasure maps, X marks the spot like, you know, they’re sexy, they’re fun, you know, these characters that we might not meet otherwise. But that’s what it is. They make very intriguing, morally ambiguous characters in fiction. And that people are just kind of generally very attracted to that. Pirates have always kind of been a source of interest, particularly in the 18th century, which was a time when social mobility was very difficult. If you’re born poor, you stayed poor, etcetera, etcetera. Whereas pirates could sometimes transcend this, starting out very poor, but then getting moderately wealthy for their social class or for the time period. So people were quite interested, people go see their public executions. They were large topics in the newspapers. But what made them very popular was in 1724, there was a book published called A General History of the Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson. And this is a collection of pirate biographies, initially published in two volumes and then collated into one, it’s like several inches thick, but it’s never gone out of print. You can buy a copy online, sometimes even at bookstores. And what’s interesting, it’s a very complicated source, and this is where historians debate. Some use it as a very legitimate source to look at the lives of pirates and early lives of pirates. Others look at it as, it’s very fictionalized. And so you have to really kind of read between the lines of what might be true and what isn’t. There are details that are true, there are details that that are very likely made up. But this was a best seller. People loved this book. It was great. And then you know, of course, popularity always wanes a bit, but what really changed and really created a momentum of piracy that has lasted to this day was the publication of the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in I think 1883, initially a serial printed week by week, chapter week by week, called The Sea Dog and then it was put into a book called Treasure island. And this book was an instant bestseller amongst people of all ages, this swashbuckling story, it’s where we get the idea of a treasure map and X marks the spot, buried treasure, you know, Long John Silver, the pegleg, the parrot, the eyepatch, and this kind of really made piracy very, very popular. It was adapted numerous times on stage, numerous times on screen, the most famous of which, which also really helped it take off, was the 1950s adaptation, starring Robert Newton as Long John Silver, who has a very heavy Cornwall accent, he over exaggerated it and used it for Long John Silver, so that’s where we get the whole like, “Arrr, matey,” that type of accent comes from him. And then of course, Disney, you know, they create their rides for Disneyland, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which is based a bit on Treasure Island. And, you know, piracy stayed popular again, it kind of ebbed and flowed, it would show up and you know, in plot points kind of in films like Goonies, Cutthroat Island, Muppets Treasure Island, you know, these sorts of things. But then of course, there was the Disney film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the ride and creating a whole story. And this was a massive success. And of course, as we know, we they created a whole franchise out of it. So it really brought piracy back to the forefront. And we start seeing it in other forms of pop culture. There were bands that kind of did like pirate-style music, a band called Alestorm does like pirate metal, although now they’re transitioned into more folk style. Very interesting, and then, of course, most recently the show Black Sails on STARZ, which is set to be kind of a prequel to Treasure Island, but also takes place during the correct time period. You see all the actual real life pirates as main characters. Of course, they fudged the accuracy, because they’re all existing at the same time when they shouldn’t be, but it’s kind of mixing a lot of this in. So it’s always ebbed and flowed. But piracy, ever since kind of Pirates of the Caribbean came out in 2003, has kind of really stayed this pretty good steady trajectory, and sometimes even upward trajectory of popularity.
LC: I am loving all of these descriptive words. Adventure, it’s sexy, fun, intriguing.
EB: Yeah, it’s like a movie trailer, right? It is, it is.
LC: I can see it right now, with all these words popping up, bam, bam, bam, bam. Oh, this isn’t a visual podcast.
EB: But you get it, listeners, you get it.
LC: You get it, you get it.
EB: She’s a pirate. Obviously, obviously. Also, like, I mean, we’re going to talk a lot about in this episode, but like, one of the reasons I think we even started talking about pirates in this show is because pirates are so embedded in our pop culture, right? It’s like so much. Oh, what do we want to talk about? Like, pirates, ’cause they’re everywhere. They’re everywhere in our movies, they’re in TV, they’re on TikTok. And we’re like, okay, let’s figure out the deal of the history behind them.
LC: Because obviously, all history is like, way more gay and women-focused then it would lead to believe. You know?
EB: Exactly. Exactly.
LC: We’ve been having this conversation on Twitter, because people are like, “Oh, Our Flag Means Death isn’t realistic,” and we’re going to talk about like, realistic pirate pop culture down the line. But I would argue that Our Flag Means Death is probably like 98% more realistic than like every other pop culture pirate thing that there is. Like, given like what we’ve spoken about and like, all of the stuff we’ve learned this season, like, there’s like one other show we’re gonna talk about later that probably beats it. But I think Our Flag Means Death is like, second.
EB: It’s there. It’s definitely there. We also spoke with Antonio Sanna, the editor of Pirates in History and Popular Culture and an expert in pop culture and literary representations of pirates.
Antonio Sanna: It started from my passion for cinema, on the one hand, and I really love the Pirates of the Caribbean series. So I wanted to write a review on that. And then I realized that I joined such a passion to the fact that I am a scholar of English literature. And I realized that almost every major author in English literature, from the 18th century to our own days, has written about pirates. So I started doing my research, and more and more authors came out. I knew about Lord Byron, for example, but then I discovered about Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and many, many, many others, many other authors of English novels and plays, they all talked about pirates. So I realized how important was the subject, how much did they feel it, and they wrote about it. People usually think that when we think about pirates, the first pirates we think about are Long John Silver from Stevenson’s novel, and Captain Hook from Peter Pan, but they are just the most famous literary pirates, there are a lot of stories about pirates and everyone, I mean, every major English author has written about them. And the same is true also for American writers. So the more I researched on pirates, the more authors I discovered who wrote about them, and it became a very long research, I think just the literary parts took me about four months, but it was very satisfying to discover that it was a subject that interested so many people of three centuries. There are a series of reasons, one of the main reasons is that they represent freedom, freedom from all social constrictions, freedom from the rules of behavior, this is not necessarily a positive thing, as I discovered when I started to read about historical pirates, their freedom and the death, or the capture, the pillage of other people’s goods. So it was not completely a positive thing. On the other hand, their representation, especially in cinema, we could think of the swashbuckling films of the 1930s, and many representations we’ve had through the decades in cinema. They have been represented as free, people who behave just like they want. And this is the fascinating part for the contemporary audience, the fact that they established places and communities of their own, in the past that was Libertalia. It was a colony they founded in Madagascar, and it was a real utopia, something Thomas Moore could not predict, when he wrote in the 16th century, it was a very, as the name itself says, it was a place of freedom. They had their own rules, you know, they had their code of behavior, and it was a sort of strict rules, but they had to respect those rules, in a period when there was still slavery. And when not all of the people could vote. So they have a system of vote, that each pirate had a one man, one vote system aboard the ship. So it was a very communitarian sort of group, which is, I think one of the reasons we love that they live in the Caribbean, many of them, there was a division of land, places them in the Caribbean. So it looks like a very good life. But in reality, that was not the reality of history. The real life of the pirates in history was very different actually, and it was characterized by illness, disease, malnutrition, wounds and scars by the various battles they had to endure. It was not an easy life. So I presume that if people studied the real aspects, the real testimonies of historical pirates, their life would not be that enviable in the end. But in the past century, we received a very positive representation of them. And that’s what fascinates people today.
EB: I love how Antonio is totally calling us out here. We’re like, yes, pirates, so cool. He’s like, actually, when you take a look at it, they didn’t really have a great life. Like yeah, but let’s look at the freedom that they have. And they’re on the sea. But I mean, we understand that–we’ve talked about this before, pirates had a short lifespan, like they were living their life knowing pretty soon that somewhere along the way, they were going to die in battle, they were going to die on the ship of dysentery, I don’t even know.
LC: They had to sleep on a boat. On hard floors.
EB: It’s not necessarily a cruise ship, but–
LC: It’s a cruising ship.
EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LC: Oh, my goodness. So Antonio ran us through some of the most famous pop culture pirates, and what’s so special about each of them.
AS: I would say that I really like Captain Hook, because of something that is usually ignored–his fixation with time, his obsession with time. Think about it. Peter Pan does not want to grow old. He is old, but he fears the crocodile, which has the time clock ticking inside. So he is scared of time as much as Peter Pan is, so this particular aspect, it’s very ingenious, particularly in the story, which is fascinating. I really like Long John Silver as well, the very fact that Peewee is a bad character, you, as reader, try to save him, to redeem him in your mind, but he’s a double-crosser, and you are not never capable of doing that in the end. I also–okay, how can’t you, I also like Jack Sparrow. I think this is because he’s been constructed, he’s been sculpted in such an agreeable way for everyone. We enjoy the way he moves. We love Johnny Depp. So it’s quite really easy to love such a character. And he’s funny and he’s intriguing. That’s a characteristic of the whole saga of the five films, and we are so looking forward to a sixth film of Pirates of the Caribbean. There is a novel I never expected and I really enjoyed it. It’s The Frozen Pirate, dated 1887, and it’s been written by William Clark Russell and I had never heard before about this novel. And it is actually the first huge text which speaks about cryogenics, the possibility for a man to be frozen and then reawakened. It’s the story of a mariner who gets lost at sea, and finds a floating ice island, which is slowly melting down. And on this island, there is a stone with a group of frozen pirates, he reawakens one of them, and the pirate is actually the real deal, and always threatening the character, always remembering about very bad acts he committed against his own companions, and against civilization. We have to remember that certain pirates were actually the worst criminals. They were the enemies of mankind. This is the way they were defined during the 17th and 18th century. They were actually villains, if you think also of the detail that dead men tell no tales. And this is what actually happened, they exterminated crews of commercial vessels or of the navy. And even when this was not necessary, just not to have any witnesses, but just not to incur in the roster of the other governments, just to try to evade law. We also talk with Antonio about some of the movies we’ve been watching on our bonus episodes, starting with the infamous Cutthroat Island.
LC: What a memory.
AS: Cutthroat Island, I think some people argue that it’s been the biggest flop in Hollywood history, the biggest bomb as we could define it, so it made no success at all, it went well beyond its budget, and it didn’t even get even with the budget. That’s because it is a completely inaccurate representation of pirates. I actually enjoyed the film, I liked it. So it is–it cannot be considered as a true representation of them. We have testimonies of only very few pirate women. Think about it. First of all, women were not allowed aboard pirate vessels. In the Royal Navy, they thought that women would bring bad luck aboard. So what are usually the sorts of crews made only of men did not a particular enjoy the company of women. It was a very chauvinistic attitude on the part of them. So for a woman to become a pirate, they had to cross-dress as a man. And for example, we see this in the case of the heroine of the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. She cross-dresses as a man to get aboard a vessel. But in reality, we had only two women in particular, and we know only about two historical women. Thye cross-dressed aboard a vessel, and when they were discovered, they were accepted as a part of the crew. This is also due to the fact that women were the weaker sex. So they could–it would have been difficult for them to face the physical challenges to enact the cruelty that was required of pirates.
LC: And of course, we talked about Pirates of the Caribbean and how accurate it is.
AS: Well, if you want to find a completely realistic portrayal, you will find several details that are represented in different films. For example, in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga, some scenes are actually accurate. For example, when the vessels of the Navy fight against the other vessels, the destruction of the ship, the damage that cannonballs can do to another ship, to the wood and to the people, that is very realistic, the fact that many, many people, many pirates were used to drinking a lot, and we’re talking about rum, definitely not water or other drinks, other beverages, that is related, too. So you will find some details in all films that are relatively accurate. The way that they choose to navigate the seas, the system of votes, the fact that they had to vote to decide which direction the ship would have to move on, or which vessel to attack, this is represented in some of the films. You won’t find a film that is completely realistic. But you can sum up a few of the details around. There are almost no films about the careening of the ships. You know, every two or three months, all pirates had to careen their ships, which meant to bring in on the shore, and to clean the lower part of the ship, the one that usually is underwater. And this was an operation that they had to do every two or three months. Because otherwise, the interior parts of the ship would have got stuck with worms and with algae, and all the kind of cretaceous life forms. And this would have made the ship slower. And velocity was one of the three most important things that a ship should have, because the quicker you were, the lower was the possibility to be captured, to evade capture. You see careening, for example, at the beginning of the fifth episode in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. They have a careened ship. So, as I’m showing you, there are a lot of details. But usually the stories they have, because of the love stories, they have all the fights, the long, long view–it’s quite rare that you would have actually lasted so much. And you have to show that the home parties in the village, on the ship, on the various parts of the ship. And then on the master. It was a necessary practice for them. And the very fact that many of them practice piracy in the Caribbean. This happened because there are so many islands and not all of them were charted. They knew where to hide it. They had a lot of hiding places in there, the coast was never geographically very clear. So they had a lot of places they could careen their ships. And as I was saying, their ships, they were not galleons, so they could bring a ship over the beach and careen it, otherwise it would not have been really possible with the galleon.
LC: Can you imagine if the Pirates of the Caribbean films took the time to clean the ship in the film?
EB: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
LC: Sorry, it’s just like, of course it isn’t included, like, it’s an hour and a half film.
EB: Yeah, like we don’t need those details. We do not.
LC: Like, I mean, okay, I get it. Like, I mean, it’s been a long time since I watched the saga. And maybe what Antonio’s referring to is like something to do with the fact that like the ship was at sea for so long.
EB: Yes, like it literally never ports. Yeah.
LC: Oh it never does, in the film?
EB: No, it does. I mean, in the beginning, it’s at port.
LC: Yeah, exactly. Like, I just have this image of Johnny Depp like, “We gotta clean the ships.” I’m sorry. It’s just killed me. I don’t know why.
EB: It’s okay. It’s okay. Yeah, I don’t think Jack Sparrow was really cleaning his own ship. Let’s be real.
LC: No, but I imagine him like leading it like, “Okay, it’s time to go in, we’ve got to clean the ship.” I mean, to take out 30 minutes of the film to accurately represent it.
EB: Just to see this. They got it close. But there’s another representation that a lot of scholars talk about as one of the most accurate representations of pirates, and that is Black Sails. It is the most accurate representation of pirates and pirate sexuality. So here’s pirate expert, Jamie Goodall, followed by historian Clint Jones.
Jamie Goodall: So I would say the least representative would probably be the pirates in Peter Pan. Just because they’re more of the stereotype of pirates with the hard-fisted captain and they’re just these gnarly individuals who are threatening and they’re so fanciful, especially Captain Hook, he’s so over the top, if you will. And so I think it’s–you take all the stereotypes of pirates and put them together, and that’s the image that you get is something like Captain Hook. I’d say as far as the most realistic, it would be Black Sails, the STARZ show, I think it was STARZ.
Clint Jones: I think when you look at pop culture, there are lots of ways to sort of mock and make fun of the way pirates are portrayed. But I also think there’s something very relevant in the way that different time slices of pop culture have presented pirates to us. And I think Black Sails does a good job, in a lot of ways, about coming close to sort of depicting the sociopolitical moment of that time period. And I think it does a better job than, say, Netflix, their new special on pirates, which purports to be like a docu-drama, I think does a worse job than Black Sails, which is full-blown fiction. And so I would recommend Black Sails to anybody. It’s got some great stuff, some great moments, and it does a really good job, I think, of representing the personalities of the pirates that are involved, like the historical pirates that make appearances in Black Sails alongside the fictional characters. The writers of that show did a really good job of trying to capture those pirates, even when I think that, you know, they are historically inaccurate in sort of the actual outcomes of certain things. I do think they get enough right that it’s like a keyhole glimpse into what that life might have actually been like. So if you read Treasure Island, Long John Silver has taken over from Captain Flint. And then in Black Sails, Captain Flint is the dominant personality, and the guy that will become Long John Silver is this minor figure that doesn’t seem like he’s going to be much of a pirate at all. And as the show progresses, the homosexual bent of Captain Flint’s character becomes an integral part of the storyline that peels him away, so that Long John Silver can step into the final role. And then presumably, you could read Treasure Island, and you have this whole backstory. So it’s actually kind of cool.
LC: So I have to admit, I still haven’t watched Black Sails. I really want to, but it looks so dark, and I just–
EB: Yeah, like we need something lighthearted.
LC: Sometimes when I sit down to watch TV, and I think about watching Black Sails, I’m like, this looks really serious, and I just want fun. And then I turn on Our Flag Means Death. Like it’s just–I will watch it. I’m going to try and watch some of it before the finale, because I feel like it’s a really important show, but I just can’t.
EB: I haven’t seen it either, I will say, but one of the things that I do love about it is that they do talk about the accurate portrayal of it and also the gay stuff in it, which we are here for. I will say most pop culture focuses on male homosexuality.
LC: It’s true.
EB: And we love Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
LC: Oh my god, Ellie. Before we get into the next point, I have to tell you, someone on Twitter, a genius, I don’t know who they are, but they’re a genius, has suggested–I don’t know if you’ve seen this tweet. But the second season of Our Flag Means Death is about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and in the end, they intersect with the ships. So like, the whole season just takes this whole segue into Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And then at the very end, they like meet Blackbeard and their crew, which like, I personally feel like season three could do that, because I need to know what’s going to happen.
EB: Yeah, exactly.
LC: Like I would be really mad if I had to wait a whole season for like Steed and Blackbeard to like reconnect. Which maybe we’ll have to anyway, but I want to see that story. But I do feel like that’s a really good idea for a season of Our Flag Means Death, because obviously, this show is going to run until the end of time.
EB: Oh, yeah, yeah. And we need more lesbian pirates on our screens.
LC: We do.
EB: So we did talk with Natasha Sutton Williams more about lesbian pirates.
Natasha Sutton Williams: Lesbian Pirates is about two badass bitches who take on the 18th century patriarchy. And the show is based on the real life lesbian pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and it’s an irreverent musical comedy. So the little blurb for it is that navigating through the treacherous Caribbean Sea, two lesbian pirates jump ship to steal the treasured purple carbuncle from their naval nemeses. They meet while presenting as male pirates, they fall in love, and slaughter swathes of men to plunder their prize. All the while, they’re trying to escape the noose by pleading the belly. The show has been in development for just over two years, obviously, pandemic didn’t help in terms that we had lots of things that were going to happen, which all kind of got nixed. So where are we at? We do a thing in the UK with theater called research and development, R&D. So we’re doing one of those in October at a place called the Lowry, which is a theater in the north of England. And I’d say there’s about an hour’s worth of material at the moment. And the aim is that it would be, you know, about, I would say, two hours with an interval. And the idea is that the whole show would be sung through. So there wouldn’t be any dialogue and it would have kind of oratorio and stuff like that as well. I think that Hamilton, I think that took seven years’ development, I think, and again, sung through pretty much. And I just think it’s very exciting and kind of thrilling. You know, I’m always–when I’m watching musicals, to be fair, that’s not true with everything, but I’m always like, okay, let’s get to the music. That’s what we really want. So why not just have that all the time. I’m super into history, and I’m really interested in forgotten histories, particularly when it comes to women. And I had heard about these female pirates that would go to the coast of Ireland, and they dock at the port and talk to all the women at the port and go, “Hey, do you want to come and have adventures with us on the seven seas? And like plunder and you know, engage in a free life? Or do you want to have babies with your second cousin, you know, and wash the dishes and clean clothes?” And I first heard about guise. And then I thought, okay, this is interesting. And I do a lot of disability arts journalism, and I’m a disability advocate. And I’m very engaged in that world. And I kept on thinking, why aren’t we seeing kind of complex, sexy, disabled characters? Especially because, and again, I’ll talk about because I’m based in the UK, one in five people in the UK are disabled, it’s almost inevitable that you become disabled as you get older, people have health conditions. I’ve got a health condition, I’ve got endometriosis. And I was just thinking, why aren’t we having these kinds of interesting characters that happen to be disabled? And then I realized, well, pirates obviously did have disabilities, because for various reasons, including their battles at sea, and the pirate code that they had, they would actually be given money for their various different injuries. So like, an eye would be worth more than a finger, but a leg would be worth more than an arm, and all this kind of stuff. And I was like, okay, this is really interesting. And then I heard about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and this idea that they did have a romantic relationship. And I thought, okay, this is great. So I can weave in queer stories, disability, historical, you know, swashbuckling adventure all in one. And I was like, okay, this is great. And also I’m very into kind of dark comedy and humor. And it’s got these kind of life and death stakes to it as well. So it’s got all these terrific ingredients to make a really, literally killer show.
EB: So I actually did this interview with Natasha. Yes, and it was such a great conversation, such a cool human being. And also like, just from hearing some of the stuff that she’s talking about, right, we talked about healthcare with pirates, right? So she’s talking a little bit about like, they basically had disability insurance, for pirates. But like, it makes sense. If you’re like, oh, pirates had disabilities, like, of course they did.
LC: People have disabilities everywhere. Everybody ends up disabled, like everybody, we will all be disabled one day, like, there’s just no getting around that like, basically everybody. Or we die young, you know?
EB: Yes, peg legs, like hooks for hands. Like all that stuff. You think about that as like pirate culture. But it’s also like, okay, that’s pirate disability. And they were being compensated for that through their ship, which is very, I just think very cool. So we did talk to Natasha a bit more about the show itself, and some of her choices around casting and set design.
NSW: Since the beginning, we’ve worked with disabled actors. And at the moment, what we’re doing, we just did a video, a pitch, which we’ll then pitch to British theaters and stuff like that. And we were working with two BSL actors who have become like, really great friends of mine, just through a really quick process. But what we’re working on at the moment is this idea that we’d have two disabled actors, singers. And then basically, the character of Mary would have two actors playing her. So you’d have a BSL actor, and you’d have a singing actor. And then the same with Anne, it’s like, okay, there’s two queer relationships on stage at all times. But also how do those two parts of that character interact with themselves? So we’re kind of at the moment working on, how can we do that? How can we make that work? And I think that it’s super exciting. And I think it’s quite radical. And just a really interesting kind of theatrical visual, essentially. And also, I think it’s really important that we see this, see disabled, you know, actors more and more, because again, in Britain, I’ll just speak because that’s what I know, I just think it’s really, really important to be seeing, this is really exciting, innovative work from disabled creatives. And it’s not a lesser art, and it’s sometimes some of the best things I’ve ever seen, because, again, it’s radical, and it’s different. And also this idea that how do you express a musical in sign language. And I think that’s just a really interesting idea in and of itself. So I think it’s exciting. One of the R&D’s we had, I can’t remember how many people we had, something like eight people. And then for this smaller version, also, because of COVID, blah, blah, blah, whatever the logistics, one of our cast actually fell sick. So I had to play both parts, I had to play Anne and Mary. So my vision is probably, you know, 30 people on stage. But then we also thought about, how can we make a construction on stage that could look like a ship? And then I saw a show, did I see a show? I think I did. No, I went to a playground. And this playground looked like a pirate ship. And I was like, oh, my god, this is how we have to have this set. Because it’s just so great. And you know, you can jump around on stage, but also you could have it accessible depending on what people’s impairments are. And I just like, I just thought, okay, this is awesome. But the thing is, is that we were thinking about doing the real ships, because there are real ships in again, in Britain, and things like the Golden Hind, but, because of accessibility issues, it’s a bit more difficult. It’s a really interesting idea, what happens if you actually use those as a stage. I think it’s still something that we can think about. But there’s also lots of like, kind of bureaucracy around what you can and can’t do on historical ships. So I think the playground idea at the moment, I think I’m going for that and I need to tell my producer, that’s a reminder, because I was like, oh my god, this is such a good idea.
LC: So Ellie, sorry, what is BSL?
EB: Yeah, so BSL is British Sign Language. Yes, so Natasha was working with disabled creators, and singing actors simultaneously, as she said before, and that’s really important to her and her work. I also find it really cool that she’s creating these immersive experiences. So one of the things we talked about, which I’m not sure if we put even further up here, is that she wanted to use like, actual historical ships. And so we’re talking a little bit about how like, she was like, maybe I’ll do like a guerilla thing where I like go to these historical ships, because it’s not that easy to get someone to be like, yeah, you can do this play about lesbian pirates on our historical pirate ship.
LC: There’s a guy here who I actually know, who does pirate burlesque on the water, like he takes out ships. And I’ve been meaning to go. But like, it’s never fallen on a night when I’ve been free. But they do, yeah, pirate burlesque like on the water. So you go out on a ship. And then they do burlesque in pirate costumes. So if you live in New York, look out for that next time the weather is good.
EB: Natasha also shared a little with us about her writing process.
NSW: Well, I’m very into, like, deadlines and feedback. And if I don’t have a deadline, sometimes things will come out of my head, or I’ll have a dream. Like I had a dream last night about a show. And then I realized in my dream, there was like audience participation. And like, I didn’t know there were like little water guns, and there were like little sailboats you could hold and stuff, and I woke up. And then I thought, oh, we should have some audience participation. The only thing is, if you give people things to do, then you kind of draw their focus away. But it’s an idea. So how I work is I’ll think of melodies and lyrics pretty much at the same time. I work with an arranger and a fabulous piano player called Phil Blanford, who is based in Bristol, and Bristol was a big pirate town back in the day and a big port. And we’ve been working together for about 13 years, because I also sing early jazz. So I do from 1910s to 1940s. And I work with him on that stuff. And so we’ve just kind of got this process where I’ll go, I want it to kind of sound like this. And then he’ll be like this, like this? And then it’s like, yeah, great. Let’s move on. So I think it’s quite–it’s in fits and starts, let’s say, and I am definitely a writer who will, you know, have an incredibly clean kitchen, but nothing on the page unless it has to be done, which I’m trying to have a better discipline with that. But I think it’s also important to say that out loud for people that are writers or people that want to be writers that it’s really hard. And don’t worry if it doesn’t come straight away, because things don’t come to me straight away. And yet, I do have a body of work. So it’s also, how do you keep on moving that story forward? As opposed to, oh, I really want to do a song about–I’ve been writing this song, I think it’s called Octopus Orgy. And basically, it’s about like, having, you know, this kind of orgy, they’re on the boat and they’re kind of initiating these new female pirates into their gang. And they’re talking about what they do at sea. So that, you know, it’s like, orgasms with orcas or the like sixty-niners with squids, I mean there was a whole thing. I had just been writing that on, you know, the back of an envelope and it, you know, am I condoning beastiality? I think it’s important to say that in the song, all the animals want to engage with this, like it’s a very harmonious orgy. These animals are not, these sea creatures are not engaging in practices that are against their will. I think that’s an important moment in the show. But also, again, like how does that actually push the story forward? How can you have a really super fun song, but you keep that kind of narrative momentum going. And I think that’s where you kind of hit the sweet spot. I mean, one of my favorite shows of all time is Rocky Horror Picture Show. And in a sense, you know, some of those songs don’t need to be there, but they’re just so beautiful and so like, terrific, and you know, that you kind of don’t mind but I think the sweet spot is narrative meets kooky, or something like that.
LC: Okay, we got to talk about the octopus orgy.
EB: It’s beautiful. We have to. I mean–
LC: But also the only thing I’ve had like close to this, is when I was in school, and I had a dream that I sang Sway by Dean Martin in my cabaret, and that I was dancing. Now I can’t dance, but I told my teacher about it and she got dancers for me to perform with me. So my dream became reality and it feels really good. So I love this.
EB: Oh, I was really not sure where that story was going when you started it but okay, dancing, yes, yes. Dancing, dancing, dancing. Yes. Okay, so we’re talking dreams turned into reality. I got it. I got it.
LC: I just felt like I would be remiss to not first mention octopus orgy. It felt like the first thing that had to come out of my mouth. But then I wanted to share this anecdote about my dream becoming a reality, which was great, but I’ve never quite dreamt about an octopus orgy before.
EB: Yes. Well, I like, too, like when we talk, she’s like, everyone’s consenting here, right? Like, it’s a very sex-positive show. I love it. But that is just–the octopus orgy is just the tip of the iceberg.
NSW: There’s a song that I wrote in a cafe in Bristol. And I was like, how is this gonna move the plot along, I don’t know. It’s called Get It On. And it’s sung by a pirate called Calico Joe, who in real life was called Calico Jack, and was married to Anne Bonny. And he basically–he enjoys watching people have sex. And he finds it quite hard to get erections. So that’s kind of why he watches. And so he’s singing this song about people getting it on and it’s got all these–use your shaft as a lance. And there’s all this kind of, get it funky tonight, and all this kind of stuff going on. So I think that’s very fun. And also, I’m very interested in talking about sex, and talking about sex openly, and the kind of, you know, like, the glorious parts of that, and the awkward parts to that, and the, you know, horrendous parts of that as well. And kind of sex in all its different tones and colors. So that’s fun. I haven’t written this yet. But basically, at the end of the show, both of them are pregnant. They’re pleading the belly, which basically meant that you could, in the time, I’ve set it in 1717, you couldn’t hang women. You could hang men, but you couldn’t hang women, and they hanged a lot of male pirates. And there was a caveat that you could hang women if they were pirates. However, if they were pregnant, and they pled the belly, then you couldn’t hang them. So at the end of my piece, in order to try and get away from kind of this 18th century patriarchy, they get pregnant, and they’re stuck on this little island with this treasured carbuncle jewel, and then the Navy comes along. And basically, they’re battling the Navy with these, like, huge pregnant bellies, and they’re like, defeating all the men and I haven’t written the song for that yet, but I think that’s gonna be a really cool thing. And maybe the babies inside could have little, like chorus parts and stuff like that. I mean, it’s all like–it’s that kind of world, where everything speaks in the world.
LC: This is the anti-Philip Van Buskirk.
EB: Quite opposite, yeah.
LC: They’re like, you and your masturbation shame can get out. We’re sex-positive, we are watching people have sex. We’re doing the whole thing.
EB: It’s great. Natasha is very, like, open about talking about sex, about writing about sex. And I just think it’s great.
LC: I mean, we’re all having it.
EB: I just think it’s great to speculate, to speculate. Might be a bit more–maybe these are two extremes, right? It might be more reasonable to expect that there was a lot of sex on these pirate ships.
LC: I mean, yes, of course there was.
EB: Yes. And speaking of research, sex research, Natasha learned a lot during her research process for this play.
NSW: Well, one thing was this idea of a democratic utopia in terms of the pirate world, which I think is incredibly interesting, and they had this pirate code and they had racial equality. They had sexual equality, disability equality, they would share, you know, this loot and all this kind of stuff. And they would each have a vote. You could get married. I mean, it was predominantly male pirates. There were a few female pirates, but predominately men, and if you were a gay or queer male couple, you could put in your will, “I leave my, you know, possessions and inheritance and so on to my partner.” And again, that’s like something that’s only just kind of come about recently. I also think generally with historical periods, whatever period it is, this idea that they always are the most–they think that they’re the most modern and most progressive and most innovative, because they genuinely are at that time. And then we look back at them and go, “Oh, you know how quainter how, you know, blah, blah, blah, whatever.” But they’re always at the forefront. And I think that’s really important for us to remember. I think it’s really interesting with Anne Bonny and Mary Read that they were both cross-dressed as children, by their parents, and for different reasons. And it’s kind of a long story to get into with both of them. But basically, both of them grew up to some extent as men, and switched around their kind of gender. And again, thinking about today, like how do we think about these women in particular, and their gender, and sexuality as well, like my show’s called Lesbian Pirates, but if you want to pick hairs, they’re essentially queer, right? And also, I think this thing of sexual power and having, you know–it could be called Queer Buccaneers. But I think Lesbian Pirates is kind of more like, more direct. And that’s kind of what my work is like. You know, I’ve had people who’ve been in rehearsals with me and stuff go, “Well, the way that you’re presenting Mary, I think that Mary’s actually trans.” And again, interesting idea, but would they consider that trans in that time? And so it’s all these kind of like, these ideas of binary and options, and all this kind of stuff. I just think in some ways, they were much more free with their sexuality. And again, you know, if you think about in the Elizabethan times, Tudor times, like, Romans, Greeks, all this stuff. To some extent, there were some moments in history where there was a sexual liberation in the way that there is not now. So it’s just really interesting to play with. And let’s see what happens. And I just–again, I think another thing, which I’m sure you guys have seen with your research, is that there’s very little written about pirates, because pirates didn’t really write things down. And if, you know, you had female pirates, well, you’ve basically got almost zilch, you’ve got almost no information, because, you know, why would you write about women, that seems very bizarre. And also this idea that pirates were essentially outsiders, some had been kicked out, like they left the Navy, or they’ve been kicked out of the Navy, they were turncoats, they were people trying to get away from the land, for whatever reason. So they’re kind of just these outsiders, and I think, as well, with disability, this idea of being different, and I’ve always felt different, I’ve always felt like an outsider. And so to kind of be in that world where you’re with a group of people that haven’t necessarily been socially accepted in the normal way, it’s really exciting to work in that space.
EB: These themes of outsiderhood that are so central to Natasha’s play are really what our podcast is all about.
NSW: I mean, the musical it’s irreverent, it’s a comedy, but it’s got a lot of very serious themes around disability of feminism, equality, miscarriage. There’s, you know, there’s life and death issues. And I think that it’s really important that we are able to try and engage with and make visible these female historical figures. And go, you know, there was more than just Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth. And there were more that, you know, we don’t have enough information about, but let’s try to seek that out. And also, of course, with queer history and stuff like that. And, you know, queer people have always been around, as much as they are today, and I think having an awareness of that history and stuff like that for everyone that in some way relates to that word, or doesn’t relate to that, but is interested, I think is really great. So I’m happy that you’re talking about this. Have you heard of the book called Be More Pirate? It’s called Be More Pirate, and he talks about pirates through the ages and also about like pirate radio and pirate bay and stuff like this. So he goes from contemporary to historical, and he’s basically saying, be more of a rebel in your life, eco like warrior, whatever it is, and like, how do you break the rules and stuff like that. On Netflix, there’s a show called The Pirate Kingdom. Have you heard about this? It’s called The Pirate Kingdom? And that has basically historical reenactments, which are just like so embarrassing, and they’re like, super violent, and you’re just like, okay, it’s like a, you know, one of those kind of like, C movies on, you know, back in the day, it was like Channel Five or something, like, anyway, it doesn’t matter. But they’ve got a lot of historians that are chatting about the history at the same time. Definitely worth like looking at those people as well. I guess one thing that I should have mentioned was where to seek out like the Lesbian Pirates work, like the musical stuff. So we’ve got this lesbian pirate song medley on YouTube, but then also on my website, which is natashasuttonwilliams.com, and also our Theatre Company’s website, which is workingbirthday.com. And I’m really interested as well, I mean–I’ve been obviously working very much in the UK, but also people that are interested in North America and stuff like that, I think it could be really interesting to like, see how, you know, people can collaborate on this. Also, another thing that’s really interesting about–just a final thing to say, when we first started this, and we did a call-out for actors, I had so many actors come and say, “This is me, as a queer, disabled woman, you’re telling my story,” and I couldn’t believe it. Because actually, the intersection between disabled people and queer people is actually–many, many disabled people are queer. And, again, that’s really, really interesting. And then, you know, with this idea with the ships and the utopia, Blackbeard had like 55% people of color on his ship, you know, like, there was a lot of really progressive stuff going on those ships. And this intersection of people, I think, is really exciting and really interesting, but I seem to be hitting a note. And I just want it to ring out further and, and get people to hear this, whether they’re queer, disabled, or not.
LC: So Ellie, I’m devastated. Because I’m not in the UK, nor can I leave the country right now. But if I could leave the country, I would be on a plane to see this play.
EB: Oh, yeah. Immediately.
LC: Can we–I know you’re running a crowdfunding campaign right now for your other–I’m just going to plug it right here, your other podcast, also about pirates, right?
EB: Yes. About lesbian pirates. I’d say queer pirates, all-encompassing, LGBTQ pirates.
LC: So I mean, you’re running a crowdfunding campaign for that. I kind of want to run a crowdfunding campaign for us to go see Natasha’s play in England. Like, you know, it just feels like–or is it research? Is it a business expense?
EB: It is both, it is both. If anyone is lucky enough to see Natasha’s play, please let us know.
LC: Please, I want photos from the show.
EB: Yes, I need to see that somebody has benefited from seeing the show.
LC: Absolutely, absolutely.
EB: Please. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Alex Barker: I still want to work with them. And I think that’s a really key point about being pirate like, it’s not always an out-and-out challenge to the system, it’s usually quite strategic. So it’s–there is a sense of, alright, well, we’re gonna go over here and create something better than what you’ve got. And you can either join us and get on board with it. Or we will just carry on anyway. And we will end up in conflict and she just kind of outlined why it was better. And said, well, we want to work in collaboration. But I’m not gonna stop.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. This is our last official episode of the season, which is exciting and sad. But we will be back with a bonus episode in a few weeks and we still have the season finale to go. So we’re still working out what we’re doing with that, but that will be fun.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts.
LC: You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter. As I said before, we did some pirate movies in this season. Obviously, we haven’t done some Patreon episodes for a while, but it all paid off because now we’re going to do a bonus series after this series of Our Flag Means Death, which is going to be very exciting. So if you’re going to miss us in the break, we have the whole back catalog, and we’re going to be covering Our Flag Means Death.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Sarah Gabrielli. Our production assistant is Thea Smith and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guests this week, Rebecca Simon, Antonio Sanna, Jamie Goodall, Clint Jones, and Natasha Sutton Williams. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.
LC: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: And here is our sea shanty for this week, the last one, performed by Alyse and produced by Joshua. Enjoy.