Because sailors traditionally considered women to be bad luck on ships, and sea voyages involved men living in close quarters often for years at a time, stories about gay pirates have, like the Captain Pugwash ruse, loomed larger in the public imagination than the facts of naval history and children's television, for that matter. Hints of homosexual hi-jinks on the high seas were floating about long before Johnny Depp first pranced onto the Black Pearl's poop deck in Pirates of the Caribbean. From the dandylike title character in Daniel Defoe's picaresque novel The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton to the publication of highly speculative studies about homosexual seafarers such as Barry R. Burg's Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (which Depp reportedly used as a source for his portrayal of the sexually ambiguous Jack Sparrow), the figure of the gay pirate has become a cultural fixture despite the absence of hard evidence. The truth is that no one really knows much about the sexual habits of Long John Silver and his ilk. But that hardly matters when the Urban Dictionary boasts no fewer than 37 definitions of the term "butt pirate."
With his salty one-man show titillatingly titled Naught but Pirates, San Francisco's very own captain of theatrical camp, Sean Owens, explores the murky line separating truth from fiction in the great debate about seafarers' sexuality. The play, divided into three monologues, centers on the legacy of one Richard Dark, a fictional gentleman pirate of the early 18th century, whose possible penchant for plundering anal ports and pillaging cabin boy booty earned him the nickname "Black Dick."
Owens holds off on introducing the dead pirate to us in person until the third and final segment of his show. At the start, we nip forward in time to the present to meet Solomon Lynch epicurean, aesthete, and author of numerous obscure historical tracts including a scholarly biography about Dark as he tucks into his solitary evening meal. Between bites of salad and sips of wine, the writer rails against one of his most devoted fans. Lynch's main issue with Kevin Trast, a 28-year-old obsessed with naval history, is an act of literary piracy against Lynch's book about Dark so brutal that it almost constitutes rape in the author's eyes.
It's only when we encounter Trast himself in the middle part of the performance that we begin to understand the reason for his assault on the author's work. Lynch, in Trast's opinion, has not given Black Dick his biographical due. Citing dubious evidence culled from the hidden depths of the Cleveland Public Library, Trast hopes to out Dark and his chronicler both literally and metaphorically.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Owens' intricately written but uncharacteristically somber play is that its two greatest flaws might also be its biggest assets. The confusing nature of the storytelling and the lack of definition surrounding the character of Dark might make us want to walk the plank, but our feelings of frustration at the dramaturgy may hint at something profound about our propensity for believing only what we want to believe when it comes to sexuality, regardless of the truth.
Trast and Lynch are boldly drawn and hilarious portraits of an overly earnest young gay man and pretentious closeted old author. Details like Trast's predilection for composing mawkish Debussy-esque piano solos (samples of which, created by Owens' longtime music collaborator, Don Seaver, are cleverly woven into the story), and Lynch's affected eating habits and way of talking to the audience as if addressing the readers of an epistolary novel, define the two characters as sharply as the point of a cutlass. But Dark is different. The pirate comes across as a flimsily conceived stock character from an airport romance novel. His veracity is further discredited by a highly debatable accent and some sloppy fact-checking on the part of the playwright. Dark refers to Cornwall as "the town of my birth" but speaks like a Dubliner. And Cornwall is a county in the west of England, not a town at all. Staring into middle distance and bellowing about his run-ins with the law and his imminent visit to the gallows, Owens' Dark is a scratchy sketch in comparison to his other, more lurid creations.
Like a pirate with knowledge of the whereabouts of buried treasure, Owens' approach to narrative is equally obtuse. References are left unexplained. Half the time Owens looks like he's speaking to an invisible friend of no fixed identity. The fact that the entire production plays itself out like a gay in-joke (or, depending on how you view the piece, an ironic take on a gay in-joke) is rather discomfiting for the viewer. The playwright/performer holds back details that might help shed more light on the nature of the characters' relationships. As a result, we never really find out whether the play is about gay pirates or the elaborate role-play of a couple of homosexuals. Then again, the entire denouement might equally unfold in a single character's head. By the time we reach Dark's monologue, we're equal parts intrigued and disoriented by the story.
On the other hand, some of the show's shortcomings might also be considered virtues. The ambiguities of the plot and the shadiness of Dark make us aware of the fictions we create to make the world make sense. The murkiness and confusion might equally be seen as brilliant metaphors for society's general inability to cope with the idea of gay pirates or gay anything for that matter and the desire of closeted homosexuals to keep the closet doors slammed shut. As Lynch puts it in one of his most eloquent yet ironically least self-knowing moments: "Truth may feed a poet's soul, but to a layman it is both skim milk and clotted cream, both too thin and too rich for the blood."
Owens' play doesn't ultimately bring us any closer to knowing whether any openly queer pirates roamed the seven seas. But it does help us to understand something about the power of myth. I stopped believing the rumors about Captain Pugwash long ago. But that doesn't prevent the imaginary version starring Roger the Cabin Boy and Seaman Staines from prevailing in my mind.