Look at me, I’m on adventure
On the deep wide open sea,
Look at me, I’m on adventure
And it’s not a fantasy
So sings Jim Hawkins in the new musical Treasure Island by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark, which has just begun to make its way into leading regional houses across the country. The swashbuckling, thrilling theatrical retelling is demonstrating just how timeless Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel is and how the book continues to speak to audiences of all ages 126 years after its publication.
When Stevenson set about to write Treasure Island, he conceived the tale as an adventure story to entertain his young stepson. The story goes that one day in Braemar, Scotland, he idly drew a map of an imaginary island for the boy, who then asked him to tell a story about the place. Stevenson began the narrative spontaneously, and it took hold in his imagination. He wrote the story quickly – fifteen chapters in fifteen days, and submitted it to the children’s weekly, Young Folks Magazine, where it was serialized in seventeen installments. Instantly popular, Treasure Island was published in book form by Cassell and Company in London in 1883 and secured Stevenson his first critical and financial success as a writer. Winning such illustrious fans as the British Prime Minister William Gladstone, Treasure Island went on to find a wide public and become a staple of literature courses throughout the world.
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850, into a family of engineers for whom lighthouse design was their profession. It was assumed that the young Stevenson would follow in his father’s footsteps, though he has no taste for engineering. When he entered college, he, instead, opted to study law, but even this profession did not inspire his soul. During his university years he spent time in France, fraternizing with Bohemians, painters, and writers, and by the time he emerged from law school in 1875, he had declared his vocation as a writer. In 1876 he published hs first work, An Inland Voyage, one of the many philosophical and introspective travel books he wrote during his career. His first collection of short stories, New Arabian Nights, (1881) continued in this exotic vein, while adding the element of adventure, which would become his calling card.
In 1876 he met Fanny Osbourne, an American living in England while separated from her husband. They began a romance which culminated in Osbourne’s receiving a divorce and Stevenson‘s traveling to California to marry her in 1880. Together with Fanny’s son Lloyd, they traveled frequently throughout the world, as Stevenson enjoyed the most prolific period of his literary career. Following the success of Treasure Island, though his health continued to decline from what was likely either undiagnosed tuberculosis or sarcoidosus, Stevenson published his most famous works, among them Kidnapped (1886), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888). In 1888 he embarked with his family to travel the islands of the Pacific, finally settling in Samoa in 1889. The Stevensons built a house in
Vailima and in the remaining five years of his life he devoted himself to writings inspired by the South Seas. He died of a stroke on December 3, 1894, and is buried on Mount Vaea in Samoa overlooking his beloved sea.
While Stevenson’s writing spans a broad range of genres and themes from the darkly psychological Gothic novella Jekyll and Hyde to introspective travel writing, it is the romantic adventure tale, which Treasure Island exemplifies, for which he is best known. In the 19th century two types of sea novels were popular: the Navy yarn which recounts high seas adventures in realistic and historical contexts, and the so-called “desert island romance,” which features shipwrecked or marooned characters confronted by pirates or angry natives. Treasure Island becomes the climax of this second form, following in the footsteps of earlier classics like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate.
Stevenson enriches and shapes the genre with his own personal travel experiences, his passionate wanderlust, his colorful crafting of characters and dialogue, and his ability to create a setting that is viscerally tangible, yet heightened by imagination and the fantastical. In the case of Treasure Island, Stevenson draws on the historical contexts of 18th century British maritime life and the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1720) to shape his context for the novel. From various cursory references in the book, we know that Treasure Island is set in the mid 1700s (though the narrator Jim Hawkins leaves the exact date blank writing “In the year of our Lord 17__”), after the historical pirates of the Spanish Main had already enjoyed their heyday. Yet, piracy continued to be rampant throughout the 18th century and, indeed, persists in different forms to this very day. As a Victorian grappling with
encroaching industrialization and often stifling social conventions, Stevenson liked to look back on the previous century and imagine the pirates in Romantic terms. He references some of the bucaneers’ more admirable traits, such as the pirate code which governed each band by consensus and sharing and the pirates commitment to equality with their anti-slavery stance. The moral ambiguity of his anti-hero, Long John Silver, is testament to his sympathy with these renegades, who in real life were usually cutthroat and bloodthirsty characters. At the same time he depicts the stringent rectitude of the British naval code in the character of Captain Smollett.
During the 18th century, many men – and a very few women (who mostly disguised their gender or occasionally married a pirate) – found their way into a pirate’s life for various reasons. Some had lost their military positions after the War of Spanish Succession in 1713; others were tantalized by the possibility of spoils along the triangular trade route; still others were commandeered into service when their British vessel surrendered, and some mutinied from a British sailing vessel. All of these benefited from Britain’s inability to completely protect its colonial resources, something which Britain labored hard to correct over the course of the 18th century, enacting stiff punishment for piracy and finally extending their control to the Caribbean, where only a few pirate havens like Nassau in the Bahamas remained by the beginning of the 19th century.
In addition to the perceived romance of the pirate life, Stevenson underscored the male-dominated world of his story. Not only were women, with very few exceptions, barred from British – and pirate – sailing vessels, but their place, as Stevenson notes in Treasure Island, was to tend the home front. Jim Hawkins’ mother, the widow of a sea captain, runs the Admiral Benbow Inn, managing her husband’s property and liveliehood, tending his business affairs, and raising their son. Mrs. Hawkins appears in only the first few chapters of Treasure Island, though she remains a symbolic presence in Jim’s mind throughout the story. Mother is home and heart, and Father is courage, discovery, and adventure. While a modern audience may find these concepts antiquated in a new world so passionately searching for
gender equality, they were, in fact, the mindset of the 18th century about which Stevenson wrote and and 19th century in which he lived.
Thus, Stevenson unabashedly states his intent in creating Treasure Island is to write “an adventure story for boys,” and he places at the core of the novel the themes of coming of age, paternity, and manhood. In fact, the meaning of manhood is the most existential question in the book, and it is what makes Treasure Island so much more than just a swashbuckling thriller. Having lost his father when he is only twelve years old, Jim must navigate his journey to manhood on his own. He does this with the help of three surrogate fathers, Dr. Livesey, who has Jim’s welfare at heart and hopes to shape his moral compass; Squire Trelawney, who provides for Jim and his family and arranges the adventure; and Long John Silver, who proves a more ambiguous and dark influence, yet one whose presence deeply changes Jim. Jim’s
quest becomes choosing a father figure and role model, and this search takes him on a psychological journey that deepns his sea voyage. Ultimately, he learns to incorporate qualities form each of the influential men in his life into his own sense of self.
What Stevenson does best in exploring this quest, is to reveal the moral ambiguity of life. All the characters find themselves in situations where there is not a clear distinction between good and evil, and they must decide in the moment. Moreover, many of the characters, most especially Long John Silver, possess both dark and generous sides to their natures, forcing Jim to learn to see the nuances of life. Stevenson also writes about the contrast of dreams and reality. Jim has long dreamt of adventure at sea; Livesey and Trelawney have been tempted by the promise of finding Flint’s treasure; and the pirates are on a mercenary quest, driven by greed that obscures moral principle. Jim ultimately discovers that dreams can have a more sinister side and that adventure may only be a path to shaping reality.
Finally, Jim must learn the true meaning of honor, duty, and bravery as it applies to him personally. The concets mean different things to each of the characters who surround him from the stalwart, comvention sense of duty and moral rectitude embodied by Captain Smollett to the strict but compassionate caring of Dr. Livesey to the pirates with their own code and principles. In his climactic decision to disobey his elders and move the pirate ship, Jim takes the first bold step to shaping his own definition of courage and manhood, and he then carries that experience with him to the end of the novel where he draws on the wholeness of his experience to determine his response to Long John Silver.
The various film adaptations deal with the ending in different ways, all based on Stevenson’s brief statement that Long John jumps ship and escapes when the Hispaniola puts into a Caribbean port for supplies on its way home, and both Jim and, somewhat surprisingly, Dr. Livesey, express the sentiment that they are glad - based on his having saved Jim’s life – that he has gotten away and will not be hanged in England. But it is the Robin and Clark musical which articulates this theme of forgiveness in the most poetic way. Using musical motifs that begin in the first act and carry through to the second (“Miracles,” for example), the musical gives us a Jim Hawkins who learns to understand Long John Silver, to forgive his villanies, and to repay the pirate’s kindness, despite his dark deeds, recognizing that the pirate is a multi-shaded
human being, who has been formative in Jim’s life. Conversely, Long John Silver learns to trust his heart and show caring for Jim even when it flies in the face of the pirate band. The pair have several moving scenes in the musical as their relationship develops. Robin and Clark show us the tenderer side of Long John in songs about his past suffering like “Someday” which is reprised in the last scene, underscoring the idea of fate, as the pirate teaches Jim that “everything happens for a reason” and “someday that reason will be clear.” In the musical, this belief in the karma of human existence enhances the significance of the voyage for Jim and all the travelers. So much so that when “Miracles,” the most haunting ballad of the musical, returns at the close, sung by both Long John Silver and Jim, the show ends on the
notion of the miraculousness of life itself – which has, in the two-and-one-quarter hours before, been made even more precious by the encounters with danger and death.
What this brilliant new musical theatre work does is find the eternal heart of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and give voice to it in a way that only the combination of words, music, and dramatic action can. Stevenson may have said he intended his story as an entertaining adventure for boys, but, in truth, its pages contain so much more that mere exciting escapades. This century-old novel – and this brand new musical – endure because they are about dreams reshaped and fulfilled, and about exploration beyond the literal voyage.
Treasure Island begins with a map that fuels hopes, but ultimately proves useless. Because as Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, and all the characters learn, each individual must map his own journey. By engaging with diverse people and new perspectives, the journey’s goal becomes the understanding of human nature.