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Study Guide | Theater

Treasure Island


National Theatre’s stage adaptation of Treasure Island, captured on film by National Theatre Live, navigates the gender imbalance in Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel through a fresh rendering of the tale’s intrepid characters. Jim Hawkins remains the story’s young protagonist, but this adaptation presents Jim as an adventurous girl who resists the normative gender roles of the mid-1700s. Jim, an orphan, lives at her grandmother’s inn, the Admiral Benbow, situated on the dark, fog-enshrouded English coast.

A rakish sailor called Bill Bones comes to lodge at the Benbow and leaves his sea chest in the care of Jim and her spirited grandmother. Though Bill alerts Jim to “keep a weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg,” it is a two-legged pirate, Black Dog, who shows up at the Benbow in search of Bill’s sea chest. Black Dog clashes swords with Bill, inflaming the rum-soaked sailor into a stroke. Jim calls upon Dr. Livesey, a well-respected and learned physician to tend to Bill’s illness.

Later that night, an old, disfigured man, Blind Pew, creaks into the Benbow, intimidating Jim into revealing Bill’s presence at the inn and triggering Bill’s second, and this time fatal, stroke. Blind Pew announces that a dangerous crew of Bill’s former shipmates will soon arrive to ransack the Benbow and get their hands on the mysterious sea chest. Before Bill’s ex-shipmates can find the chest, however, Jim and her grandmother open it and remove a journal, a map, and a small sum of money—just enough to pay for Bill’s room and board at the inn. Jim learns that the map shows the way to an island where the pirate Flint (Bill’s former ship captain) buried a priceless treasure.

Trelawney, an aristocratic squire, discovers the map and buys a ship (the Hispaniola) to pursue the treasure, inviting Livesey aboard as ship’s doctor and Jim as deckhand. The squire also hires a motley gang of characters to serve as crew, including Joan the Goat, Dick the Dandy, Silent Sue, Lucky Mickey, and Red Ruth. To helm the Hispaniola, Trelawney employs Captain Smollett. An upstanding sailor, Smollett is none too pleased by the rogues’ gallery handed over to him as crew.

With only the position of ship’s cook left to fill, Trelawney spots a lone man sitting on the dock. The harmless-looking fellow introduces himself as a simple tavern-keeper from Bristol. He says he has no interest in treasure, but loves life at sea and agrees to serve as ship’s cook. Trelawney is delighted and heads off to prepare for the ocean voyage. The seemingly guileless man now removes the blanket obscuring his missing leg and reveals that he is none other than Long John Silver.

Once the Hispaniola sets sail, Jim is assigned to assist Long John Silver in the galley. Intrigued by the plucky girl’s wit, Silver takes her under his wing on the high seas. Beneath a brilliant canopy of stars, Silver teaches Jim to read the night sky and navigate her way through the vast ocean in a world full of complex, sometimes ruthless, human beings. Silver’s guidance foreshadows the events that unfold. Indeed, Jim later overhears Silver and some of the other crew members plotting to mutiny once they find the buried treasure.

Jim reports the conspiracy to Livesey, Trelawney, and Smollett who calculate that they are badly outnumbered by the mutineers. They decide to pretend that they suspect nothing until they reach the island, at which time they will take the mutineers by surprise. However, just as the ship nears the island, Jim accidentally lets slip something she overheard while eavesdropping on the mutineers. Silver realizes the mutiny has been discovered; the mutineers draw swords in a swashbuckling fight with Livesey, Trelawney, Smollett, and the few remaining faithful crewmembers. In the ruckus, Jim escapes with the treasure map.

The faithful crew, including Livesey, Trelawney, and Smollett, are captured and bound on the island by Silver and his pirates. Silver posts one of the mutineers to guard the captives while he and the other pirates hunt for Jim and the treasure map. Nevertheless, the faithful crewmembers manage to escape and set up camp on another part of the island.

Meanwhile, after nimbly dodging the pirates in the island’s seething pits of giant mud bubbles, Jim discovers a frightened, half-insane Englishman, Ben Gunn. Struggling with the voices in his head, Gunn explains how he was once the cabin boy on Flint’s vessel, until his dastardly shipmate Long John Silver killed the crew and deserted him on the island years ago. Gunn helps Jim slither through the mud pits towards the faithful crew’s camp, but lives are lost when Silver attacks the camp.

Jim summons her courage and bravely commandeers the Hispaniola away from the pirates. She steers the ship towards the faithful crew’s encampment. Instead of Livesey, Trelawney, and the others, she finds the pirates, led by Silver; he convinces Jim that her friends have abandoned her. In despair, Jim joins Silver and his pirates, and they follow clues on the map in search of the treasure.

As she peers into the cave where the treasure is buried, Jim faces the potential loss of her moral compass. If she discovers the treasure and deserts Livesey and the other crew on the island out of greed, then her dishonorable actions will parallel those of Silver when he betrayed Ben Gunn. Moreover, if Jim follows Silver’s lead by resorting to violence to amass treasure, then she will truly be lost. Through wise, courageous choices and the help of her friends, she discovers treasure more precious than gold. Jim learns what it means to captain the ship of her own destiny.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”