By Christine Frezza
Robert Louis Stevenson and his adapter, Mary Zimmerman, have given their audiences a skilled and nuanced portrait of the young Jim Hawkins, and his development through interactions with good men and villains to becoming a good man himself is portrayed scene by scene throughout the entire play.
Jim’s first words (as narrator) are interrupted by Billy Bones, who sets the given circumstances of Jim’s innocence by commanding him: “You there” (Mary Zimmerman, adaptor, Treasure Island [unpublished manuscript , last modified May 17, 2016; all quotes are from this manuscript). As the first scene continues, both Jim and his mother are at the old pirate’s beck and call, even though Billy pays nothing. Jim is the lower of the two, attentive but silent for nearly the first two pages. Only when Billy gives him a task to fulfill, does Jim venture to ask a question and is answered with sharp commands, first from Billy then Jim’s mother: “To Bed, Jim. Now”.
Except for one timid interjection, Jim is silent till Black Dog appears. Even then he is obedient to this new visitor, until the lodger, Billy, falls ill. With the simple words “Are you hurt?” we sense that he has grown fond of his companion, and that he will become more than a background figure.
Jim’s first contact with villainy is with Pew, the blind pirate. Even though Pew hurts him twice, Jim obeys in the manner of a polite servant, and calls for his mother when the meeting goes horribly wrong.
Mrs. Hawkins continues as Jim’s superior and drives the decision-making to find the money she is owed for Billy’s lodging. “Find the key! Open his shirt!”
The contrast between adult and child is evident when Jim drops the key and Mrs. Hawkins swears. Jim swears in response, but is rebuked by his mother, showing (a) he’s not old enough for such language; and (b) she’s aware of protocol even when desperate.
The first step on the ladder to adulthood comes when Jim decides to take some papers from Billy’s chest. His speech after that drives the scene: Mrs. Hawkins wants to take just what’s owed her, no more, and is fascinated by the foreign currency; Jim shouts at her to hurry up, there isn’t time, and finally “Take it all.”
The last two lines of the scene show the mother ceding control to the boy. Mrs. Hawkins: “I’m going to faint!” Jim: “Into the ditch. Hide! Hide!”
After the villains have fled from the inn, Jim calls Constable Dance but won’t give him the paper. His mother thinks they’re ruined without money, but Jim knows better. So the audience has seen his growth through words, interactions with his elders, and now Jim’s ability to plan and protect his future.
Escorted to Squire Trelawney’s by the policeman, Jim’s story is greeted with admiration, and he is admitted to the counsel of the powerful; Dance has supper in the kitchen, but Hawkins dines with Livesey and Trelawney. The adults acknowledge he treasure map as Jim’s property and open it only with his permission.
With this step, it seems Jim’s growth is complete, but his reasoning ability and his judgement are not yet fully developed. First, he undergoes a strange, cold parting from his mother, who has quickly found a boy to take his place. Despite Jim’s protestations, he will not confide his destination to Mrs. Hawkins, and she realizes that he’s grown beyond her, by fitting him with a new jacket in recognition of his new status.
With Jim’s realization that he is not only superior to one adult, but equal to others, he discovers that his equals don’t always make the decisions (Trelawney talks about the voyage to all.) As if to underscore Jim’s belonging to this unskilled trio of treasure-hunters, Trelawney also decides unwisely and, like them, falls for Long John Silver’s charm and rejects Smollett’s Cassandra-like warnings about the crew in general.
Jim’s growth takes a giant leap during the voyage in the Hispaniola, when he overhears Silver, Israel Hands and Dick plotting to kill the map holders as soon as they reach the island. He speaks first to Livesey, who gets Trelawney and Smollett to listen to the plot. Another stage in Jim’s growing up is reached with Smollett’s reaction: “I propose we salute Jim Hawkins for his courage, luck, and service to the ship.”
Jim’s impulsive decision to accompany the landing party leads him to both danger and safety; two murders occur, followed immediately by his meeting with the castaway, Ben Gunn. Jim’s promise that Ben “shall have cheese by the stone” when they get back to the ship and his instant confiding in Ben underscore the moral goodness which balances his recklessness.
Fights and deceptions transpire, but those which mark Jim’s passage to adulthood are both small and large. First, Jim learns of the death of Redruth, Trelawney’s servant (the first to have addressed him as an adult). Next, we hear him admitting he doesn’t know how to shoot.
Paired with a sailor, Gray, Jim’s decision to get Ben Gunn’s boat is compared with Gray’s timidity: “I don’t like the sound of that. . . . It’s too danger[ous]. . . . The sun will be down . . . wait!” But Jim has gone, and, with no-one to stop him, rows the boat to the Hispaniola and boards her.
Having outfaced Gray, Jim’s hubris is apparent in thinking he can command Hands. He rebukes him for putting up the pirate flag and killing a shipmate. Lest the audience think that Jim’s pride will ruin him, when Hands pulls a knife, Jim shoots him dead, in an ironic climax to Jim’s having previously rebuked the pirate for that very same action.
This is a false climax; Silver offers Jim a choice: to join the pirates or not. Jim tells Silver of all his discoveries and offers the pirate a chance to surrender, much as Smollett had. He’s willing to die rather than join the side of evil.
For a moment, it looks as though the other pirates will revolt against Silver, throwing him and Jim into uneasy partnership. Silver tells him: “I’ll save your life—if I can—from them. But see here Jim, you save Long John from swinging.”
There’s a moment where Jim seems too afraid to continue, but his fear of torture is that he might give away the hiding place of the treasure.
Such courage and derring-do deserve a happy ending, and so it comes to pass. The achievement of the objective (the treasure, capture of pirates, rescue of Ben Gunn, voyage home on the ship) passes quickly, and the villain is removed in a sentence or two. The growing-up Jim is subsumed by the grownup (narrator) Jim, who tells us what happens to everyone else but him. No self-reflection is necessary. Jim’s humility has him leave us with the memory of a great, life-changing voyage, and “Pieces of Eight! Pieces of Eight!” ringing in our ears.