Americans have always loved a good shipwreck story. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, shipwreck narratives inundated the new nation. By 1806, nearly 200 book-length shipwreck narratives were available to the American public, including the first American edition of Archibald Duncan’s seminal anthology, The Mariner’s Chronicle. Some of my favorite turn-of-the-century shipwreck stories were told on the stage. The Shipwreck: A Comic Opera, arguably the most popular shipwreck-themed play of the time, first appeared in London in December 1796. The Shipwreck became an instant hit, crossing the Atlantic within a year. It was routinely performed as an aperitif to longer five-act plays performed on American stages between Boston and Charleston.
The opening is worth quoting at length:
Sturdily the tempest howling,
Calls us forth to watch our prey,
Thus upon the rocks we lay,
Through the storm so cautious prowling.
[thunder and lightning]
Mary, by the lightening’s glare, while thunders roar,
The foaming surges break, that lash the shore;
There we steal with cautious care,
And the booty freely share,
While round our heads the storm does blow,
And shipwreck’d sailors to the bottom go.
[During the chorus a ship appears tossing on the sea, and is wrecked–the plunderers, smugglers, &c. then leave the rocks, and crowd down to the shore, watching the waves, and taking up goods, &c. that are supposed to be thrown ashore from the wreck.]
Think that’s good? It only gets better. There’s cross-dressing maidens, nefarious wreckers, drunken parsons, loose women and chaste maidens. It ends, as all things should, with multiple marriages and a finale for the ages. Any troupes out there interested in staging this shipwreck classic?