The Shipwreck: A Comic Opera (ca. 1800)

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:

CHORUS

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.

[distant thunder]

[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?

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Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field

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