Holidays in Cornwall with friends when she was younger had a lasting effect on Ethel Smyth. Deeply impressed by stories of the determined Old Testament zeal of isolated Cornish communities who made their living by luring ships onto the wild coastline and the unsuccessful attempts of Wesleyan ministers to turn them from what they saw as their God-given right, she wove all these elements into a powerful opera in which the greatest tragedy is that all the characters in the story are convinced that what they are doing is right. Claimed as an English composer (and with The Wreckers, possibly the finest English opera composer since Purcell – in fact, Stephen Banfield in British Opera in Retrospect of 1985 said that The Wreckers “must be the most powerful English opera between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes), Ethel Smyth was actually better known in Europe than in her native country. An ardent supporter of the suffragettes, an energetic golfer, cyclist, mountaineer, adventurer, writer and outspoken lesbian, she could be abrasive, overbearing and insufferable. But those closest to her loved her for all these reasons, and a revival of interest in her music is long overdue.
Lyrical drama in three acts.
Libretto by Henry Brewster, originally written in French under the title Les Naufrageurs and translated into English by the composer in collaboration with Alma Strettell.
First performed (in a German translation by H Decker and John Bernhoff, with a curtailed final act and under the title Standrecht) on 15 November 1906 in Leipzig.
It is about five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in a Cornish fishing village; the bell of a small Wesleyan Chapel is ringing and the villagers approach the chapel, singing a suitably devout hymn. On one side is a pub with stone benches and tables outside, and on the right is the home of the village headman and Methodist minister, Pascoe. Tallan, the pub landlord, stops the villagers and suggests that a drink is what will really put the devil to flight. They don’t need much persuading, but Harvey, the lighthouse-keeper’s brother-in-law, reminds them that Pascoe is against drinking on the Sabbath. Tallan responds that Pascoe is away, and that an outsider will be preaching, so they can still drink and then put up with his chiding.
Tallan starts a song about the need for a wind to drive a ship onto their rocks so that they can all avoid starvation, and the villagers all get drinks and join in – clearly they are wreckers, surviving on the plunder from ships which have foundered on their rocks. Suddenly, Pascoe, a man in his mid-fifties, appears and launches into a tirade about the evils of drink. He tells them that he cannot stay because he has to visit a dying sinner, and Harvey asks him who will save them. Pascoe points out that since they have abandoned the ways of the Lord, it is hardly surprising that He has not sent them a decent wreck, but guides the great ships past in safety. He leaves, and the villages ponder his words, some of them falling to their knees and praying.
Lawrence, the lighthouse-keeper, now turns up with his teenage daughter Avis. To disapproving looks all round, Avis asks whether they believe Pascoe’s jibe that God is punishing them by not delivering a decent wreck, and she tells her father to recount what he has seen. Lawrence tells them that as he was walking home from the lighthouse to the village on the previous evening, he happened to look up and he saw a beacon alight on the cliff-top warning ships to keep their distance. There is an immediate outcry to go and find the traitor and kill him like vermin. Lawrence continues, explaining that on stormy nights, he extinguishes his lighthouse light and thus risks his neck for the sake of his duty to the community. Enthusiasm for hanging the mystery beacon-lighter increases, and Avis hints that she knows who it is, but Lawrence silences her, so she just says that women don’t need proof, they just know.
Lawrence signals everyone to be quiet, and Pascoe’s young wife Thirza enters. As she unlocks her house door, they all avoid eye-contact with her, and Harvey sarcastically suggests that she has come to join their prayers. Thirza is in her early twenties, over thirty years younger than her husband, and Tallan comments that Pascoe’s absence is a good example of the mouse playing when the cat is away. Thirza says that she regards them all as ungodly and that her prayers are nothing like theirs, and she goes into the cottage and slams the door. As the chapel bell rings again, the crowd gradually go into the chapel, leaving Harvey and Tallan to question Lawrence further about the beacon and who might have lit it. But he knows nothing, and they join the others in the chapel.
The voice of Mark, a young fisherman, is heard approaching. Avis enters with another village lad, Jack; he asks if he can sit next to her for the service and she agrees, but sends him on into the chapel, so that she can hide, and watch Mark approach. Mark arrives with a basket full of fish, singing a song about a girl whose lover has died. Avis watches him throw a flower up at Thirza’s window, and wonders whether he is just playing and really still loves her. She emerges and challenges him, asking him why he has dropped her. To Mark’s discomfort, she sings a song warning tardy lovers that they should ‘Guard what is thine, lest thou lose it!’ Mark tells her that he did love her once, but that it is all over. Avis asks him who his new lover is, and he denies that there is one. Avis stares at him, and refuses his suggestion that they go into the chapel.
Still staring after him, Avis sings a song about killing a rat, and then collapses at one of the pub tables with her head in her arms. Thirza now comes out dragging some fishing nets which she proceeds to hang up to mend; she pretends not to see Avis, but Avis notices that she is wearing the flower which Mark had thrown at the window. When Thirza acknowledges Avis and comments on her paleness, Avis replies that she just wants to sit there and bother no-one. As Thirza busies herself with mending the nets, Avis wanders off humming to herself, leaving Thirza to sing an impassioned song about love breaking in to her life like a bright sunbeam cutting through a dark cloud.
Her reverie is destroyed by the return of Pascoe, dragging Avis by the arm. He rails at Thirza for working on the Sabbath and at Avis for wearing a necklace, telling her that such baubles should be sold so that the poor can eat. Avis rips it off and throws it to the ground, commenting that some women sin by wearing jewellery, but that others do much worse, and that old men who have young wives should not wonder that their wives will chat to a good-looking fellow – but that a good beating can always solve the problem. She flounces into the chapel, while Pascoe, whose good works with dying sinners have obviously take less time than he had thought, prays (rather pointlessly) that God will keep her pure from sin.
Thirza now emerges, and when Pascoe says that he thought that she would be in the chapel, she replies that she has had enough of his prayers, and to his horror she tells him that his self-righteous hypocrisy disgusts her – that tithes are theft, and that in his world the shedding of blood is justified as God’s will, and the thirst of children is quenched with blood. Incensed, Pascoe trots out his creed: whatever the wild ocean delivers to them is a gift from the Lord, theirs by right as the custom of their land. Thirza, in full flow, now loses it completely, shouting that the wreckers kill and steal like hounds, stabbing to death all their victims who have survived the waves. To her peals of hysterical laughter, the congregation inside the chapel can be heard praying that God will deliver to them their rightful bounty. As she tries to flee, Pascoe grabs her, telling her that the hand of Satan is upon her. He forces her to sit and repeats his mantra about the harvest of the sea and the blood which is shed in God’s good name, just as happened in Canaan, and that the Cornish people and the Lord’s chosen race; Thirza just buries her face in her hands, and shudders when Pascoe lays his hand on her shoulder. Then she rushes off.
The service over, and as the dusk deepens, the congregation pours out of the chapel, heartily congratulating the visiting preacher – he really conjured up a scary vision of Satan, and must be a saint, he thundered so loud; they start praying for the waters of Jordan to cleanse their sins and preserve them from hell and damnation. They all move off, leaving Lawrence, Tallan, Harvey and Jack behind. Avis is among the last to emerge and she stands near her father. Mark comes out and approaches Avis, who turns her back on him, so he just shrugs his shoulders and leaves. Two caretakers come out last and as they lock the door, one of them comments on how light the sky is, and how it might bring them luck.
Lawrence and the others observe Pascoe deep in thought and discuss whether they should disturb him. Eventually, Lawrence rouses him, saying that there is a mist rising and a good tide running, so there should be work tonight. Pascoe, almost in a trance, prays that a pillar of fire might lighten their darkness and keep them all from sin. The others wonder what he might be saying, or even admitting, and Lawrence asks him to tell them what to do; Pascoe tells them to do what they will, and to leave him alone. He wanders off in a dreamlike state.
Avis now announces that it is Pascoe who is the traitor but the others cannot accept this. She persists, saying that he is ruled by his wife, and that ‘an old man’s desire is a fierce blazing fire’; Thirza is an incomer, judging them and he is obsessed by her. Led by Avis’s condemnation, the others recall that Pascoe had avoided the chapel service. So they decide to watch him and keep guard so that they might catch him in the act of lighting the beacon; they allocate various bits of the coastline to one another and agree to keep in touch by horn-calls, and the sign that someone has seen a beacon is to be four long blasts. They wonder whether Pascoe had tried to resist Thirza’s persuasion, but they are interrupted by a horn-call which is a sign that a ship is being driven onto the rocks. A cannon shot is heard from out at sea, and the villagers gather in their excitement at the prospect of a decent wreck – they dance around in Old Testament zeal imagining the white corpses, the blood in the foam and the daggers rising and falling, and then they all rush down to the shore.
After a Prelude entitled ‘On the cliffs of Cornwall’, we see Jack patrolling his stretch of the shore. The fog which obscures the almost-full moon is gradually clearing. Jack sees a figure and calls out, but he can find no-one. Avis joins him and accuses him of letting the traitor escape. Jack in turn accuses her of leading him on; clearly he fancies her but she has been toying with him. Avis, realising that she needs his help, kisses him. Mark appears, unseen by both of them, and hides behind a rock. Avis tells Jack that he can be the one who captures Pascoe, and that she can share the glory with him, and Jack rises to the bait. Mark realises just what a flighty piece Avis is, and as Jack and Avis run off, he emerges from his hiding place and begins to collect a pile of driftwood and to build a fire. As he does so, he muses that now there is no residual guilt to prevent him from declaring his love for Thirza and he sings the Ballad of the Bones, a song about two lovers kept apart but eventually united in death.
Just as Mark is about to set fire to the warning beacon, Thirza calls down from the cliff above telling him not to light it tonight. She comes sliding down the cliff and falls into his arms and they sing rapturously of their love for one another. She tells him that she has dark forebodings, and as she looks out to sea, she prays that those on the waters will be kept safe, since there is nothing more that she can do to help them. Mark asks whether someone has betrayed them and Thirza tells him that it was only by chance that the previous beacon was discovered, but that the hunt is on, and if they light a beacon tonight, they will certainly be captured. Mark shouts out his defiance and starts to light the torch, but again Thirza holds him back. He tells her that this will be a last mission, and that they will be able to leave Cornwall together. Thirza sings tenderly of her love for him, but the wreckers’ horn call breaks the moment and Mark tells her that she can do no more to save people after this: as Thirza holds the torch, Mark lights it and they thrust it into the beacon: they sing that it represents the power of love burning in the darkness of their lives, and they embrace one another tenderly. Unseen by them, Pascoe arrives at the cliff-top and calls her name, and as they move away, he stumbles down the path and collapses alongside the fire.
Lawrence, Tallan, Harvey, Jack and Avis now arrive, see the fallen body and check that it is alive – they roll him over and see that it is Pascoe. Avis is exultant and the others are shocked.
The inspiration for an opera: Ethel Smyth visited this cave, known as Piper’s Hole, on the northernmost tip of the island of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, in 1886 while on a holiday in Cornwall. It clearly impressed her; she described it graphically: ‘On entering it just above high water mark, you go downwards rapidly and alarmingly by an ever-narrowing passage illuminated by torches which are stuck at intervals in rings in the wall; the passage suddenly bends sharply to the left, and you are aware … that you are under the sea … squeezing between two rocks … you behold an unearthly-looking fresh-water lake in which floats Charon’s boat …’. Twenty years later, this experience became the setting for the final act of The Wreckers. The knitwear and the construction of the boat may have changed by the time this postcard was produced in 1940, but the overall effect of the cave is still the same.
(postcard in the author’s collection)
At dawn the next day, the villagers descend roughly hewn stone steps into a huge cave; the only entrance has a strong iron gate. They have been summoned there by Lawrence, who is the only man who knows the identity of the traitor. Lawrence, accompanied by Tallan, Harvey and Pascoe, is the last to enter. He tells the assembled throng that they are all bound by a secret oath and that he has summoned them to the cave to see justice done; he tells them to light torches and place them in the rings on the walls of the cave. In a sombre ensemble, Avis gloats that Thirza’s betrayal will be revealed, Jack wants to see Mark punished, Pascoe is mumbling, ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord’ to himself, and the villagers comment on how like a tomb the cave is. The villagers gather in a semi-circle and Lawrence leads them in a prayer that God will guide them to do what is right. He them tells them that the reason that they have been without food for so long is because a traitor has been warning ships to keep clear of the rocks, and that the previous evening, he, Harvey and Tallan had found a beacon burning on the shore. He goes on to say that they found Pascoe unconscious beside it, but that he has so far not explained his presence there. Pascoe knows the truth, so he must speak now. Pascoe stands and tells them all that no man can give him orders, and that, by the grace of God, he is their leader, and that any man who doubts him does not know him. Lawrence lets him speak, and then cries out that it is Pascoe who has betrayed them. The villagers do not want to believe this, but Avis, Jack, Tallan, Lawrence and Harvey urge him to confess what he was doing on the shore. The villagers ask why Pascoe would betray his flock and Avis comes forward to tell them that Pascoe is besotted with his young wife, who is an outsider and not one of them, and that she has turned his mind; she continues relentlessly, telling them that not only is Thirza absent from the gathering, but that she is a witch, with powers to control men’s minds, and that she ensnared Pascoe into betraying their right to a livelihood. It seems that Pascoe’s fate is sealed as everyone calls on him to try to deny his guilt, and they all demand that he should die.
Suddenly, Mark appears in the entrance of the cave and announces that it was he who betrayed them and that Pascoe is innocent. Pascoe asks him to explain himself and Mark tells them that some men go one way and others take a different path. He was following a path to a better place, but that none of it makes any difference, because death awaits them all sooner or later. He challenges Lawrence to kill him, saying that he is proud of what he has done and will die happy. As Thirza now descends into the cave, Avis, beside herself, begs Mark to withdraw his confession; Thirza however, announces that although it was Mark who lit the beacon, it is she who is the guilty one. There is an outcry, and Avis desperately tries to save Mark by announcing that he spent all the previous night in bed with her. Thirza tells her that no-one will believe that, and Pascoe tries to force Thirza not to broadcast her shame, but Thirza says that Mark had found her in a terrible state and has healed her heart: Mark and Thirza publicly declare their love for one another; Pascoe is overcome with grief, and as the crowd call out for punishment, Avis, now beyond control, screams that they should kill both the man and his whore. Lawrence solemnly orders her out, telling her that she should share their fate and that she is no longer his daughter. Avis leaves, ignored by everyone, and Jack follows her.
As the villagers comment that the tide is rising, Lawrence reminds them that many years ago, one of them betrayed the village and that he was found guilty and left to drown in this cave, which is why he has summoned them there again. He asks them all if it is their wish that the guilty pair, traitors and adulterers, should meet the same fate and the villagers confirm that that is exactly what they want. Sentence is passed on Mark and Thirza – they must drown, with the gulls’ cries ringing like a curse in their ears and their bodies torn on the sharp Cornish rocks. Desperately, Pascoe begs that Thirza should be spared, but Thirza announces that she wants to die. He pleads with her to save her soul, but she laughs and says that she can no more repent on his terms than a stream can flow uphill. She will at least die knowing that she has loved.
To shouts from the villagers that she must die and that to save her would be a sin, Pascoe tries to drag her out of the cave; Thirza struggles against him and some of the villagers hold Mark back to prevent him from going to help her. Thirza then plays on her reputation and cries out that if Pascoe drags her out of the cave she will curse him and that the whole land and the generations to come will be laid low. Pascoe still pulls at her, and with the tide rising rapidly around their ankles, Thirza raises a free hand and calls on God to hear her. Astounded by what they see as blasphemy, the villagers call on Pascoe to let her go, and he does; Thirza runs to Mark, who puts his arms around her. Pascoe, deeply hurt, tells her that she shall die as she has chosen, and leaves the cave.
The water rises and the villagers comment on the judgement which has been passed, while Mark and Thirza ask that God will have mercy on those who have sinned because of love. Everyone leaves the cave, and as Mark and Thirza sing that nothing matters now except that they are together, the iron gates of the cave slam shut with a clang. Thirza sings ecstatically that the sound of the waves is her bridal song and Mark adds that the cry of the wind is like the dancing and singing of spirits. Clutching one another, they wait for the final embrace of the sea to compete their ecstasy.
The operas of Ethel Smyth
Fantasio Weimar (Hoftheater), 20 May 1898
Der Wald Berlin (Köngliches Opernhaus), 9 April 1902
The Wreckers Leipzig (Neues Theater), 11 November 1906 (under the German title, Standrecht)
The Boatswain’s Mate London (Shaftesbury Theatre), 28 January 1916
Fête Galante Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 4 June 1923
Entente Cordiale Bristol (Theatre Royal), 20 October 1926
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
The life and operas of Ethel Smyth
The life of Henry Brewster and his contribution to opera
Other operas set in Cornwall
Fish and other foods in operas …
… and many other aspects of operas by British composers in the early twentieth century (and all other operas as well, come to that)
© Roger Witts 2008