American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

COLUMBUS PLAYS. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was an Italian explorer who sailed under the auspices of Spain in an attempt to reach Asia voyaging west from Europe and who, in 1492, laid claim to discovering America. In all, he made four voyages.

The earliest stage version of the Columbus story is likely El Nuevo Mundo, a comedy in verse by the sixteenth-century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega and not published until 1950 in English and 1963 in Spanish. The first version staged in English was by the British playwright Thomas Morton, Columbus: Or, The Discovery ofAmerica. An Historical Play, first performed at the Theatre-Royal Covent Garden in 1792, thereafter playing in several American theaters (pub. England, 1792; America, 1794). Few American productions on a Columbus theme are known in the first half of the nineteenth century, though in France a popular melodrama by R. C. Guilbert de Pixerecourt (Christophe Colomb: ou, La decouvert du Nouveau monde) opened at the Theatre de la Gaite on 5 September 1815 and was published that year. One of the first satiric treatments of the story is credited to John Brougham, who opened Columbus el Filibustero!! A New and Audaciously Original Historica-Plagiaristic, Ante-National, Pre-Patriotic, and OmniLocal Confusion of Circumstances, Running through Two Acts and Four Centuries at the Boston Theatre in 1858. Brougham, known for his lampoons of heroic dramas, toured his Columbus spoof throughout the United States and Great Britain.

Late nineteenth-century productions were mostly burlesques and spectacles. In England, entertainments based on the story were produced in 1869 at London’s Gaiety Theatre and in 1889 by George Dance. New York’s Windsor Theatre staged Webster Edgerly’s Christopher Columbus or, The Discovery of America in 1890, and Imre Kiralfy, a popular producer and director of spectacles, offered Columbus and the Discovery of America in 1893. Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was to be the site of one of the largest theatrical spectacles ever imagined; Steele MacKaye’s The World-Finder, which he dubbed a “spectatorio,” was to be staged in its own massive, specially built theater with a 100,000-square-foot “ocean,” telescopic stages, and special effects to simulate ocean waves, sunrises, sunsets, and rainstorms. MacKaye’s theater was neither completed, nor was the play published, and his Columbus story was never seen except in a much scaled- down version after the exposition closed.

One of the best-regarded of all Columbus plays is Paul Claudel’s Chris- tophe Colomb. Originally written in 1930, its revival by Jean-Louis Barrault in 1953 is famous, and it became the basis of an opera by Darius Milhaud in the same year. Also well known is Christopher Columbus by the Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, which premiered at the Theatre Art et Action in Paris in 1928 (pub. in French, 1950; in English, 1964). Adapted by Lyon Phelps in English, it was revived several times in the United States, including productions at the Provincetown Playhouse (1961), New York’s Jean Cocteau Theatre (1971), and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (1973). Dario Fo’s satire of the Columbus voyage is called Isabella, Three Ships and a Shyster (first perf. 1963; pub. in Italian 1966, French 1971, German 1986, no Eng. trans.).

Several plays on the Columbus theme appeared in the 1990s, some reflecting Columbus in heroic and others in nonheroic terms. Don Nigro’s Mariner (first perf. 1991; pub. 1991) sets the two received images of Columbus as adventurer-hero and colonialist-villain against each other and concludes that Columbus was a bit of both. The Voyage,* an opera with music by Philip Glass and text by David Henry Hwang, appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 1992. That same year the Royal Shakespeare Company staged Richard Nelson’s Columbus and the Discovery of Japan (pub. 1992), which focused on the explorer’s creative character. Richard Epp’s Japango (first perf. 1992; not pub.) has a similar emphasis on Columbus the man. Vermont’s Bread and Puppet toured the United States with Christopher Columbus: The New World Order (first perf. 1992; not pub.), a two-part play developed by Peter Schumann that juxtaposed Columbus’ voyage with conflict between environmental groups and a northern Quebec power company. Terra Incognita, a theater piece by Maria Irene Fornes and composer Roberto Sierra, premiered at New York’s INTAR Hispanic Arts Center in May 1992 and has not been published.

Lynn Jacobson’s essay “The Columbus Conundrum,” published in the October 1992 issue of American Theatre (18-22), discusses the performance of Columbus plays. Donald L. Hixon’s Nineteenth-Century American Drama: A Finding Guide (1977) cites English and American plays, operas, and librettos on a Columbus theme by little-known playwrights in the 1890s, such as Henry Peterson, George Lansing Raymond, John J. Harden, and Rev. M.M.A. Hartnedy, some of these writing for amateur groups. A prose treatment of this theme is The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus, by Stephen Marlowe (1987). [See also THE ADMIRAL; DRAMA OF THE SEA]

Paul Kosidowski