Pocahontas in the Alps: Masonic Traces in the Stage Works of Franz Christoph Neubauer

By Walton, Chris | Musical Times, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview
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Pocahontas in the Alps: Masonic Traces in the Stage Works of Franz Christoph Neubauer


Walton, Chris, Musical Times


A SORRY TALE IT IS, with no hint of a happy-ever-after. Inkle, an English merchant, arrives at the shores of North America in the midiooos. The local inhabitants, understandably perturbed, attack him and his companions. But he is found and nursed by a local lass named Yarico, with whom he promptly falls in love. She reciprocates. However, when they set off on a new life together, Inkle succumbs to his natural avarice, selling Yarico into slavery once they reach Barbados. No island in the sun for her, poor girl.

This tale of the kind-hearted, Native American girl Yarico was first related by the English-Barbadian farmer Richard Ligon in his True and exact history of the island of Barbados, published in 1657.' Early in the next century, Yarico's fate was brought to the attention of a wider public through Richard Steele's elaborate retelling in The Spectator of 13 March 1711. It was Steele who gave the dastardly Inkle his name (he was anonymous in Ligon), while the hint of exotic sensuality that he adds probably helped to increase the story's appeal: 'The European was highly charmed with the limbs, features, and wild graces of the naked American; the American was no less taken with the dress, complexion, and shape of an European, covered from head to foot', he writes.

Yarico's story is even older than Ligon, however, for hers is in essence the same as that of Pocahontas. This daughter of an Indian chieftain from the early iooos supposedly saved the life of an Englishman about to be executed by her people. Her act of kindness did not prevent the English from kidnapping her and marrying her off just a few years later, though it was only the uplifting first half of her biography that subsequently entered American folklore. Pocahontas was most recently celebrated in one of Disney's series of 'ethnic' movies. There, she is a girl at one with nature, her best friends being a humming bird, a racoon and a tree that she calls 'grandmother' (which in any other situation would naturally raise odd questions about both her sanity and her paternity). Unlike Steele's Yarico, Disney's Pocahontas is remarkably emancipated; if she were alive today, she would probably be a ruthless Wall Street broker who satisfies her liberal urges by recycling her garbage and eating dolphin-free tuna. But, for all her New Age political correctness, she remains, along with Yarico, a prime example of the 'noble savage ' as popularised by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. As is well known, Rousseau insisted that we are born good, being made bad only by our institutions. Therefore, any man or woman living outside 'society' (i.e. white, western European society) must be noble, kind, generous and good, and filled with all the natural virtues since untouched by corruption. 'Inkle and Yarico' suited the mood of Enlightenment Europe so well that it enjoyed retellings in German and in French as well as numerous adaptations for the theatre. The current reference works list a dozen operatic or balletic versions from the last two decades alone of the i8th century, with performances in cities as far apart as New York and Rostock.2 One of these works even had far-reaching implications: Samuel Arnold's 'comic dialogue opera' Inkle and Yarico op.30, to a text by George Colman the younger, was first performed at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket in London in 1787, and later came to be regarded as the first English anti-slavery play. It drew praise from no less a figure than Robert Burns, and remained in public knowledge long enough to feature in George Eliot's Brother Jacob.

ANOTHER of these many adaptations was a singspiel text by one Karl von Eckhartshausen (1752-1803), a privy councillor at the court of Munich. He added two new characters to the existing tale: the Spanish admiral Consalvo and his son Fernando, hence the singspiel's title Fernando und Yariko. Consalvo is an absolute villain who delights in slaughtering 'savages' and taking their riches.

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