Thomas Hardy, Rutland Boughton, and the Queen of Cornwall

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Thomas Hardy collaborated with the British composer Rutland Boughton to create the opera The Queen of Cornwall from Hardy's play. This article traces the creation, premiere, reception, and performance history of the opera. (JVR)

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is known for his novels and poems, not his theatre pieces; yet, several of his novels were set as plays, and he did write two dramas. The first, The Dynasts, was a sprawling vision of the Napoleonic era and was written to be read, not acted. The second, The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, and specifically its transformation into an opera by the English composer Rutland Boughton (1878-1960), is the subject of this study.

Remembered as a literary giant and recipient of the Order of Merit, Hardy grew up in Dorsetshire (UK) where he was schooled first in Lower Bockhampton and then, from 1849 on, in Dorchester. As part of this education, he studied Latin and Greek and read the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. From his father he learned the fiddle, and he developed a taste for folk music while playing in the parish church choir and for local dances and weddings.1 (Prior to the movement of 'high church' Anglicanism into the rural parishes and their acquisition of pump organs, many parishes had amateur bands for their music.) At sixteen, Hardy was articled to an architect, John Hicks. Eventually, Hardy became an architect himself; he practiced in Dorset and London initially and specialized in church restoration work. While with the firm of G.R. Crickmay in 1870, he was sent to Cornwall to supervise restoration work on the church of St. Juliet. There he visited Tintagel, the legendary castle of King Mark of Cornwall, and Beeny Cliff, a scenic shore on the Celtic Sea. He also met Emma Gifford, who would become his first wife in 1874.2 It was on that same 1870 visit that Hardy first considered using the Tristan and Iseult story as the basis for a work.3 He would continue to visit Tintagel and the Southwest of England through much of the rest of his life.4

The Tristan and two Iseults triangle became real for Hardy when he met Florence Henniker in Dublin in 1893, and was once again enacted in 1907 when he began a relationship with Florence Dugdale.5 His relationship with his wife was further strained during their last years together; they grew apart as she became a more convinced churchwoman and he became more ambivalent towards the Church. In 1913, Emma Hardy died. In 1914, he married Florence Dugdale, which union was hampered by his beautiful, imaginatively enhanced memories of Emma, much like Tristan's relationship with Iseult of the White Hands. In 1916, he turned back to the Tristan and Iseult legend and considered it but pushed it aside once again. Several years later, he returned to the story, wrote The Queen of Cornwall, and his publisher, Macmillan, issued it as a play in 1923. It was performed by the Hardy Players, a local, talented amateur group in Dorchester, for whom Hardy had written The Queen.6

The entire play is confined to Tintagel, in a one-day, true time frame having no extraneous actions. In the Macmillan edition, Hardy drew the setting as the stone hall of a castle with two doors on stage right, a door and a fireplace on stage left, and an arch to the rear opening onto a parapet that overlooks the Celtic Sea, with a balcony above the arch. The plot is taken from the end of the tragedy and involves Mark, Tristan, Queen Iseult, and Iseult of the White Hands, the double triangle. The play was written in a two-act form, though it also could be presented as a one-act production.

It begins with a prologue by Merlin. While King Mark is away Queen Iseult, gifted with healing powers, sails to Britanny knowing that Tristan is gravely ill. She is met at water's edge by Whitehands who deceitfully tells her that Tristan has already died. Without landing, the Queen sets sail back for Tintagel, and, when she lands in Cornwall, she is watched closely by Mark and his man, Andret. …

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