Sunday, March 22, 2009


Arthur Penn's work has already been noted in this blog a few times, but this is one of his "grown up" compositions, aimed less at high schools and more at community players, and it's a wonderful piece of near-lost American musical theatre.

CAPTAIN CROSSBONES (1918) is clearly and obviously a variation on Pirates of Penzance: girl in love with pirate (who's really not a pirate after all, but actually... well, you'll see soon enough). Throughout his works, Penn strove to become the American equivalent of Gilbert and Sullivan, and yet, as CROSSBONES demonstrates, he had a uniquely comic voice, in both words and music.

Set on an ocean-front mansion in Cuba, CROSSBONES deals with Theresa, daughter of the easily-irate Spanish grandee, Don Cubeb de Cigarro. Because of his age, he's constantly swarmed by relatives who are, frankly, waiting for him to die so they can lay claim to his estate. She's tutored by the dull spinster Miss Pelling, in classes in English she shares with a visiting American heiress named Eleanor, who's left New York because she thinks everyone wants her for her money. Theresa's big secret, however, is that she's in love with an American planter, Richard Stoneybrooke -- but this is an arrangement her father would never agree to.

For her part, Eleanor is the unwanted object of the favours of Captain Bombastio, head of the island police, who will go to no end to prove his love to her, even to the point of having himself arrested by his seconds-in-command when she points out that, in America, he would be taken in for annoying a lady. But secretly he's also there to let Theresa know that Richard is on the grounds and wants to see her.

Problem is, the grounds are patrolled by a retired pugilist named Bill Pilgrim, whose one and only professional fight ended when he somehow managed to knock himself out. Now working as a guard, his one particular job is to make sure that Richard stays far away from Theresa. Without sharing who he really is, Richard gets the terminally bored Bill out of the way by suggesting he join a pirate crew that the man he's after supposedly leads. Bill happily heads to the pirate lair, leaving Richard a few moments' private time with Theresa. Together, they concoct a plan that sees Theresa abducted by the pirates, and the demanded ransom will be her dowry for their marriage.

Surprisingly, the plan actually works, because Richard is, in fact, Captain Crossbones, a Pirate Chief. His band of buccaneers run off with not only Theresa, but also Eleanor and Miss Pelling, as the curtain falls on Act One.

Act Two is their lair, on the Isle of Pines. And now we see the pirates for what they really are: bored. While they really want to run something through, the only thing they've killed of late is time. The high point of their day is the arrival of Kitty, their local postmistress, bringing them letters from home. But they cant open them yet, because their wives as well want to know the contents... and who shows up but those very wives, who are apparently staying at a local hotel while their menfolk are playing pirate on the beach.

Is this starting to sound a little weird?


As it all turns out, these are a bunch of Americans on a lark. They've all been brought to Cuba by Richard to help him get the woman he loves and play out that schoolboy fantasy of running away to become a pirate. But now everyone has to convince Don Cubeb that they arent really pirates at all but Americans brought here to defeat the dreaded pirate band that has abducted Theresa. Everything is staged and double-backed and staged again such that, when Cubeb arrives to reclaim his daughter, Richard has "killed" Crossbones, and his friends have "killed" the rest of the pirate band. He wins fair Theresa. Eleanor, convinced that Don Bombastio actually loves her for her and not her money, agrees to marry him. Now out of a job, Miss Pelling finds solace in the arms of Bill. And with much singing and dancing and general merriment, the curtain falls.

What's fascinating about this is that CROSSBONES is structured almost like a Feydeau farce. You come out of the first act thinking, okay, I know how this is gonna end -- and you're right, except that in the second act Penn takes you on a wild ride before letting you get to the obvious conclusion. Richard, for example, has to be both Crossbones and Richard in the same scene, in a dazzling feat of scripting. And Penn doesnt skimp on the secondary characters either: Richard's aide-de-camp, Anthony, ever at his side, constantly assures him whether or not his actions are legal... because Anthony is a New York lawyer and knows all about these things, you see.

Lyrically, CROSSBONES is by turn witty and wry and flat-out funny, with constantly inventive rhymes. For example, the entrance of the pirate band that have come to abduct Theresa:

We're a gang of pirates bold and villianous
Hist! Hist! Ho, for the blunderbuss!
This here sort of life is killing us
Hist! Hist! 'Ware of the Spanish cuss
Note our mien -- sufficiently ferocious
Watch our deeds — you'll find them atrocious
Though we're young, as pirates we're precocious
Hist! Hist What will become of us!

Or the same crew, at the top of Act Two:

A pirate's life is a terrible life
When he has to act politely
He finds it hard to keep on his guard
And say his prayers nightly
A pirate really out to be
An animal wild and untamed
But when his claws are drawn or clipped
A pirate cant help but feeling hipped
And he naturally feels ashamed
Oh a pirate's life is a terrible life
A terrible life indeed —

Their wives' response:

Thus we show appreciation
Of your generosity
We're enjoying our vacation
By the Caribbean Sea
It's so nice to know you are busily employed
With your scheme adventurous were overjoyed
Tell us when you're through, my darlings,
We can pack up any day
To return with you, my darlings,
Back to the dear old USA.

CAPTAIN CROSSBONES is one of those rare works that screams for a serious revival. The music is acknowledged as some of Penn's best (which is saying a lot right there), and there are abundant opportunities for a company that's bored with endless productions of PINAFORE. The comedy is so facile that it hardly feels like a play written a century ago: there's only a few very small references to topical issues -- instead, it's almost like a happy collision of IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and the very best of the American music-hall.

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