Melodrama, “Miller”, G&S and Us

Joe Lella, Director

Pirate King

JB Amerongen’s The Actor in Dickens (1972) disparages melodrama in early 19th Century England. He states that the English love this mode of entertainment which has “continued down to the present day without there being much improvement in its insignificant plot, and for the most part, shallow wit.” He includes Isaac Pocock’s The Miller and His Men) in this scathing assessment, and says that only the work of Gilbert and Sullivan is a “brilliant exception” (p. 107).

Isaac Pocock’s The Miller and His Men was first produced in “big” London in 1813. It achieved some success and was later produced in Upper Canada (1842) at London’s first theatre, The Theatre Royal. We present it now as an homage to that theatre.

G & S’s first collaboration hit the boards in England in 1871, some sixty years later. By 2011 we thought it was time to inject new life into “Miller”, especially if we were to offer it to contemporary audiences. Our use of beautiful G& S songs and choruses from The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, and Patience, recognizes these gentlemen’s rather dubious melodramatic heritage while enriching our adaptation of Pocock’s work.

Along with G&S’ music, we have tried to appeal to modern Canadian audiences by up-dating “Miller’s” language, nudging it towards Jane Austen’s effective and simple prose dating approximately from the same era. Our reading of “Miller” found it abounding in stuffy early 19th century verbiage. This may be unfair since we, of course, didn’t live then. But Jane Austen did and her language is like a clear drink of water compared to Pocock’s stale tea. Our language doesn’t achieve what hers does but maybe a later version shall approach it.

We trust we’ve made the play more engaging for our modern audience too by setting it near our London in Upper Canada almost immediately after the repression, exile, and executions of many MacKenzie and Papineau/Patriote (Lower Canada) Rebels (1837-1838). The British colonial power was wary of lingering rebel sympathisers and of possible American incursions into Southern Ontario. They sent a garrison here to keep an eye on things.

Pirates of Penzance Poster

Our play is set in a forested area, north of London. An old miller’s beautiful young daughter is pursued by two suitors: one older, but rich; another hard working, handsome and young but poor. The young hero makes a secret pledge to rid the land of robbers (clandestine rebels) who despise the crown and are yearning for Canada’s independence. The old miller knows not their dark intentions and how they have stolen his mill.  The hero shall try to restore the fortunes of the old miller to win the hand of the beautiful daughter. Little does he know that the older suitor is one of the rebels (bandits) and has darker plans for them all. These plans, however, must contend not only with the hero’s wily resolve but the force of the local British Garrison and its leader, Sir Walter Watford Hill, who pines for his dear ‘Loretta,” and his batman, Wilbur, who yearns for thick slices of roast beef.

Audiences are urged to cheer the heroes, and boo the villains!

Rather than what William Archer called melodrama then, i.e. tragedy without reason, we here present “almost tragedy” with historical reasons—or rather with the rationale that it might lead to greater appreciation of our heritage. That our play is being staged in a period barn (like London’s first theatre, the Theatre Royal) can only heighten this.

We have not, however, foresworn “corny” melodrama. Heritage can be campy fun.

Isaac Pocock’s plot for “Miller” fit the London situation in 1842 beautifully. The slightly adapted G&S music and lyrics fit it like a glove. For historic ‘verisimilitude’ we added a couple of 19th century Canadian songs for good patriotic measure (our show opened not long after Canada Day!).

And after all is said and sung, we dare our audiences—dare you—not to enjoy this corn filled, but puffed up and patriotic pastry.

Songs Adapted for The Miller and His Men, in order of performance

Pour Oh Pour the Rebel Lager, sung by Miller’s Men
(Gilbert & Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance, Pour Oh Pour the Pirate Sherry)
Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well,
sung by Claudine (G&S, HMS Pinafore)
Stay, Lucas, Stay/Ah Leave Me Not to Pine,
sung by Claudine, Lucas (G&S, Pirates, Stay Frederic Stay)
Stay Prithee Stay, sung by Claudine, Sir Walter, Wilbur, Kelmar
(G&S, Pirates, Stay Frederic Stay)
Une Canadienne Errante, sung by Margot, Caroline
(Lyrics, Un Canadien Errant, M.A. Gerin-Lajoie [with translation])
I Hear the Soft Note…, sung by Margot, Caroline
(G&S, Patience)
•  Sad is that Woman’s Lot/Silvered is the Auburn Hair,
sung by Ravina (G&S, Patience, Silvered is the Raven Hair)
• Reprise, Pour Oh Pour, sung by Miller’s Men
(G&S, Pirates of Penzance)
The Maple Leaf Forever
(Alexander Muir (1867), with the 2010 version of Vladimir Radian’s lyrics)
Hail Poetry, sung by Miller’s Men (G&S, Pirates)
A Grenadier, sung by grenadiers and cast in finale
(G&S, HMS Pinafore, A British Tar)

 

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