Late last year I wrote a scene for an opera I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. The opera is going to be based on the life of Roger Casement and it’s something I initially decided to write an opera about around 5 years ago.
As well as being the first time I’ve tried to write opera, and the first time I’ve tried any vocal writing in a long while, this is the first time I’ve tried writing a creative text longer than the odd poem.
I’m quite happy generally with the libretto, but I think it could do with some fleshing out at points, particularly during Casement’s vision. I’ll post the text below and you can see what you think.
Here’s the recording too. Apologies for the computerised piano track… The singing is great and is provided by the wonderful Tom Humphreys.
The Wood that Weeps
Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad – Matadi, Congo – Late at night
O what was that sudden noise?
What on the threshold stands?
Joseph Conrad (offstage) is heard singing the song ‘Men of Harlech’ to himself; the music is tonally distinct to the orchestra’s music.
Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming
Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming
See their warrior’s pennants streaming
To this battle field/
/Why must he sing?
Conrad emerges, youthful and energetic, smiling at Casement.
/Men of Harlech stand ye steady
It cannot ever be said ye
For the battle were not ready/
/(Irritated) You’ve learnt to roar like an English man!
(Calming) My friend, I sing of the spirit of our work. Of the beacons on the road we are building.
(Gloomy) I have seen no beacons.
Ah, don’t be so gloomy! We are lighting the path here: humanizing, improving.
Yes, we have lit the lamps outside the brothels
So drunk white men may find the door to fall through.
This town rots: a wound we have opened and left to fester.
And what port doesn’t stink?
But beyond the town the forest is unspoilt;
We can bring justice and fair play to this prehistoric jungle,
Where the vegetation riots on the earth
And the big trees are kings/
/The white men run riot on the earth
And the kings, are all in Europe.
(Jovially) It’s your mood that stinks!
Casement has a dark vision; the light changes to a dark green; Casement moves stage front; Conrad remains aloof.
I had a dark dreams as I lay last night – terrible visions:
The music shifts, signalling we are in Casement’s vision.
I dreamt I was deep in the forest, far from ports and the villages.
There was a young boy, covered in just a loincloth, running ahead of me
He cast glances back at me as I followed him,
His eyes a brilliant green one glance, black as pitch the next.
I followed him deeper into the thick trees – I could barely keep up with him
His body darted through the foliage – I began to lose my breath –
Then he disappeared among the bushes,
Leaving me in front of a great ancient tree – a giant!
This huge tree was covered with the cuts of rubber tapping.
It was not the sap of latex that bled from the bark,
But thick, sticky clots of deep red blood.
I could hear the laughter of a boy coming from inside the tree
So I peeled at the bloodied bark – and the tree was hollow,
Inside, a single lamp burning a green flame.
The light changes back as Conrad interrupts; Conrad is clearly perturbed, but wants to brush it off; Casement is as if frozen by the horror.
This climate makes men see odd things, Casement.
Think nothing of it – just a feverish dream/
(Snapping out of his vision) I must be loyal to my nightmares.
Then dream alone.
(Darkly) This vision has given me a chance to see myself –
What no other man may see.
Europe has conspired with dark forces:
How much is a soul worth against so much ivory and rubber?
(Grunts; shakes his head disparagingly)
There is a beast in the heart of every man,
Savagery bellow the skin.
A savagery brought forth by this dark land/
/A beast within a beast.
The hatred and cruelty of the white man was not born here,
But far away, in his home: Europe.
Ah, you’re haunted by shadowy images,
They are upsetting you, my friend.
This is all but a hollow sham;
And we, hollow men.
Conrad slaps Casement on the shoulder, pours them both a drink, and they sit together.
Conrad falls asleep; Casement grows dark once again.
(Disparagingly) Civilisation! Commerce…
I have seen slaves change hands for a few francs;
Men’s backs lashed with the chicote –
Flayed skin like scarred rubber trees;
Like so many tattered flags.
Lights dim; stage cleared during Musical Postlude.