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Christopher Columbus on Stage: from Satirical to Savage

Even on Columbus Day, Christopher Columbus has largely gone out of favor – in America, and on stage. The closest recent nod to Columbus on a New York stage was a character named Before Columbus in the recent revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World”

If that’s not the way it always was – the first play about Columbus goes back to the 1500’s (“El Nuevo de Mundo” by Lope de Vega); the first to be staged in America itself was in 1794 (“Columbus, or The Discovery of America. A Historical Play” by Thomas Morton) – yet even as far back as 1858, the theatrical treatment was far less than worshipful of the Italian explorer of the New World.

That’s the year that John Brougham is said to have toured a show (starting at the Boston Theatre) whose satirical intent is evident in its lengthy title: “Columbus el Filibustero!! A New and Audaciously Original Historica-Plagiaristic, Ante-National, Pre-Patriotic, and Omni-Local Confusion of Circumstances, Running Through Two Acts and Four Centuries”

Then there’s “1492 Up to Date or Very Near It,” a musical with a libretto by R.A. Barnet and music by Carl Pfluege. Timed to the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s expedition to the New World, it places him anachronistically in front of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where he encounters newsboys and chorus girls, et al. Back in Spain, the royal family have gone broke, because Ferdinand goes out for a night on the town too much, and the king and queen are forced to do their own laundry. It opened on Broadway in 1893 and ran for 400 performances.

Three decades later, “Immoral Isabella?”, a play by Lawton Campbell that ran on Broadway in 1927, was even less respectful. A synopsis: The oversexed Queen Isabella of Spain takes the younger adventurer Christopher Columbus as her lover, and when her husband King Ferdinand won’t sponsor his trip to the New World, she pawns her royal jewels to finance the trip. Ferdinand is happy to have him out of their hair. Not a critical favorite, it ran for 60 performances.

Other Broadway productions include “Christopher Comes Across,” another satire, this one written by by Hawthorne Hurst, which ran on Broadway for seven performances in 1932, and, an even bigger hit, “Christophe Colomb,” by Paul Claudel with music by Darius Milhaud, which was performed in French and ran in 1957 for just six performances. The opera, originally created in 1928, was revived in 1992, along with many stage shows about Columbus on the 500th anniversary of his expeditions. Most were not satirical, but not admiring, among them “The Voyage,” an opera with music by Philip Glass and text by David Henry Hwang, at Metropolitan Opera; Terra Incognita, by Maria Irene Fornes, 1992, at INTAR Hispanic Arts Center; and “Christopher Columbus: The New World Order,” by Peter Schumann, the head of Bread and Puppet Theater, which one reviewer described as “a brutal tale of conquest, destruction and oppression.”

In the 25 years since that anniversary, the productions intended for an audience older than elementary school students seem to fall into two categories — the satirical and the savage. An example of the first is “Christopher Columbus,” with a score by the 19th century composer Jacques Offenbach compiled and edited by Patric Schmid and book and lyrics by Don White, who describes the show as “the amorous adventures of the polygamous Columbus, who, against his will, is sent across the sea pursued by three wives and a fiancée to find the riches of the Indies.” He winds up discovering “one of America’s greatest treasures, Coca Cola!”

Then there is the occasional revival of the play of the same name by the late Nikos Kazantzakis, best-known for writing the novels that became the films ”Zorba the Greek” and ”The Last Temptation of Christ,” who pictures Columbus as a tortured and murderous religious fanatic who lusts after Isabella

But let’s close with a monologue from “The Fountain,”  which dates all the way back to 1926, in a scene aboard Columbus’s flagship on the last day of his second voyage, in 1493, right before he and his crew sight land. He is talking to a priest, Father Menendez:

MENENDEZ–(dryly) You wish to confess?
COLUMBUS–(surprised) Confess? (then in a loud, ringing tone) Yes, to all men! Their mouths are full of lies against me. They say the demands I made for my share of discovery prove my low-minded avarice. Knaves! What can they know of my heart? Is it for myself I desire wealth? No! But as a chosen instrument of God, Who led me to His Indies, I need the power that wealth can give. I need it for God’s glory, not my own! … With my share of the wealth from Indies, from Cipango and Cathay, I will fit out an army–the Last Crusade! I have promised it to His Holiness, the Pope–fifty thousand men, four thousand horse, with a like force to follow after five years. I shall reconquer the Blessed Tomb of Christ for the True Faith! And to that sacred end I devote my life and all my wealth and power! (He stands looking up to heaven with the rapt gaze of a devotee.)
MENENDEZ–(dryly) Such a pious ambition does you honor.

The play is no longer well-known, but the playwright is – Eugene O’Neill.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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