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the girl of the golden west

28 january 2011

My quest to read the source material for every opera I see led me this past week to David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West. The play is better known – almost infinitely better known – in the form of Puccini's opera La fanciulla del West. Belasco had seen his play Madame Butterfly transposed into one of Puccini's best operas, and one can still see why Puccini took to the high tragedy of Butterfly so readily. One is a bit more puzzled as to why the melodramatic oater Girl of the Golden West would strike his fancy, but ours is not to argue with genius.

The plot of Girl was almost entirely retained for the libretto of Fanciulla. But since I didn't know a thing about either one till a few weeks ago, let me recap. The Girl runs the Polka, a miner's saloon and non-FDIC bank in Old California. She rebuffs the proposals of Jack Rance, the poker-playing sheriff. But she falls straight into the arms of a stranger named Dick Johnson, if that is his real name. Her weakness for the fancy man from Sacramento, whose only known profession is "bank robber," is inexplicable – until it is revealed that we are in the world of melodrama, where love is contracted by casual glimpses and sealed by obtaining a woman's "first kiss." Dick Johnson gets that from the Girl halfway through Act Two, and the rest of the play is taken up with the other characters shooting him, stringing him up, and then letting him go free and join the Girl because, hey.

If you can forget that the story is of an exceptional ludicrousness, and if you can further overlook the casual, gratuitous racism of the dialogue (Indians and Mexicans being barely human in the play's logic), there are actually some good scenes for actors in The Girl of the Golden West, particularly another in Act Two (the centerpiece of Puccini's opera, as well) where Rance and the Girl play cards for the life of Dick Johnson. In fact, though Dick is the tenor and nominal hero of the opera, while Rance is a baritone blocking character, Rance and the Girl have the best parts, the most complex and near-human sets of tangled motivations. Dick by contrast, in Belasco's play, is just another handsome face. That the Girl can't see that Rance is a more interesting longterm companion is her loss, in the end.

The Girl of the Golden West offers a sidelight onto the role of the stage in the development of the American Western. Cinema seized hold of the Western so soon after film was invented that it's now rare to get a glimpse of how Western themes and heroes had an incubation period in the American legitimate theater. Other popular genres, like the detective story and horror, had longer legs on stage; the stage Western gave way to a medium where you could have lots of galloping horses.

But quite a few Westerns populated American stages between the rise of the literary Western and the rise of the Western movie, including The Girl of the Golden West and such classics as The Virginian (the latter done on Broadway in 1904 and 1905 with Dustin Farnum, a dependable Western hero onstage before taking his act to pictures). It's odd that one stray hit from the genre should have been near-cryogenically preserved by Puccini and linger on forever in the opera repertoire. But when did culture ever make strict sense?

Belasco, David. The Girl of the Golden West. Produced 1905, published 1915. In Six Plays. Boston: Little, Brown, 1928. 317-403.