Writer’s notes

(The following notes appeared in the program for the 2006 production of The Girl of the Golden West.)

About the Play

David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West premiered in 1905. The authors of books on theater history almost invariably dismiss it as a conventional Western melodrama, the sort of play that was a staple of nineteenth-century popular American theater.

The play was certainly popular enough: In an era when a play that ran a whole year was a smash hit, The Girl ran three. And certainly The Girl had any number of elements typical of the genre: the honest heroine who runs the local saloon, the noble sheriff who is sweet on her, the highwayman who threatens to ruin her, not to mention poker, gunfights, and a manhunt in the midst of a violent and meticulously realistic blizzard — a virtuoso display of stagecraft that required 32 workers backstage to bring off. Windowpanes even frosted over right before the audience’s amazed eyes.

Yet for all the theatrical fireworks and showmanship, describing The Girl of the Golden West as a conventional Western is about as accurate as describing A Doll’s House as a conventional drama of married life or Candida as a conventional romantic comedy. Not that Belasco was in the same literary league as Ibsen and Shaw. But he was part of the same theatrical movement; he shared their desire to create a theater that would appeal to the intellect as well as the emotions. In his later plays, following the lead of Ibsen and Shaw, Belasco delighted in introducing the familiar tropes of popular theater in order to turn them on their heads and make them say something fresh, to give them new truth and psychological realism.

In general, nineteenth-century melodrama had a simple view of human nature. Characters were unconficted; they knew what they wanted and they went after it with single-minded determination. The important conflicts occur between two people who are at cross purposes, who want incompatible things, who represent opposing principles.

In the Western, then, there were heroes, whose highest goal was to maintain order in the community, even at the risk of their own lives; and there were villains, whose only concern was to gratify their personal desires at the expense of others. Villains robbed banks, held up stagecoaches, and most of all threatened to besmirch the shining virtue of the hero’s wife, girlfriend, or daughter. The happy ending came when justice prevailed, virtue was saved, the good guy was rewarded, and the bad guy bit the dust.

But as the twentieth century dawned, many playwrights rebelled against the simple, single-minded characters of the popular theater of the time. They became interested in exploring human psychology in greater complexity. In these new plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde, and others, people are shown struggling not only with others but with the conflicts and contradictions within their own natures.

To emphasize this point, these writers often took the conventions of the popular theater and turned them on their heads. Shaw’s Arms and the Man, for example, begins like this: A deserter from a war forces a young woman to hide him, not knowing that the young woman is engaged to a soldier who has distinguished himself heroically. If this were a typical melodrama of the period, we would soon see the gallant soldier coming to the rescue of his fiancée and trouncing the cowardly deserter. But this is in fact an antiwar comedy by Shaw, so the hero is revealed as a reckless fool, the deserter has more sense than anyone else, and the young woman realizes that her romantic ideals about war and heroism are just hollow illusions.

In The Girl of the Golden West, Belasco gave the American Western the same treatment. The struggle between Right and Wrong doesn’t take place between a good guy and a bad guy, but within each of the characters’ souls. Here we find a sheriff capable of an honorable deed one moment and an ignoble one the next, and a highwayman no different. Who is the hero and who is the villain? Neither, or maybe both.

As for the heroine, we learn early on that she values honesty above all else, and she “keeps herself decent,” just as we expect in a melodrama. Equally true to form, the highwayman threatens to rob her of that decency. But in this case the happy ending is brought about only when the heroine realizes how worthless her decency has become to her. By the end of the play, Minnie has deliberately violated her own ideals in order to bring about the ending she wants and knows is right.

The Western melodrama could be counted on to climax in a thrilling and bloody shootout, and producers completed with each other to create the largest and most spectacular stage effects. But in The Girl — except for a single shot fired harmlessly early in the first act — the only gunfire takes place offstage, after which Belasco arranged his most suspenseful sequence so that life and death hang on a single drop of blood too small for the audience even to see.

And just in case we get to the last act and still haven’t caught on to the clichés turned upside down, Belasco has one last wry parting shot. As his play ends, the hero and heroine get on their horses and ride off — but toward the east, into the rising sun.

About the Opera

Giacomo Puccini saw The Girl of the Golden West in early 1907 while in New York to supervise the American premieres of some of his operas — including Madama Butterfly, which was itself based on an earlier Belasco play. He was hunting for a subject for his next opera, and he was attracted to The Girl, even though his English was poor and he had only a limited understanding of the story. Back in Italy in the summer, he read the play in an Italian translation and began negotiating an agreement with Belasco.

Puccini felt that Belasco’s third act did not provide enough of a climax to the story, and with his librettists he worked out a new and more dramatic ending in which the heroine would plead for the life of the highwayman. Perhaps influenced by Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande, which had premiered in 1902, Puccini came as close in La fanciulla del west as he ever did to writing pure music drama — the arias here are shorter, fewer, and more connected with the action around them then in any other opera he wrote. Puccini never let the drama slow down, writing one gripping musical scene after another — most memorably, perhaps, the harrowing blizzard and poker game in the second act.

With a year of its premiere, La fanciulla del west had been seen in Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston, always to excellent reviews. Yet once the initial excitement had died, the opera was only rarely performed, and became thought of as one of Puccini’s weakest. A series of revivals around the world starring Placido Domingo in the 1970s did much to improve the opera’s reputation, and some critics and musicologists now regard it as one of Puccini’s best works. But even today, La fanciulla still has something of a reputation in the United States for absurdity and campiness. As one of Belasco’s biographers wrote, “The spectacle of a group of unlikely looking miners and cowboys whooping it up in Italian strained the credulity of the American audiences to the breaking point.”

About This Adaptation

My first and foremost goal, then, in writing this adaptation has been to remove that barrier, by presenting the story in such a way that it will sound natural to American ears — ears that have picked up from any number of Hollywood movies an unconscious expectation of what dialogue in a Western is supposed to sound like. My hope is that American listeners will quickly forget they are hearing an Italian opera and simply become swept up in the story and the relationships. I’ve based the sung words as closely as I could on the dialogue in Belasco’s play, though this wasn’t always possible where Puccini and his librettists made significant changes in the story.

Which brings me to my second and lesser goal, for it is my feeling that, while Puccini improved on Belasco’s structure in some ways, in other ways he made certain aspects more conventionally sentimental, the very opposite of Belasco’s intentions. Where I could, I’ve tried to put a little more Belasco into the mix. Puccini’s opera could perhaps be summed up as the story of a man whose life is redeemed by the love of a woman; but Puccini was so focused on this aspect, I think, that he missed that Belasco’s play is in fact the story of two people whose lives are redeemed by each other. In Belasco’s play, Minnie has grown as unhappy and dissatisfied with her own circumstances as Ramirrez has with his, and each of them helps the other find a new direction in life. I have tried to make this clearer in my libretto than it is in the Italian.

In the Italian libretto, too, Sheriff Rance’s motives are somewhat murky; I have rewritten his act one aria to reveal more of his recent history with Minnie, and thus, I hope, make his actions and his attitude more understandable. In several other places I have rewritten a few lines to try to make clearer the role of the mysterious Nina Micheltoreña, who never actually appears before us but is crucial to the story.

I want to thank the cast and crew of this production for the immense help and support they gave me in the polishing of this adaptation. And I want to give special thanks to my friend Richard Applegate, who translated the lullaby and dialogue at the beginning of act two into Chumash, a Northern Californian Native American language.

— David Scott Marley