Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens


These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of the Rime appeared, Coleridge was commissioned by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the manager of Drury Lane Theatre to write a play. He began writing Osorio, an Elizabethan-style drama that eventually became Remorse. It was going to be published with Wordsworth’s drama The Borderers to raise money for a German tour. When that project failed, some of Osorio made it into Lyrical Ballads (‘The Dungeon’ and ‘The Foster Mother’s Tale’).


Given he was working on a drama that was to be presented (so he hoped) at an actual theatre, the stage and its various practices were not far from Coleridge’s mind as he began writing the Rime. He would have been mindful, for example, of how a story could be presented not just through the spoken word, but by the mechanics of stage effects. And those effects appear in the poem. The Rime is a series of ‘set pieces.’ It consists of visually arresting descriptions reminiscent of the decorative backdrops to performances at the contemporary theatre, such as the description of the Mariner’s ship which, when becalmed, becomes part of a scene painting: ‘As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’. Images such as these are why Gustav Doré could produce powerful illustrations of the Rime in 1876 and why his work perfectly complements the poem. Because the whole tale is a series of tableaux, of vividly realised pictures against which the Mariner’s tale is set, it is easy to imagine his ship emerging into view upstage as painted flats of the ‘Ice mast high’ slide apart in front of it; or to envisage the hulk of the ‘Spectre-ship’ ship emerging from the wings, gliding on grooves past the doomed Mariner and his crew.


Such images in the poem are also, as in a theatre, mediated through light to mute or enhance colours to create the right ambience. The ‘dismal sheen’ of the surrounding ice, that subdued light that the Mariner describes is reminiscent of how atmospheric effects were created in the contemporary theatre when coloured silks or transparencies were dropped down in front of a scene and lit from behind. That feature would not just show the muted light of the ice cliff, but Coleridge describes the effect of these transparencies when he has the Mariner talk of the moon that shines through the fog as the albatross perches ‘on mast or shroud:’ ‘thro fog smoke-white / Glimmer’d the white moon-shine.’ That same effect, a gauze or silk hanging, would create the ethereal whites in the poem, such as when the moon ‘bemocked the sultry main / Like April hoar-frost spread’ and the light is diffused throughout the harbour that is ‘white with silent light’.


Coloured silks could create the ominous reds – that ‘moonlight bay’ so ‘white all o’er’ is punctuated by ‘dark-red shadows’ and there is the ‘still and awful red’ of the ‘charmèd water’. The same technique could produce the spectral greens that Coleridge describes – that wall of ice is ‘green as Emerauld’, and there is a ‘Burnt green’ that the Mariner sees dancing on the water’s surface as well as the ‘glossy green’ of the water snakes. Contemporary stage lighting could also reproduce some of the colour effects of the poem. The presence of all those greens is reminiscent of the oil lamps used on the stage in the days before limelight, lamps which produced a green-tinged light. There is even a suggestion of the iridescence that arises from a film of oil floating on water in the phrase: ‘The water, like a witch’s oils / Burnt green and blue and white.’ Perhaps, too, there is a hint of the notorious propensity of those lamps to smoke in the brief description of the ship’s crew whose ‘stony eyeballs glitter’d on / In the red and smoky light.’



There I might be stretching a point. But, even if subconscious, that the Rime had a certain staginess was obvious to one contemporary. William Wordsworth specifically criticised the poem for its performative and pictorial qualities. He described it as a series of happenings decorated with ‘too laboriously accumulated’ imagery. He considered it to be at odds with the philosophy of what was by now his Lyrical Ballads, that of creating poetry centred around emotions recollected in tranquillity in which he advocated a verse form that thinned out such pictorial, stagy mediation, in favour of a more direct connection with poet and reader. To that end, he placed Coleridge’s poem at the end of the first volume of the 1800 edition of the Ballads. He moved it upstage, if you like. In the middle, at the back where it could not properly be seen.


'The Albatross': From Rime to opera

by Sinéad O’Neill
Melville was right when he wrote, of the Albatross, ‘that white phantom sails in all imaginations.’ It sailed then, and it sails still. Coleridge’s poem on the same subject also haunts the collective imagination. It has certainly caught my fancy, enough to make me want to create an opera. Even people unfamiliar with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner get a certain sort of chill down the spine when it’s mentioned, along with a feeling that it somehow deals with fate, wildness, the merciless emptiness of wide seas, and the terrible, haunting burden of one’s former actions. This eerie atmosphere that coalesces around the poem makes it perfect for operatic treatment. Like Poe’s The Raven (which I also made into an opera) the Rime has a life of its own. We don’t need to bring the poem to our audience; we can play (and sing!) into the place it already occupies in the audience’s imagination.
The albatross
For a start, we don’t have to begin by trying to set the whole text to music. To my mind, that would miss the point: the Rime already has a textual life. A stage, though, is made out of space, not words. An opera is made out of music, singing, and movement; yes, there might be words too (there usually are!), but an essential feature of live opera – and what differentiates the form from an audio recording, a radio performance, a book, a film, a photograph – is that it uses movement through space as an expressive tool.
To make an opera out of Coleridge’s poem, then, I started by thinking about spatial imagery. The poem is full of it. The masts dropping down and down; the direction of sunrise and sunset; relentless southward progression; the impersonal, driving winds; ice dwarfing the ship; the vastness of the lonely oceans; the individual imprisoned on his tiny vessel; sea-going creatures swarming in savage freedom. Distance and closeness, changing perspectives, speed and stillness all imbue the poem with a constant feeling of movement. The mariner is at the mercy of the forces that move him, right up until the moment he grabs the oars of the pilot’s boat and rows like the devil for land.
The albatross, of course, is completely free and at home in this shifting landscape of sea and air. The winds that coldly command the mariner’s course are freely ridden by the albatross, which can come and go as it chooses. The ocean-treading wanderer is as thoroughly at home in this wilderness as the sailor is at sea.
Movement, then, is the first kernel at the heart of this new opera. How does the sea move? How does the ship ride the sea? How does the bird use the air?
Wanderer Angus Wilson
Artists, scientists and seafarers throughout the ages have found their souls struck by the shocking strangeness and beauty of these great birds striding free in their element: ‘I now belong to that higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross’ wrote Robert Cushman Murphy, in Logbook for Grace. Thus, I imagine, the mariner. The moment of encounter is surely key in his journey, as much as it was for ‘Ishmael’ in Moby Dick: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw… Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets that took hold of God.’
Here is the second kernel: the moment of encounter. Imagine that first eye-contact between the strange, black eyes of the albatross and those keen, glittering eyes that so entranced the Wedding Guest. It’s the stuff of dreams, which makes it the stuff of opera. The encounter will furnish a ‘memory’ aria: ‘I remember the first Albatross I ever saw…’ It’s a memory that haunts the mariner; part of what compels him to tell and retell his tale.
Albatross photo
I’m about to delve into these ideas during two days of workshops and exploration with composer Kim Ashton, countertenor Christopher Ainslie, actor Jofre Carabén van der Meer, and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki. We will also have the following: some sheets of paper, some fine wooden batons, and some wire. Our task during the two days is to develop stage images that will use movement and music to evoke my ‘kernels’ in the minds of the audience.
Alb music
On 11 August, at RADA Studios in Central London, we’ll show these images to the public as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival. That is the first step; then we move on to the meat of the writing and composition process, building up to a finished opera in about a year’s time. I’ll keep you posted…!
There will be a work-in-progress performance on 11 August 2017 at RADA Studios, London, as part of Tête-à-tête The Opera Festival.
Sinéad O’Neill is Founder and Director of Cambridge City Opera, which she created to commission and produce new opera. As well as The Albatross, she is currently developing The Barrington Hippo (Kate Whitley) a piece for children about a fossilised hippo from the Cambridgeshire countryside. Cambridge City Opera’s first work was On the Axis of this World (Matt Rogers) a meditation on Antarctic Sineadexploration developed with the Scott Polar Research Institute. In 2016, Sinéad directed And London Burned (Matt Rogers), a new opera about the Great Fire of London commissioned by the Temple Music Foundation. In Autumn 2017, Sinéad will direct the revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia for Glyndebourne Tour.