Love and Liberty: A Transatlantic Adaptation of The Pilot

James Crane (The College of St. Scholastica)

Presented at the No. 2 Cooper Panel of the 2012 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 29, May, 2012, pp. 10-12.

Copyright © 2012, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In an evocative instance of the adaptability of transatlantic literary texts, London playwright Edward Fitzball reverses the national origins and political sympathies of the characters in Cooper’s 1821 novel The Pilot by making the heroes Griffith and Barnstable into British patriots, and Colonel Howard into an autocratic republican in the 1825 stage musical “The Pilot; or A Storm at Sea: A Nautical Burletta.” 1 In the 1820s and 30s, Fitzball wrote a number of musicals on nautical themes for the London stage, some adapted from novels and other sources — and Fitzball’s contemporaries viewed his wildly successful adaption of Cooper’s novel as a creditable example of middlebrow British melodrama.

However, instead of concluding with a symbolic representation of the decline of British imperial power, Ball wraps up his play with family drama — The Pilot is not a thinly veiled John Paul Jones, but is converted into the republican Colonel’s estranged brother, who fostered the revolutionary Colonel’s long-lost son Barnstable with a British patriot in order to teach his erring brother a lesson. In the final act, the Britons defeat the Americans, and — as in Cooper’s tale — two sets of young lovers are reunited through a succession of scenarios designed to emphasize the interrelation of national feeling with love and marriage.

Fitzball dispenses with most of the plot points surrounding the mystery of Pilot in Cooper’s novel, focusing instead on glorifying the conventional British tar and on retaining Cooper’s love plot. Both Fitzball and his editor, George Daniel, consider Cooper’s international reputation in their writings. But both responses to The Pilot suggest that the most dramatically effective features of Cooper’s novel are its rhetoric of national manliness and its conflation of love with patriotism. The treatment of love and marriage in both works reveals an ongoing transnational dialogue regarding the relationship of private to public forms of sentiment. Fitzball’s retention of (and minimal revisions to) the love plot of The Pilot, rather than its more explicitly political or adventuresome motifs, illustrates ways that a popular text by a US writer in the 1820s served as a model for understanding how public and private forms of feeling are linked through a transatlantic, melodramatic “alphabet of love.” 2 (Fitzball, 23).

Edward Ball was born in a village near Cambridge in 1793. He settled in London late in 1820, and eventually added his mother’s maiden name, Fitz, to his surname. Largely remembered by theater historians as a popular and prolific dramatist, 108 plays by Fitzball were performed in 24 London playhouses between 1820 and 1851. One such venue, the Coburg in London’s Lambeth Parish, known for horrific thrills & “bloodcurdling penny-dreadful sagas” was dubbed “the Blood Tub.” 3 His body of work is notable both despite — and because of — its variety and its undeniable middlebrow appeal.

Fitzball did a bit of everything — he wrote librettos, nautical burlettas, musicals, and dramas, but he also wrote plays of horror, true crime, patriotic fervor, and lachrymose sentiment. Fitzball adapted a number of French and German plays for a variety of London stages. He also transformed at least two of Scott’s novels into stage dramas complete with musical interludes, for Scott’s romances were an especially popular source of material for the era’s playwrights.

Fitzball’s burletta opens as Barnstable, Long Tom, and Midshipman Merry meet the Pilot on a secluded stretch of the North American coast. They also meet Kate Plowden — in drag, of course — who haunts the shore while trusting that she will serendipitously meet her lover. Barnstable remarks that “It was a scurvy trick of Kate’s old guardian to carry off his ward to America, merely with the idea of uniting her to a man of politics opposed to mine” (I.i; p. 13). As in the novel, Katharine and Cecilia are confined by a guardian who prevents them from marrying men of whom he disapproves on ideological grounds; throughout both works, young love and patriotism vie with feminine propriety and masculine duty in a manner that links martial and marital forms of fervor.

Colonel Howard presses Katharine to marry Borroughliff, a comic bore and “genuine Yankee” (19) whose rustic speech and malapropisms provide myriad jokes. Kate reveals to Cecilia that both Griffith and Barnstable are near, and the scene switches to the decks of His Majesty’s ship Ariel as the Pilot steers the ship past dangerous shoals.

In the second act, Griffith and Barnstable plot to “get” both young women ‘off by stealth” (II. i., p. 24), and Colonel Howard learns that English vessels have been sighted off the coast. Borroughcliff is unruffled to learn about his competition, although Howard reminds him that “the girls, too are evidently inclined to revolt” (II, ii, p. 26): “Oh yes!” says Borroughcliff; “I understand your Englishmen are very devils in love matters; but your American fellows have a genuine knack of their own, I guess.” (II.ii., p. 26). To advance the theme of national differences in manly comportment, Borroughcliff sings a rollicking comic song about the personal beauty of the dashing Yankee Doodle while awaiting the chance to interview two prisoners, who are Griffith and the Pilot in rustic disguise. Kate intercepts him, and attempts to inveigle the key from him with a song. He resists, and she rebuffs him. In the next scene, Long Tom Coffin — in drag, of course — infiltrates Howard’s compound. After Tom scuffles with Borroughcliff, Kate frees Griffith and Barnstable.

The third Act loads on the comic intrigue before closing with a battle and a melodramatic tableau finale. Griffith and Barnstable steal into Colonel Howard’s home via a smuggler’s secret entrance, and they flee along with the young women. The second scene opens with this speech from the Pilot, which establishes masculinity as a driving force behind both domestic love and national feeling:

Brave fellow! He has accomplished his object — he is conducting hither the being who, of all others, is calculated to render him happy. And what is he who would prevent that happiness? an alien to his country, an enemy to its rights and privileges; and shall such a man dash from the lips of a true-born Briton the cup of ecstasy? Never, never, while I stand by, with this tough but honest heart, and this sturdy, though rude arm, to sustain the cause of loyalty, and the best prerogatives of a gallant son of the English navy. (III.ii, p. 39)

In scene three, Howard appears with Marines who imprison Barnstable and try him for treason and spying. As Barnstable is marched to the gallows, the pilot appears and reveals to Howard that they are brothers. The Pilot rescued the Howard’s infant son from a shipwreck, and “to revenge himself on” Howard’s “treachery” the pilot fostered the infant to a British naval captain who raised him to love his King and homeland devotedly (III.iv, p. 48). Howard is horrified to discover that Barnstable is the son whom he had long though to be lost, so Howard and the Pilot rush to his rescue. As they arrive in scene four, Long Tom is attempting to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with the Captain of the US frigate Alacrity, but to no avail. An exchange of fire ensues, the British are victorious, and the lovers are reunited.

Both Cooper and Fitzball depict the actions of heroic individual men on behalf of the state as a way to test the success of disparate political ideologies. But in this instance of transatlantic adaption, the political ideologies need not align-rather, it is the relation of manhood and patriotism that remains the same in these two works. A critical review of The Pilot by one of Fitzball’s influential contemporaries further suggests that, for English readers, the main source of interest in the novel is not its spirited defense of republicanism, but its valorization of manly sailors and its skillful merging of intimate and civic feeling. In 1831 and 1832, London writer George Daniel edited a series of plays called Minor Theatre. Its 14 volumes document the melodramatic and sensational genres that dominated the London theatre scene through much of the nineteenth century. The first play in the first volume of this series is Edward Fitzball’s attenuated adaptation of The Pilot, which was staged at the Adelphi Theater in Westminster for 29 consecutive weeks in 1825. Additionally, in 1829, four different theatres produced competing versions of the The Red Rover — one reworking by Fitzball at the Adelphi, two by uncredited writers at the Coburg and Surrey, and one by R T Weaver at the Duncombe Theatre (Gordan 73). 4 Finally, an anonymous playwright penned a version of The Water-Witch that was staged in London in 1830 — notably, the same year that the novel was published. Apparently, it did not require much time to adapt one of JFC’s novels for the stage.

Incidentally, a number of nautical plays appear throughout the subsequent volumes, testifying to the huge popularity of the genre. In part because it is characterized by a mix of forms and moods, the burletta provides an instructive example of the cultural conditions of London’s “minor” theater. The Theatre Act of 1737 had long dictated that “legitimate drama” would be played only at the two patent — i.e., duly licensed — playhouses — these were Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Serious dramas could also be staged at Haymarket in summer, when the other theatres were not in season. In this era, a “legitimate” production was one that did not include singing, dancing, or “spectacle” (in its variety of sensational forms). 5

Nevertheless, patrons of London theaters in the early nineteenth century favored melodramatic productions. Popular stage productions featured atmospheric (sometimes high-tech) settings, grandiose dialogue, gruesome scenarios, and stock characters. Audiences were rowdy; they loved combat, blood, and onstage revelry. Adaptations and translations abounded, and the men and women of the theatre freely adapted or revised other plays and popular works of fiction, although they more frequently referenced true crimes and scandals. Fitzball wrote in an urban, professional theatre culture arguably characterized by the crossing and commingling of styles, references, idioms, and genres. Itself inspired by The Pirate, an 1821 nautical romance by Walter Scott that was first dramatized by Thomas Didbin in 1822, Cooper’s 1824 sea novel The Pilot was swept up by a popular culture that thrived on synthesis and celebrated unexpected juxtapositions.

At any rate, Fitzball was a part of an energetic middlebrow theatre scene that has been criticized, it seems, for being the very sort of culture that would mine a novel like The Pilot for material. As a result, Daniel’s defense of the minor theater opens with a compliment to Cooper:

This dramatic piece is taken from the well-known tale of the Pilot, written by Mr. Cooper; and here we gladly seize the opportunity of speaking favourably of at least one transatlantic author; for we should as soon think of giving America credit for the paintings of West, as for the writings of Washington Irving; whose education, studies, feelings, associations, and very style, are all purely English. The tale possesses considerable spirit, energy, and boldness of character and colouring, that mark an original genius. It is somewhat overlaid with description, always labouring to produce strong effects; and, as such, is well calculated for theatric exhibition. (V. 1, pg. 5)

Daniel considers issues of language and verisimilitude, acting, and the delightfully rough nature of seafaring men. But in this passage among others, he emphasizes the pleasures of “strong effects” and touching scenes. For Daniel, the strong feelings engendered by Cooper’s mix of the intimate and the public made Cooper’s story translate when it was performed on the other side of the water, and the loves of the British sailor become ideal means to incite and sway an audience that views manliness, femininity, and marriage as best evidence of a nation’s glory.

Likewise, throughout Cooper’s novel, the narrator describes how the adventures of Griffith and Barnstable play out on behalf of their fantasies of domestic tranquility. Although Cooper’s characters may feel that their public roles and private inclinations are not easily reconciled, in The Pilot narrator and characters alike suppose that the public arena exists to safeguard family, marriage, and domestic spaces.

Among many, love is the most important trope that establishes a link between a kind of individual manliness and the collective national glory. Cooper, like Fitzball, makes his patriotic heroes into perfect lovers for meritorious, patriotic ladies, and love — including filial love and loyalty, among other notions or manifestations of family feeling — of nation collapses into a familiar, tightly scripted twinned love plot. As a result, in the novel the intimate relationship of love and citizenship is inscribed in Griffith’s dream of home. As he lies in his bunk, amid “dashing” “billows,” “creaking” “guns,” and a “roaring” “tempest”, “the romantic images of his love” continually interrupt his drowsy reflections on public events; amid his musing on civic matters “His more private feelings would then resume their sway, and the recollection of America, his mistress, and his home, mingled with the confused images of the drowsy youth” (Cooper 60). 6

Griffith’s dream of home articulates the supportive relationship of public action to private feeling. The martial world of Griffith and Barnstable exists to bring them back home; his political impulses and ideals arise from love of nation, of the domestic home, and of a genteel woman. Attitudes about gender roles public and private performances of feeling inform the British and American versions of the same tale. For both writers, such matters as heterosexual relationships and wars seem to work better when male participants act on behalf the nation and the home, as Griffith and Barnstable do in both the novel and the play. Later in Cooper’s version of the tale, Griffith again muses on the emotional ties that bind the sailor to his republican home:

It was a time and a situation to cause the young seaman to ponder deeply on the changes and chances of his hazardous profession. The recollection of home, America, his youthful and enduring passion, and the character and charms of his mistress, blended in a sort of wild and feverish confusion ... (216)

Throughout the novel, the demands of military service appear to be “blended” with the private needs of the “ardent” suitor; Griffith’s yearning for home makes the personally felt urgency of his civic duty increasingly apparent throughout a narrative that blends military adventure and romantic pursuits.

After returning to the States from his expedition, Griffith assumes command of his own vessel. At “the close of the war, ... he entirely withdrew from the ocean, and devoted the remainder of his life to the conjoint duties of a husband and a good citizen” (424). In contrast, his friend Barnstable “was enabled to accomplish a great deal of the more peaceful part of his service accompanied by Katherine, who, having no children, eagerly profited by his consent, to share his privations and hardships on the ocean” (420). The epilogue documents the domestic bliss — both on and off-shore — enjoyed by both couples as a facet of the perfection of heterosexual relations enabled by the enterprising young republican heroes.

This, in the end, explains why Barnstable describes the book of semaphores that Katharine creates to enable clandestine communication with her beloved as an “alphabet of love.” Both Cooper and Fitzball treat love and marriage as keys to a kind of technical lexicon that demonstrates the powerful appeal that Cooper’s strategic linking of love to liberty had both in and outside of the United States.


1 A burletta is a melodrama with vocal music and dancing, accompanied by an orchestra.

2 Fitzball, Edward. “The Pilot: A Nautical Burletta.” Cumberland’s Minor Theatre, volume 1. Ed. George Daniel. John Cumberland: London, n.d.; pp. 2-51. Google Books. Web. 8 December 2011. Subsequent references to the play and to Daniel’s critical commentary are cited in the text. Where appropriate, I have provided both Act and Scene numbers and page numbers from the above PDF document.

3 Clifton, Larry. The Terrible Fitzball: The Melodramatist of the Macabre. Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1993; p. 25. Print.

4 Gordan, John D. “The Red Rover Takes the Boards.” American Literature 10.1 (1938); 66-75. JSTOR. Web. 20 December 2011.

5 For more on the illegitimate theater in the nineteenth century, see Moody, Jane. The Illegitimate Theatre in London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

6 Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea. Albany: State University of New York, 1986. Print. Subsequent references to the novel are incorporated into the text.