Gilbert and Sullivan were the reigning monarchs of British satire at the latter end of the 19th century and were happy to mock anything that came into their line of fire. In their other Cornish-set classic The Pirates of Penzance, the idleness of the lords and gentry is put under a farcical microscope, but their second south-western exploit looks at an artistic movement.
Ruddigore premiered at the Savoy Theatre, London in 1887. Though popular, running for a modest 288 performances in its original run, it was seen as a lesser show compared to its predecessor The Mikado. Where Mikado was a political satire, Ruddigore follows in the steps of 1881’s Patience and examines social faux pas caused by a radical artistic figure or movement. In Patience it was Wilde’s Aestheticism movement, in Ruddigore it is the Gothic movement.
Ruddigore is full of allusions to the Gothic, with mad women, curses, and ghosts making up many of the central themes and characters. It also parodies the popular and often ridiculous melodramas of the time. Where Pirates drew its inspiration from the swashbuckling adventure tales, Ruddigore draws heavily from the likes of the Bronte sisters, Polidori, and the Penny Dreadful magazines. The plot centres on the Murgatroyd Baronets of Ruddigore House and their haunting presence over a fictional Cornish village called Reddering.
It is assumed that Cornwall was chosen as the setting for a similar reason to Pirates – its almost storybook location. The village is a remote fishing hub with a looming manor set high above. These setups can be seen across Cornwall, so no one town could be pinpointed for inspiration. It may have also been because of London’s growing familiarity with the county as a tourist destination. Many city dwellers may have never seen a place quite like 19th century Cornwall and found its remoteness and close-knit communities somewhat unnerving.
In this show we see and hear a darker side to Cornwall – the superstitious and wary locals, the wild sea, and an archaic great house. In the first act is set on the Ruddigore quay in which the locals frequently cite the Baronets of Ruddigore as a source of scorn and disdain. The music reflects this too, with the jaunty folk tunes and nautical reels of the locals being interrupted by Wagnerian swells of the Murgatroyd’s.
Another surprising link to Cornwall through its music is the Act II number “When the Night Wind Howls”, which was heavily inspired by the writing of Wagner with its heavy use of French horns, swelling tremolo strings and violent percussion. It has a lot in common with Wagner’s 1865 opera “Tristan und Isolde”, another story based in and around Cornwall.
The brooding highlands of Scotland or the wilds of the Yorkshire Moors both would have been apt locations for such a story (Murgatroyd being a famous Yorkshire line of the gentry), but one imagines that Gilbert and Sullivan wished to evoke a truly otherworldly feeling for their ghost story. Where else better than the land that lies at the edge of the world, looking out onto the great beyond.