Discover the story of Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers.
Sunday afternoon, and a deprived community are heading to the chapel. With the wind picking up, they contemplate a night of wrecking: an occupation they depend on for survival. They’ve had little success for months and Tallan the pub landlord offers beers to mask their gnawing hunger and get them in the mood for a shipwreck. Pasko, their leader and pastor interrupts the party, looking for his wife. Provoked by her absence, he blames their lack of success on their lack of faith.
Avis laughs at their blind devotion and offers an alternative theory. Her father, Laurent the lighthouse keeper, switches off his lighthouse every night to encourage shipwrecks but without results. He is convinced someone is lighting beacons along the coast to divert the ships to safety. They swear they will find and punish the traitor.
Pasko’s young wife Thurza returns home and refuses to join the others in worship. They mock her foreignness and wifely disobedience. Only the chapel bells subdue their threats.
As the villagers disperse to the chapel, Avis overhears her boyfriend Marc singing a love song. To her horror she discovers he’s singing about someone else. Worse still, when the pastor’s wife Thurza emerges from her house, she’s singing the very same song.
Pasko reprimands his wife Thurza for working on a holy day and refusing to worship. He turns on Avis and strips her of her jewellery. Humiliated, Avis secretly vows to get even with both of them.
Thurza rebukes her husband’s doctrine of wrecking in the name of God. He tries to reassure her with his pastorly wisdom and husbandly affection but she is resolute.
The community emerge from the chapel shaken by worship. A storm is brewing and they need Pasko to tell them what to do in preparation for a shipwreck. But he wanders off, too dazed by his wife’s vitriol to care about a storm.
Avis seizes on Pasko’s odd behaviour and tells Laurent that Pasko must be the traitor. She explains it’s because his wife can’t stand him touching her and it’s driving him mad. Laurent warns against jumping to conclusions and organises a small search party to find out who the traitor really is. The others whip themselves up in readiness for slaughter on the beach.
The search party has split up along the coast with Tallan’s young son Jacquet pursuing Pasko in order to impress Avis.
Marc sees Jacquet and Avis kissing and though worried about how he’s treated Avis, he can’t stop thinking about Thurza. He’d do anything for her, including build fires to divert ships away from the rocks.
Thurza has found out about the search party and stops Marc from lighting the fire. Marc can’t bear having to keep their love secret and announces he will leave Cornwall so that Thurza can get on with her life. But the thought of never seeing him again and having to stay with Pasko sickens Thurza. When they hear the search party approaching, Marc presses Thurza to leave with him, even though it will mean they never again light fires to save lives. Thurza defiantly lights the fire one last time and the lovers agree to leave the following day.
Pasko is wandering along the coast, entreating God to help him control his agonising lust for Thurza. The beacon of fire rouses him from his reverie; he cannot believe anyone would betray the community in this way, until he sees his wife’s scarf by the fire.
Laurent and his search party arrive at the fire and see Pasko lying in the sand. Avis accuses him of being the traitor but Laurent waits to hear what Pasko has to say. Pasko refuses to speak and Laurent orders a trial.
The community have been summoned to the cave at dawn amidst rumours of the traitor being found. Laurent arrives and explains they must be judge and jury to decide the fate of their leader Pasko. Laurent presents the evidence and accuses Pasko of treachery, but the pastor refuses to defend himself. Avis claims that his witch of a wife is to blame but Thurza dismisses her accusations, arguing that the ‘crime’ of lighting fires is justified. The community are incensed and try to hang Thurza. Laurent draws their attention back to Pasko’s silence as proof of guilt and calls for Pasko’s death.
Before Pasko is condemned, Marc confesses to lighting the fires. Thurza backs up his story and reveals her love for Marc. Avis tries to insist Marc is innocent and provides a false alibi saying she spent the night with him in bed. As a result she is cast out of the community by her father.
Pasko tries to force Thurza to repent but she publicly denounces him as a coward and refuses to atone for her actions. Both she and Marc defy their accusers.
Laurent pronounces the grim sentence: the traitor Marc and the adulterer Thurza will be left to the rising tide and condemned to a fate decided by the sea.
Watch The Wreckers on demand
From August 2022 you can watch our ★★★★★ Festival 2022 production of La bohème on Glyndebourne Encore, our new streaming service.
Image credits: The Wreckers, Festival 2022, photos by Richard Hubert Smith