“Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it”
The Monkey’s Paw is a one-act opera in 3 scenes with music by Richard Townhill, libretto by Alasdair King, from the short story by W W Jacobs.We have set it in a small town somewhere in Yorkshire probably at the turn of the 20th century.
W W Jacobs was primarily comedy writer who wrote mainly at the end of the 19th century. However it his creepy masterpiece the monkey’s paw for which he is best known. I first came across the Monkeys Paw as a young boy in the form of a short stage play. My father, teacher at a prep boarding school ran a play reading society as one of the evening activities for the students. Every Friday evening during term time, they would tramp across the school playing fields to our house and plough their way through mainly creaky old early twentieth century comedies and melodramas. It was an annual tradition that the first play of each year would always be the creepy ghost story, The Monkey’s Paw. The basic plot revolved round a small family, the Whites, father, mother and son Herbert and an evening spent with a mysterious Sergeant Major who ends up selling them the eponymous paw, having convinced them that it has the power to grant them 3 wishes.
As the story unfolds, the first wish does indeed come true, but the byproduct of this is the death of the Whites’ son. The climax of the piece sees the Whites wishing their son alive again and the creepy denouement is played out as the undead Herbert bashes manically on the front door as the White’s struggle with each other and their consciences regarding what it would mean to let him in.
I used to have fun each year, playing the undead Herbert banging relentlessly on the door at the appropriate moment, scaring the unsuspecting students witless.
It always struck me that it made the perfect little ghost story, reliant on nothing more than a sound effect for its scares. Likewise, the heightened melodrama of the situation seems to fit the heightened reality of the opera house, and thus many years after my first exposure to the piece, The Monkey’s Paw – the opera is born.
- Richard Townhill
The opera is set in around 1900 in the small house of the White family: Mother, Father and their son Herbert, a bright young man doing well at the local factory.
Herbert and Mother are at home, preparing for dinner. Mother sings of her happy family life and beloved son, Herbert of his new machine at the factory and his future prospects. Father comes home, but sings of his disappointment and unhappiness at his poverty.
Father has invited a Sergeant-Major Morris, a British soldier who served in India. He is charming and roguish and spins a yarn of the Monkey’s Paw, a magic totem that will grant three wishes. Father buys the Paw from him, and wishes for £200 to clear the mortgage. Mother and Herbert tease him, but Father feels the Paw move…
The next morning, Mother sings of her happy life at home, and Father daydreams of his coming fortune from the Paw. There is a knock at the door. Mr. Browning has come from the factory: Herbert has been killed in a horrific accident in the factory machinery, and Mr. Browning has come to offer the Whites £200 compensation. Mother screams and falls insensible.
A week later, the broken couple are alone in the cottage, empty and cold without their son. Mother begins to blame Father for the accident and then remembers the Monkey’s Paw. She makes him wish Herbert back to life with the Paw.
Knocking starts at the door.
Mother breaks away to try to open the door and let in whatever is outside. Father grabs the Paw and desperately wishes Herbert dead and at peace. The knocking stops. Mother throws the door open to reveal… no-one.