An operetta based on the eponymous giant lumberjack from American folklore, Britten‘s Paul Bunyan incorporates a variety of musical styles including folk songs and hymns.
This tall tale sees a man who is as high as the Empire State Building lead a team of lumberjacks to create their dreams of a new world, along with his companion Babe the Blue Ox.
Prologue In the forest
A group of Young Trees rebel against the complacent, old-fashioned habits of the Old Trees. Three Wild Geese enter and prophesy the birth of Paul Bunyan at the next Blue Moon. At first the Old Trees are anxious, for Bunyan will eventually clear the forest to make way for civilisation. However, they console themselves with the thought that the moon never changes colour. The moon promptly turns blue and the forest recognises that its pattern of life will alter.
The First Ballad Interlude relates the birth and early life of Paul Bunyan, mythical logger of immense proportions.
Scene 1 A clearing in the forest on a spring morning
Bunyan has recruited a cosmopolitan team of lumberjacks. He searches for a foreman to organise the work. Four Swedish candidates present themselves, but none is deemed suitable. A telegram arrives from the King of Sweden who informs Bunyan that Hel Helson, the King’s best lumberjack, is on his way. Helson is duly appointed foreman, and Sam Sharkey and Ben Benny are employed as cooks. A dog (Fido) and two cats (Moppet and Poppet) are also conscripted, in addition to Johnny Inkslinger, who eventually agrees to take on the position of book-keeper. A Quartet of Defeated sings a blues. Paul bids everyone goodnight.
The Second Ballad Interlude tells of the work of the camp, Bunyan’s marriage to Carrie, the birth of their daughter, Tiny, and Carrie’s death.
Scene 2 The camp
Inkslinger bows to pressure from the lumberjacks and complains about Sam and Ben’s cooking which comprises a surfeit of soup and beans. They leave in a huff and Inkslinger finds himself accused by the Four Swedes. Fortunately, Inkslinger replaces Sam and Ben with Hot Biscuit Slim, a cowboy who also happens to be an excellent cook. Bunyan returns to the camp accompanied by Tiny, who creates a great deal of interest among the men. Inkslinger tells his life story before the Four Swedes hymn Tiny’s attractions and commend themselves to her. Inkslinger tells them to leave her alone: she is grieving for her dead mother. Tiny goes off with Slim to help in the kitchen, much to Inkslinger’s regret. Inkslinger fills Bunyan in on what has happened during his absence, and they say their goodnights.
Interval of 20 minutes
Scene 1 A clearing in the forest
Bunyan establishes farmers on the land that has been cleared. While Bunyan is away Helson is put in charge of the camp. He begins to feel exploited and his skills unacknowledged; urged on by his cronies he decides to make a bid to challenge Bunyan’s leadership. After Helson is mocked on all sides, Fido feigns sympathy, at which Moppet and Poppet sing a creed to the superior self-sufficiency of cats. Bunyan returns and he and Helson fight. Tiny and Slim proclaim their love as the fight continues. Helson loses and his unconscious body is carried in a mock funeral march. He comes to his senses (in both meanings) and repudiates his cronies before everyone joins in a hymn of reconciliation.
The Third Ballad Interlude tells of the reconciliation of Helson and Bunyan, Tiny and Slim’s love and the territorial spread of Bunyan’s achievements.
Scene 2 The Christmas party
Bunyan’s work is accomplished and he must move on to clear other forests. For those who remain, the life of choice begins: Tiny and Slim are to be married, and are to run a hotel in Manhattan; Helson is bound for Washington to join the Administration; and Inkslinger is summoned to Hollywood. Paul Bunyan bids a final farewell, telling everyone that America will become what they choose to make of it.