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Stuart McRae


Louise Welsh


Short story The Bottle Imp (1890) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94)



First Performance: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 23 January 2016.



The Bottle Imp was written by Stevenson during a visit to Samoa, and first published the following year, from February 1891, in instalments in the New York Herald. A couple of months later the tale appeared in a London magazine, Black and White. It was issued in book form in Island Nights' Entertainments in 1893. The operatic adaptation clearly makes some radical changes to characters and locale.



Richard (tenor)

James (baritone)

Old Man (bass-baritone)

Catherine (mezzo-soprano)

Vagrant (bass-baritone)


Plot Summary: the original Tale

Stevenson's original story, written for a Polynesian audience, revolves round a Hawaiian islander named Keawe, a sailor. Inspired by a desire to see a bit of the world, he ships to San Francisco. As he explores the town, he stops to admire a particularly attractive villa. The owner comes out, and in an amicable conversation explains how he obtained this lovely home. He is the possessor of a bottle, completely sealed and unbreakable, which contains some form of spirit, an imp. He bought this, having been told that it will grant all his wishes, including wealth and property. The only provisos are firstly, that if he dies in possession of the bottle he will go to Hell for eternity; secondly that he cannot give it away, but must sell it for less than he paid, and only first having given the prospective purchaser a full account of these facts.

The plot follows Keawe as he returns to Hawaii, becomes prosperous and builds a beautiful house. He marries an attractive and loving wife. But eventually Keawe starts to worry about the future. He manages to sell the bottle, and the new buyer im his turn becomes happy and wealthy, but Keawe is consumed by guilt. When he tells his wife the facts she is willing to sacrifice her own soul to relieve his guilt - so she buys it back herself. But Keawe is now appalled. At last the solution is achieved when the bottle is purchased by a sailor who has led a life of drunkenness and debauchery. He reckons that his life has been so badly misspent that he is already destined for an eternity in Hell. Reasoning that he may as well enjoy his last years on earth, he happily takes on the burden.


Plot Summary: the Opera

Louise Welsh's adaptation updates the story to the present and starts with a fundamental change, in that the central character is divided in two. Richard and James are close friends. On a hillwalking expedition they become marooned in a blizzard, but are saved when they see the lights of a house in the distance. They take shelter and the owner tells them how he obtained this beautiful home. Richard wants the bottle, but has no money with him. He persuades James to buy it. As time passes James builds up a business empire and becomes rich. He sells the bottle to Richard and they go their separate ways. James marries Catherine and they are happy. But before the hoped-for pregnancy Catherine becomes terminally ill. James realizes that only the imp can save her.

James tracks Richard to his reclusive home only to find that Richard has sold the bottle - in fact has bought and resold it on several occasions, is terrified by it and addicted to it at the same time. He gives James details of the current owner and James duly buys it back. Catherine is cured of her illness and is again desperate to have a child. To explain the onset of his depression, James tells her of the bottle and its powers. He bought it for one penny so cannot sell it. She wonders if it could be used to bring about the pregnancy, but James is horrified at the idea. She suggests that they can take it abroad where the smallest unit of currency may be less. They travel, but find no takers. At last a vagrant demands to buy it - he will be dead soon and wants money to provide for his family. James sells it to him. However it was Catherine who persuaded the vagrant to buy it, having promised to take it off his hands. With some trepidation she does so and the old man goes. James is horrified that she has taken this action out of love for him.

They are found by Richard, now broken in health and desperate for a last session with the bottle. He buys it and promptly makes his last wish - that they should have a healthy child. He then unseals the bottle, gulps down its contents, suffers some nasty convulsions and dies. Will that end the matter of the imp and its curse? What kind of child will Catherine and James produce?

The Cast

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