And Darkness and Decay and the Novel Coronavirus held illimitable dominion over all

When you work with a classical theatre company you don’t often expect the theme of your productions to speak precisely to the world you’re currently living in. “Classic” stories become classics because they are timeless and perpetually relevant, but the trade-off with timelessness is that they are often at at least a bit of a remove from current events. Certainly when we first adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” in our Midnight Dreary performances a few years ago we could not have anticipated the advent of a deadly and contagious plague sweeping the globe, nor the ineffectual and uncaring response that our lords and masters would offer to the Chief Calamity of the Age. Yet here we are, and I would be remiss in my duties if I did not address the awful parallels and what lessons we may learn, directly instead of allegorically for a change, from the literature of our forebears.

[THIS IS ONE OF THOSE BLOGS WHERE I DISCUSS IN DETAIL WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY IN THE SERVICE OF EDITORIALIZING IT, SO IF YOU WANT TO GO BLIND INTO OUR UPCOMING “MIDNIGHT DREARY” AUDIO PLAY YOU MAY WANT TO SKIP THIS BLOG FOR NOW. AS LONG AS YOU COME BACK AFTER YOU’VE LISTENED. YOU HAVE TO PROMISE. -KH]

I suppose it is not precisely a one-to-one relationship between our current pandemic and the one in our story, for which we may be grateful. The Red Death kills brutally and fast, wracking its victims with stabbing pains and disorientation before “profuse bleeding at the pores”, especially from the face (hence the name), and a blessedly quick death. Our own plague here on Earth Prime, by contrast, works much more slowly and insidiously, presenting mainly as the notoriously vague “flu-like symptoms”, if it presents symptoms at all, before attacking the lungs and the body’s ability to supply oxygen to its organs; either suffocating its victims directly or blocking oxygen receptors in the heart, kidneys, liver, or brain and shutting down those organs. COVID-19 also doesn’t manifest grisly symbolic markers of its passage on our bodies, as the Red Death or Stephen King’s Captain Trips or Tamora Pierce’s Blue Pox or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s insomnia plague or Prince Ashitaka’s curse in Princess Mononoke. [Perhaps because instead of being a fictional malady meant as a metaphor about the evil of the world or overreaching technology or our own mortality or the inherently self-destructive nature of violence, it is an actual deadly disease. Just a thought. -KH] 

Prince Ashitaka, from Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, 1997.

But enough about the disease currently wracking our world and driving into fearful isolation the members of our society it has not managed to kill. Let’s talk about Prince Prospero and his “dauntless and sagacious” solution to the horrible disease ravaging the countryside.

Prospero wields his vast power and wealth to utterly ignore the plague sweeping the nation. He abrogates his responsibility to his subjects in favor of serving his whims, sequestering himself and one thousand of his closest friends and relations from the outside world. Locking themselves in and literally welding the doors shut behind them. His Xanadu he stocks with performers and wine, the better to “bid defiance to contagion” and while away this plague in comfort and distraction. [If I’m being honest I can’t fully fault Prospero for this. I would not have made it this far into COVID lockdown without wine. -KH] The prince and his companions choose not to see the world outside the walls, as though they had hidden their heads in the sand, or stuffed their fingers in their ears and squeezed their eyes shut, or hidden under their blanket and whispered “There’s no such thing as monsters” over and over. Out of sight, out of mind.

If all Prince Prospero had done was shut his eyes to the Red Death, it would have been cowardly and selfish enough. But instead of simply quarantining from the plague Prospero capitalizes on it, treating it as a holiday. After about half a year spent in idle distraction Prospero throws a massive party for himself, a progressive dinner of seven color-coded rooms, culminating in a massively tasteless final room appointed all in black, illuminated with red light and dominated by a massive clock marking the hours.

At the stroke of midnight Prospero is confronted by…something, attired as a victim of the Red Death, seemingly summoned to fete along with the other elites of the principality. The prince is outraged by the appearance of the spectre, not because of the distastefulness of the costume, but by the REMINDER it represents of the terror raging outside his crenellated abbey walls. In his sanctuary Prospero was afforded the luxury of flouting the hellish disease and the massacre it wreaked upon the countryside, but he and his fellows cannot ignore the reality of this figure as it intrudes on their refuge. As they defied the contagion in their willful ignorance, so the contagion defies them with its presence, forcing them to come to terms, in the only way possible, with the reality they had pretended for months they could ignore.

“The Masque of the Red Death”, by Harry Clarke, for Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.

If you, too, would like to come to terrible grips with your mortality through the medium of Edgar Allan Poe audio dramas, I have some excellent news for you: preorders for both of our Midnight Dreary audio plays are available now! Episode 1, featuring “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado”, will be released this Friday, October 16th. Episode 2, featuring “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Premature Burial”, will be released on Wednesday, October 28th. You can purchase them HERE! And don’t forget to pick up the extras packages, to add context and ambience to your listening experience. Operators are standing by!

Yours in Quarantine,

Keith Hock, Blogslave

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