Detective Fiction: The Rules of the Game

Hello again! Sales have begun for the second episodes in our highly popular and well-regarded Detective Audio series, featuring the cunning Sherlock Holmes and the irrepressible Loveday Brooke, and you all know what that means! It means I’m back to talk some more about whatever fool idea comes into my head, to pique your interest in those same audio plays and to hopefully encourage you to purchase them [they make great holiday presents! Just ask my entire family at the end of the month -KH] [But don’t tell them -KH] This time that topic will be a continuation of my series on detective stories. Last time we talked about their pedigree, where they came from and who begat whom, as well as a quick gloss on the variant forms they can come in. Today we will discuss what makes a detective story tick; the rules, both unwritten and thoroughly codified, that people have imposed on the genre. What’s more, last time we spoke I made you all a promise, if you’ll recall. Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, as I learned from my grandfather from his recitations of The Cremation of Sam McGee at family reunions, and I promised last time I would more thoroughly unpack the wide variety of subgenres and offshoots that can trace their origins back to the Detective story.

As I mentioned last time we spoke, our heroes, Sherlock Holmes and Loveday Brooke, are early figures in the history of the genre. Though not the first, Holmes is unquestionably the most famous detective in literature and laid much of the groundwork for future stories. Loveday Brooke is a contemporary of his, and while being both a woman and a working-class detective are noticeable departures from the norm, neither of those facets noticeably impact her sleuthing or the kinds of mysteries she is called upon to solve. Neither of our characters deviate from the classic Detective in the classic Detective story, in any of the myriad ways we will soon explore that a story can. In fact they are in many ways what their descendants are reacting to and turning away from, in their feverish propagation of new kinds of mysteries and new ways to solve them.

But before we delve into THAT topic we have to determine what makes a Detective story. Unlike pornography, which can only be identified on a case-by-case basis, there are rules that a story must follow to fit into the genre. Obviously there must be a detective character of some sort.  Equally obviously there must be a crime or mystery for them to solve, otherwise it is just a boring naturalist story about a detective buying groceries or whatever. The detective must have some sort of assistant or sidekick audience-surrogate figure to bounce ideas off of [N.B. this character can but does not HAVE to be the same person each time; Holmes has Dr. Watson but Hercule Poirot gets dealt a random police lieutenant or family friend or former associate for every mystery -ed.] And not strictly mandatory but ubiquitous enough to bear mention is an upper/upper-middle class backdrop to the story, an environment of money and Society which explains not only why all of the suspects have time to answer questions from a nosy detective for several days, but also how they can afford to retain a consulting detective and why they would like to keep the incipient scandal under wraps, and the pots of money floating around keeps the “stands to inherit/debts to cover” motive in play. There is a reason that the traditional setting for a murder mystery is a party at a manor house.

From Paramount Picture’s 1985 Clue. Left-Right: Tim Curry as Mr. Boddy, Lesley Ann Warren as Miss Scarlett, Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum, Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard, Michael McKeen as Mr. Green, and Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock

As the years passed, and the detective story became more and more popular, this bare set of rules was deemed insufficient and more stringent qualifications were proposed, ostensibly to maintain the high quality of story that the reading public demanded but serving mainly (in the nature of gatekeeping requirements everywhere) to limit the playing field to the “appropriate” kinds of stories and writers. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a number of authors wrote guides attempting to codify the tenets of a proper Detective story. Two of those authors, S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox, went so far as to create enumerated lists to be followed, Van Dine’s Credo of 20 rules and Knox’s Decalogue (or the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction). Some of these rules seem reasonable for making the stories “fair” (that is, solvable) for the audience; rules like No Twins, No Hunches, Only One Secret Passage, The Killer Has To Be Introduced Early, and The Killer Can’t Be The Detective. Others were more of a stylistic preference, like No Romance, The Crime Must Be Murder, No Supernatural Elements, No Conspiracies, The Sidekick Has To Be A Little Dumber Than The Audience, and No Literary Pretensions Distracting From The Mystery. And then some were just downright offensive: The Killer Must Be A Person Of Quality, Not A Servant or No Chinamen [in fairness to Ronald Knox, his complaint was a reaction to the use of Yellow Peril stereotypes in the stories of his contemporaries, not a personal antipathy. But still, not the most sensitive of rules -KH] Regardless of their intentions these rules, if assiduously followed, would have an enormously chilling effect on the form; a seasoned reader may note that many of these requirements would disqualify a number of Sherlock Holmes stories and, if practiced in toto, would reduce the burgeoning detective genre to little more than a category of especially prolix logic puzzles.

File:039.Moses Comes Down from Mount Sinai.jpg
Moses Comes Down From Mt. Sinai, by Gustave Dore, 1866.

But more germane to my current thesis: you don’t ban something unless there is a reason to do so. These rules came into being as a reaction to the sorts of stories being written. And the writers of those stories, unsurprisingly, felt no particular need to obey these commandments, but rather continued to tell the stories THEY were interested in telling. Many of these stories have, justly or wrongly, disappeared from the public consciousness [or at least from MY sphere of awareness and light research for the purposes of writing this post -KH] but the influence they must have had is as clear as day in the existence of their descendants, clearly utilizing some of the structure of the detective genre while embellishing in some way to create their own form.

One of the earlier offshoots, occupying a unique position, is the rise of child and Young Adult detectives. If you’ll remember from my discussion of Treasure Island, YA fiction (in my calculus) is not quite its own form but a subgenre of the corresponding adult fiction genre, with some changes meant to aim the stories at children. Take for example Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, the power behind the throne of the Idaville police department. Encyclopedia Brown doesn’t follow hunches that happen to be correct. He doesn’t conceal his thinking from the audience or his Watson, bodyguard Sally Kimball. His nemesis Bugs Meany may be the leader of a gang, the Tigers, but it isn’t a hidden secret society, and never do his solutions hinge on hidden doors or body doubles. No doubt S. S. Van Dine would approve, if only Idaville had been filled with the tiny broken bodies of murdered children for Brown to investigate, instead of missing baseball cards or rotting pumpkins.

Brown was just one of a host of child detectives, all solving age-appropriate mysteries with more or less of the appropriate rigor for our Arbiters of Quality Messrs Knox and Van Dine in their investigations. Some of the older children, such as the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, experience rather more adventure in their adventures; seldom does a Nancy Drew book go by without a chapter titled “Kidnapped!”, and Frank and Joe brawled with more than their share of smugglers while unravelling the mystery of Pirate’s Cove. But one set of detectives stands out in the catalogue of child detectives for more than just toeing the line between mystery and adventure story.

The Mystery Machine cartoon van
The Mystery Machine, from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! 1969-1970

Setting aside their talking dog for a moment, Fred Jones, Jr., Daphne Blake, Velma Dinkley, and Norville “Shaggy” Rogers almost exclusively solved mysteries of a supernatural nature; ghosts and Bigfoots and haunted robots who were trying to steal from museums or defraud amusement parks or smuggle gold. While the true culprit was always some elderly malcontent in a rubber fright store mask, the story was always oriented around unravelling the meaning of the supernatural doings plaguing the town. Nor were they the only child sleuths with a mystical facet to their stories. Ghost Writer, of the eponymous show, was a ghost under a curious curse that only allowed them to interact with the material plane to highlight and interact with words and letters, and who (naturally) used these powers to aid a multicultural group of Brooklyn teens in solving mysteries, perhaps in hope of accruing enough good deeds to be freed from their eternal torment and allowed to rest.

While our Mystery Authorities, Knox and Van Dine, would surely choke on their pipe smoke at the spooky silliness and lack of solvability of all these stories, they certainly hold to at least the spirit of a detective story, which cannot truly be said for my next topic: NON-child-oriented supernatural mysteries. Or perhaps I should just directly say Adult Supernatural Mysteries, because these stories seem, for whatever reason, to veer quickly and heavily into Supernatural Romance. Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, the basis of True Blood, are officially titled the Southern Vampire Mysteries, but a more accurate description for them would be Vampire Action Erotica. Also fitting into this category would be the Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton, about the Federal Vampire Executioner of Saint Louis and her dangerously inaccurate experiences with the Monster BDSM community. Lip service is paid to the idea of a mystery to solve, but the main focus of these stories is less meticulously investigating, collecting, and evaluating clues, and more putting the main characters in mystical peril and finding them ever-more-beautiful men to sleep with. Though in fairness, any story involving vampires has to work pretty hard to not become a SEXY story involving vampires, as I have addressed in the past.

Angel from Buffy
David Boreanaz as Angel, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. Still the sexiest of all vampires.

Anita Blake at least does have SOME structural bones in common with yet another subgenre of detective fiction that has blossomed into its own form; the Police Procedural. The Police Procedural, which you will probably most recognize from your sick days when you’re bored at home and turn on TNT and watch ten straight hours of NCIS, asks a novel question of the audience: What if there WASN’T a preternaturally clever Consulting Detective available to leisurely crack the case, and instead it was just Lestrade and his companions on the police force, doing their level best to solve it with their regular human brains, collaboration, and a lot of legwork. The focus, as you may have guessed from the name of the genre, is on observing the day-to-day procedures of a police department as they go about their investigation, conducting forensic studies on the crime scene, following up on leads, conducting interviews and interrogations, sometimes all the way up to testifying in the trial. These stories are not generally about proving the cleverness of the detectives and by extension the audience for cracking a difficult case, but rather showing a still heightened but more realistic depiction of the process by which actual criminal investigations take place. Knox and Van Dine would surely have barely considered these stories as worthy of the name detective fiction, being so concerned with the crass and contemptible world of the lower and middle classes.

Law & Order - Wikipedia
DUN DUN

Harry Dresden of the Dresden Files, despite being Chicago’s Only Wizard P.I., also managed to dodge being tarred with the same Vampire Action Erotica brush as Ms. Stackhouse and Ms. Blake. His series is, first of all, less sexy than those books, which is pretty remarkable for a series in which a prominent recurring character is an incubus. And second, Dresden may be a wizard, but he is also a hard-boiled detective, and hard-boiled detectives are SUPPOSED to get into fistfights and have guns pulled on them. Hard-boiled detective stories approach their mysteries the same way that police procedurals do, with legwork. The only difference is that hard-boiled detectives don’t have the institutional resources of a police department. Hard-boiled detectives solve crimes with brute force, both the mathematical concept and the literal use of physical strength. Philip Marlowe, Jack Reacher, Jake Gittes, and the nameless Continental Op aren’t smarter than the reader, as many literary detectives are. They’re just more cynical, having earned their mistrust the hard way with years of witnessing the worst humanity has to offer in their dogged pursuit of the truth, both on the dusty streets of Poisonville and in the seamy underbelly of high society. Their (oft-broken) nose for clues and savviness about the hunt would surely entertain our pals Knox and Van Dine; Philip Marlowe carries around exotic grass seeds, foreign cigarette butts, and matchbooks from bars he’s never been to, to sprinkle around crime scenes and baffle forensic examiners. But the detectives’ insistence upon falling in love with every pair of legs that walked through their glass door is a clear violation of their No Romance rule.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick
From Focus Features’ 2005 Brick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye. My favorite movie of all time.

And finally here we come to the final mystery subgenre with which I am enough acquainted to discuss, the Cozy Mystery. If we were to recategorize the stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, this is where they would most closely fit. Cozy Mysteries are stories about isolated, unexpected crimes visited upon small, quiet communities, either where the detective lives or happens to be visiting. The detectives may be a retired or independent sleuth themselves, like Poirot and Ms. Marple, who conveniently happens to be in the neighborhood, or they may be simply talented amateurs, such as novelist Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote or Father Brown. While the crimes in question are often murder [meeting with the approval of our Review Board –KH], they are only ever discovered, never witnessed by the audience, and are none too gory, gruesome, or shocking. There is seldom any romance to speak of, and any that occurs is typically on the chaste-r side. The world and characters tend to be soft and a little quirky, without being out-and-out wacky or bizarre. The stories engender a calm, safe, warm, comforting…frankly, Cozy feeling when read or watched. They play fairly closely to the rules of the Game as set out in the Golden Age, with the exception that the aim is less to challenge the reader to compete with the detective (and through them the author) and instead to relaxingly follow along with the detective as they piece the puzzle together.

But our detective stories don’t fit into any of these categories. Sherlock Holmes and Loveday Brooke predate even the Golden Age writers, and are not bound by their rules. Certainly they, like many of their colleagues and descendants in the pure detective line, fall closest to the Cozy Mystery as well, but their world is too broad and their dangers too real to exactly fit the bill. Their adventures transcend subcategorization, and must be experienced to be truly appreciated and understood. Fortunately for you there is still time for you (and your loved ones!) to appreciate these before the holidays! All four of our packages, both current and previous adventures for Sherlock and Loveday, are available now! The sooner you order them the sooner we send them, and the better your chances are of them arriving for Christmas!

Detective Audio Plays, Season 2: A (Belated) Introduction

Hello again everybody! Long time no see! It is I, your dutiful, loyal, and long-suffering Literary Director, Box Office Manager, and Blogslave, returning from my interminable absence to enlighten my adoring audience about our recently-announced and highly-anticipated follow-ups to our Audio-Mysteries [oops. Strike this hyphen. Got a little dash-happy there -ed.]

Ordinarily I write these blogs in conjunction with the release of our shows, nominally as a part of our marketing campaign but mostly because I, along with the rest of the company, am hip-deep in the text we are working on and have many thoughts and interpretations, which everybody else gets to share viscerally on stage or in audio, but which I am forced by my lack of acting ability or design sensibilities to express via the hallowed medium of the Blog Post. But for our initial Mystery run, thanks to an extremely positive article in the Washington Post, we had no need for my far inferior writing to advertise the show. Moreover, a myriad of real-life personal issues, including but not limited to a literal broken leg (irony of ironies), prevented me from composing one at a reasonable time. So instead I am sharing with you some thoughts about mysteries, their origins, and our intrepid detectives now, to correspond with some details about our upcoming Episodes 2! A plus of this weird, late blog entry is that I don’t have to be cagey or cryptic about our previous stories, always a tricky line to walk when discussing mysteries and detective fiction. Instead I will be cagey and cryptic about our UPCOMING stories, to build suspense.

From Fox Picture’s 1975 Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter, Susan Sarandon as Janet

But I am putting Descartes before the whores, as the madam said when she took up philosophy. First we need to talk about mysteries. But really, what we need to talk about is detectives. You can’t solve a mystery without a detective! And if you know me at all, you know that I’m going to start at the very beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start. [I learned that from a disgraced former nun who fled Austria in the early days of the Second World War -KH]

Edgar Allan Poe, unlike the horror genre with which he is mainly associated, and the science fiction genre which only officious pedants associate him with, does have a legitimate and widely-recognized claim to the invention of the detective story. His creation C. Auguste Dupin, the protagonist of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, and “The Purloined Letter”, is commonly seen as the first Literary Detective. The Mystery Writers of America’s annual award, the Edgar, is named in honor of We Happy Few’s second-favorite depressive alcoholic. [behind yours truly -KH] This is not to say that Poe single-handedly invented the idea of solving a mystery out of whole cloth. There are examples of mysteries to be solved, and characters solving them, in the German Gothic and French Enlightenment traditions, as well as stories with what we would recognize as mystery elements in 1001 Arabian Nights and Shakespeare, to say nothing of the Chinese gong’an, or Crime Case, genre (of which the Circle of Chalk is a well-known example). Poe’s innovation was to make the story center around the detective, hide the resolution from the reader until the end, and have the detective character explain the solution for the benefit of the audience.

In any case Mssr. Dupin, Chevalier de la Legion D’honneur, opened the floodgates for all sorts of cunning, clever detectives to follow in his footsteps. Obviously the most famous was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but there also followed Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Montague Egg, Seishi Yokomizo’s Kosuke Kindaichi, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret, and scores of their peers, all private detectives solving cases the police could not, often making them look like fools in the process. From the ever flowing stream of the detective genre branched subgenres of all stripes, including (but not limited to!) the gentler Cozy Mysteries such as Christie’s Miss Marple or my mother’s favorite, Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie Brown’s Mrs. Murphy, plucky and precocious Child detectives like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Scooby Gang, and the gin-swilling, gun-toting, cigarette-chomping Hardboiled detectives favored in America, such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and (my personal favorite) Dashiell Hammett’s nameless Continental Op. To say nothing of supernatural mysteries or police procedurals, both in their turn spawning, hydra-like, a host of related sub-subgenres.

The hotly-anticipated 30th adventure of Mrs. Murphy and her menagerie of helpful animals. Expected out October 12th, 2021.

I will come back to these in another blog. I don’t have time to explore in depth the innumerable subdivisions of detective stories, nor the rules, both unofficial and codified, for what makes a story both True Detective Fiction and fair to the audience. Not when I have our two detectives to, at long last, introduce! And especially not when they are both orthodox detectives, having arrived on the scene long before the genre began to Balkanize. I am speaking, of course, of Mister Sherlock Holmes and Miss Loveday Brooke, two private detectives working in the greater London area in the waning years of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Holmes, of course, needs no introduction, being one of the most iconic characters in literary history. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s, he has the honor of being the second most-portrayed literary character in the history of film, behind only fellow We Happy Few alumnus Dracula, and that is without counting his knockoffs like Basil of Baker Street, the Great Mouse Detective. Sherlock Holmes, with his deerstalker cap and faithful companion Dr. Watson in tow, is almost certainly the first image conjured to mind when the subject of detectives comes up. His idiosyncrasies, his aloof, even cold manner to his clients, his craving for intellectual stimulation, his fondness for disguise, and especially his habit of making tremendously accurate logical leaps from scant evidence, all make him the Very Model of a Modern Consulting Detective, the gold standard by which all others are judged. Small wonder that when we conceived of the Detective Audio Play series, we knew that Sherlock Holmes would make an appearance.

Basil of Baker Street. From Disney’s 1986 The Great Mouse Detective

And yet you will observe that we did NOT begin the project with the Detective of Baker Street. Our first (and much more successful) story in the series featured the talents of Miss Loveday Brooke, of the Lynch Court Detective Agency, created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis in the 1890s. By contrast to Mr. Holmes and many other literary detectives she is NOT of nebulous but independent means, and must use her remarkable talents of deduction and observation for a paycheck, instead of merely for her own amusement. She is also, notably, a Lady Detective, another rarity in this era. But unlike many of her female colleagues she does not solve Cozy Mysteries at manor house garden parties or in sleepy seaside villages with the help of her cat. Brooke is in a class all by herself, twice over: a working-class detective in an era dominated by gentlemen of leisure taking jobs to while away the hours, and a tough and smart woman proving herself more than a match for the bumbling police or her well-meaning but blustering employers. She is exactly We Happy Few’s favorite kind of character, and we are thrilled beyond measure to be able to resurrect her for a new audience.

We are delighted to bring both of these detectives back to you in our second installment of our Detective Audio Plays. Mr. Holmes plays with fire while solving the Adventure of the Norwood Builder, while Ms. Brooke puts her life on the line to uncover the Murder at Troyte’s Hill. In just a few short months, you will have the opportunity to solve the mysteries right alongside our detectives, even down to looking at the same clues, when you receive our Audience Experience package. Keep your eyes peeled in November, when both of these packages will go on sale. And if you missed out on the first mysteries, they are still available HERE as well!

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

Count of Monte Cristo: Sad News and Sandwiches

NOTE: I began writing this blog before we knew that the run of Count of Monte Cristo would be cancelled, but I had too much fun writing about sandwiches for a thousand+ words to not share it with you all, and I figured that now was as good a time as any for some levity. So I’m sorry that this isn’t like a history of infectious disease and its relation to the theatre or something, sorry I couldn’t write up an essay about London theatres being closed during epidemic outbreaks or how the action of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is predicated on the city being emptied of its wealthiest inhabitants out of fear of the Plague. Hopefully in the future I’ll have more lead time and can put something like that together. -KH, Blogslave

Last week I shared with you all the historical context essential to the understanding of The Count of Monte Cristo, not only because it is my job to give you the audience the information that you will need to appreciate the show that my friends and I worked so hard to create for you, but also because history is one of my great passions. History is something I care about and trouble myself to understand deeply, because knowing and understanding history makes me feel connected to humanity at large. I’m a traditionalist sort of guy [sneak in to a pitch meeting some time to see just how boring, backwards and basic old-fashioned my show suggestions tend to be -KH] and the study of history gives me a comforting sense of continuity and fellowship with mankind.

This week, in an incredibly inadequate replacement for the Opening Night we were supposed to have tonight, I want to share with you another of my great passions, one about which I feel at least as strongly, and which comforts me at least as deeply, as the study of history. I am talking, of course, about sandwiches. And specifically, the Monte Cristo sandwich; what it is, how to make it, and arguably most importantly for the blog of a theatre company, what in the Sam Hill it could possibly have in common with our new show other than the name. Of all our shows in the past 9 years, this is the first time I have been able to shoehorn in a sandwich discussion [and I’ve been trying, believe-you-me -KH], and I’m certainly not going to let an opportunity like this go to waste. Please indulge me.

First things first: What is it? The Monte Cristo is one of a handful of sandwiches whose name is not self-explanatory, like Egg Salad or Beef on Weck or BLT or Turkey-Swiss Panini or Sausage Egg & Cheese McMuffin. It instead shares the cryptic naming convention of the Reuben, the Elvis, the Club, or that lovely French couple, Mr. and Mrs. Crunch themselves, the croque monsieur and croque madame. The Monte Cristo also defies simple description; it is one of the more…complicated sandwiches that I can think of, and as you might imagine from what you’ve read already I spend a lot of time thinking about sandwiches. It has three slices of bread, two kinds of meat, mandatory compression (an element shared only by the panini and archaic internet darling the Shooter’s Sandwich), egg batter, and is pan-fried [if you’re a Food Sinner it also has powdered sugar and raspberry jam -ed.] The best comparison I can make is a grilled cheese combined with a club sandwich, made with French toast.

So, second things second: how do you make it? [In case this wasn’t clear, this will indeed be one of those “three paragraphs of nonsense before the recipe” recipe. You know, those things everybody hates? But instead of being supposed to be a recipe, this is supposed to be an essay about what Monte Cristo sandwiches have to do with the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo, and We Happy Few’s adaptation thereof, so really this is the meaningless paragraph, not the previous ones -ed.] You start with the bread. Three slices, ideally brioche or something else rich and/or spongy. Like with French toast a little stale is fine, perhaps even ideal; my girlfriend taught me that in France French toast is called pain perdu, ‘lost bread’, because it is a way to use bread that you wouldn’t ordinarily eat, so dont fret about the freshness. Spread one slice with dijon mustard, then top with a slice of swiss cheese and two slices of deli turkey. If you like to mix sweet and savory, spread the next slice of bread with raspberry jam, then top with another slice of swiss cheese and two slices of ham. If you’re a good person use more dijon instead of jam. Put on the final slice of bread and smoosh it down real good. Cut off the crusts and press the edges together to seal everything in. Leave the sandwich weighted down while you prepare the batter; whisk together an egg and a splash of milk, maybe an ounce or two, and add in salt, pepper, nutmeg, and garlic. Dredge your sandwich in the batter (coat in breadcrumbs and re-dredge if you’re feeling fancy), place in a buttered frying pan over medium-low heat, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Flip and cook for 4 more, then remove and slice on the bias. If you’re anything like me both sides of the sandwich will be dark brown tending towards black but somehow the cheese won’t have melted yet; if you’re a good cook it will be golden brown and perfectly cooked through. If you used jam dust the sandwich with powdered sugar. Eat and enjoy!

Now, the real question. What does this have to do with our (cancelled) play? The name seems to be a misnomer, not used until the middle of the 20th century. It was apparently chosen because it sounded mysterious, fancy, and French-like. It did not seem to be intentionally chosen in reference to Dumas’ book, but it nevertheless has a number of similarities. The first I have already mentioned; the secret hidden by the name Monte Cristo. Just as Edmond Dantes hides his true name in order to seek his revenge, so does the sandwich conceal its ingredients behind a name. The second I have referred to as well; Monte Cristo, both for the sandwich and for Dantes himself, is a name that suggests fanciness. Dantes started as a simple sailor, and the sandwich begins with basic deli meats and old bread, but it sounds much more exotic and exciting to say “Monte Cristo” than to say “Edmond Dantes” or “Pan-fried Turkey, Ham, and Swiss Egg-Battered Sandwich with Raspberry Jam”, which we can all agree is a mouthful [but the bad kind, not the good kind, like the sandwich. -KH] The third is closely tied to the second; wealth and richness. Just as the Abbe Faria passes on the lost wealth of the Spadas to Dantes and gives him untold riches, so does the sandwich become much richer when you add the batter and fry it in butter.

There, unfortunately, we have it. Usually I would just now be swapping my Dramaturgy Chains for my Box Office Hat [MUCH prettier but, unfortunately, just as heavy. -KH] However, due to the unfortunate global outbreak of the Coronavirus we have cancelled our upcoming run of The Count of Monte Cristo. In lieu of my normal request that you purchase tickets to our upcoming show, I would instead ask that you keep yourselves safe and healthy in this uncertain time. And that, should you find yourself with excess coin after ensuring your own stability, you send a little of it our way as well. Times will be tight for us, as you might imagine, and every little bit helps us to pay our actors, designers, and technicians so we can keep making art for you.

Stay healthy, everyone. I hope to see you soon,
Keith and the team at We Happy Few

Lovers’ Vows: Literary Pedigree

Hi there everybody! It’s time for my first blog post of the season, and you know what that means: we’ve started rehearsals for an upcoming show! We will be opening this season in early November with Lovers’ Vows, by 18th-century novelist and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, based upon the German playwright August von Kotzebue’s Das Kinde der Liebe [literally The Child of Love/Love-Child but occasionally translated as The Natural Son -ed.]

Unless you’re a student of 18th-century German theatre (or, surprisingly, political history), and if you’ve found your way to this blog post you may just be, you’ve almost certainly never heard of Kotzebue. He was a minor but reasonably popular author who was most famous for his murder as a “traitor to the fatherland” at the hands of Karl Ludwig Sand, a pro-German Unification student, during one of Germany’s many unfortunate flirtations with nationalism. I’m not especially interested in talking about him.

Of much greater interest to me is Elizabeth Inchbald, the actress, playwright, novelist, and critic who you’re also unlikely to have heard of. She is MUCH more interesting and I will certainly be digging deeper into her life at another time, but for now what is most relevant as regards her is that she wrote the play Lovers’ Vows, which we are staging this November and which you might have heard of if you worked your way deep enough into Jane Austen’s bibliography to read Mansfield Park, in which this play features prominently.

mansfield park

From Company Picture’s 2007 Mansfield Park. L-R: Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford, Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Joseph Morgan as William Price, and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram.

Grateful as we are to Jane Austen for choosing to immortalize this play by its inclusion in Mansfield Park, it is worthwhile to speculate why she would do so. What purpose does it serve in the story and, more importantly, why she specifically chose THIS play, instead of the dozen or so others that Tom Bertram proposes. There is a simple answer that Austen supplies in the text, which also happens to be part of our own reasoning for selection: “They wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first-rate, and three principal women”. But there are some more thematically complex reasons that are worth exploring as well.

THOUGH I WILL DO MY BEST TO OBFUSCATE AND SPEAK IN GENERALITIES THIS BLOG POST WILL INCLUDE SOME SPOILERS FOR BOTH LOVERS’ VOWS AND MANSFIELD PARK. READ ON WITH CAUTION BUT ALSO IT WILL MAKE MORE SENSE IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH AT LEAST ONE OF THEM.

First, a convenient inverse-similarity exists between many of the characters of the two stories, most noticeably the confident and forward Amelia and her retiring but righteous tutor Anhalt in the play, and in Mansfield Park the meek protagonist Fanny and her insufferably prudish and sanctimonious cousin/crush Edmund, perhaps the least likeable of Austen’s male love interests [What is it with characters named Edmund? King Lear, Narnia, this, all Edmunds are terrible -KH] {Edmond Dantes, star of our upcoming Count of Monte Cristo, gets a pass because he changes his name ~KH}. There are also comparisons to be made between Agatha and Fanny’s cousin Maria Bertram, both of whom loved not wisely but too well, and between Amelia’s father Baron Wildenhaim, and Fanny’s uncle and guardian Sir Thomas Bertram, who have differing views of their wards’ judgment and their own moral authority. And also a direct 1:1 similarity, with no ironic double meaning or inversion, between Austen’s Henry Crawford and Count Cassel, who both demonstrate feigned sincerity and inherent aristocratic respectability covering their shallow lusts. By happy coincidence almost all of these mirrors happen to align the actors in Mansfield Park with the characters they would have played! The only exception is Sir Thomas, who not only wasn’t going to appear in the show but also shut down the performance when he returned from his business trip to Antigua and ordered every copy of the play in his house burned. These mirrored characters and their in-play actions foreshadow their actors’ fates in the second half of Mansfield Park, a sort of preview of the story for those readers in the know.

[It is not impossible that there exists a reference to Mansfield Park in my personal favorite book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, also, as the fate of the fiery Maria Bullworth in JS&MN seems to mirror that of Maria Rushworth nee Bertram eerily closely, with the role of notorious rake Henry Crawford being played expertly by the villainous Henry Lascelles. This has nothing at all to do with Lovers’ Vows and I don’t know what to do with this information, or even know for certain that it is an intentional homage (although those names are very similar to each other), but I noticed it and I cannot now fail to bring it up, because my mind is broken in a Very Particular Way which makes it impossible for me to stop talking or thinking about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. -KH]

Strange Norrell Bullworth

From Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 2004, chapter 36, All the mirrors of the world. L-R: Maria Bullworth, Jonathan Strange, Christopher Drawlight. Illustration by Portia Rosenberg.

On a broader level, Sir Thomas’ and that tattletale Edmund’s reactions to the allegedly prurient and offensive Lovers’ Vows (which dares to suggest that a woman should be honest and proactive in her desires, and that a man should be held at least as accountable for his actions as a woman) allows Austen to satirize the outrageous moral standards of her time. She contrasts the dangerous moral of the play, which ends with communication, understanding, satisfaction, and love between all parties, with the unsatisfying “happy ending” of Mansfield Park, in which seduction goes unpunished, the outspoken learn their place in meek servitude to their elders and betters, and the obsequious and passive are rewarded for their servility. Clearly a play with such a progressive and subversive message would truly be too dangerous to even see, much less perform, in this sort of society.

Fortunately for us, we now live in a world that, while still very bad, is not quite so upfront about its hatred and fear of transgressive art, nor so successful at restricting it, as the world of Mansfield Park. None of our dads even tried to burn our scripts when they found out what show we were doing. Please join us in November for the show, celebrate our freedom to stage a comparatively unknown but once extremely controversial show and see what all the fuss was about! Tickets are on sale now!

Frankenstein’s Blogster: They’re Baaaa-aaack

Hey we opened last night, everybody! I am beyond thrilled to share this exciting Horror Rep production with you all! Rehearsing and performing in repertory is no picnic, as I’m sure you can all imagine, so we’re all very excited to get these shows rolling and for you to see our hard work. And to celebrate opening, I will speak to you at length about monsters!

I spent so much time last week talking about similarities between Shelly and Poe, it seems only fair for me to go the other way this time, and get into some of the similarities between Frankenstein and Dracula. And the biggest thing that they both have in common, and which they DON’T share with any of Poe’s stories, is a monster. Poe was primarily concerned with Man’s struggle with Man, or with Himself, and seldom felt the need to include a hideous unknowable force for evil to complicate matters for his already thoroughly confused and desperate protagonists. So I’m leaving Baltimore’s ill-favored son on the bench this week.

First things first. Using the term “monster” to describe the Creation in Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein is, in my opinion, neither entirely accurate nor fair. No incoherent shambling horror he, Shelley’s Creation is articulate, sensitive, even refined…and far more dangerous. Throughout the devising process we were careful to avoid referring to him as The Monster as much as possible, in order to keep ourselves from mischaracterizing or, especially, underestimating him. The Creation is less monstrous even than Dracula, with whom he shares many of these sophisticated traits. But he lacks the Count’s arrogance, savagery, and predatory nature, being driven to evil against his own inclinations. I considered using the term “Villain” for this post, but I don’t find it as evocative or accurate for the types of creatures that I wanted to talk about. Also, there is enough room for debate on who, exactly, is the ‘villain’ of Frankenstein that I am less than comfortable blithely assigning that label to the Creation. And it is inescapable that the Creation shares this trait with his more typical monstrous brethren. So for my purposes tonight I will grit my teeth and accept the pejorative, along with the inevitable Boris Karloff image that it conjures, and needlessly justify it to all of you with this 200-word paragraph.

Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, from Bride of Frankenstein, 1935.

As you might remember from my previous discussions of monsters there are certain things that they do, traits they have, which serve to separate them from humans; ugliness and anthropophagy. Today I want to discuss a third; tenacity. Relentless and inexorable, horror monsters pursue their seemingly arbitrary victims with the single-minded patience of a clock. Sometimes this tireless pursuit is literal, like the continual forward motion of the Unstoppable Sex Monster in It Follows. Sometimes it is more subjective, an implication of being watched or a tendency to appear when least expected, such as the unseen cultists awaiting their opportunity to strike in The Call of Cthulhu, the low-key but everpresent menace of the zombie horde in Dawn of the Dead, or the jump-scare appearance in the mirror or behind the door in every single slasher movie that has ever been made. You can neither run nor hide when a monster has marked you.

Eron the Relentless

Eron the Relenless, from Magic: The Gathering, Homelands. Art by Christopher Rush,  1995.

In addition to being implacable hunters, monsters are also nigh-unkillable. Monsters are much more durable than their human victims, to emphasize just how fragile we are. Sometimes this manifests in secret knowledge needed to penetrate their defenses, like silver bullets for werewolves, headshots for zombies, the phylacteries of liches like Koschei or Voldemort…you get the idea. More frequently, however, it is just a maddening refusal to die. Michael Myers gets stabbed and shot more times than I can count in Halloween. The Terminator [and if you don’t think The Terminator is a horror movie you and I watched different movies, the T-800 fits these criteria so perfectly I can’t believe I didn’t base them on him -KH] walks through a hail of bullets in pursuit of Sarah Connor. Ghosts, by their very nature, cannot be even killed. No one can go toe to toe with such hideous strength.

Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800, from The Terminator, 1984.

Frankenstein and Dracula obviously fit these qualifications to a ‘T’. Even when the Count is (seemingly) on his heels returning to Transylvania he threatens, taunts, and discomfits his would-be hunters, staying a step ahead of them all the way to the Carpathians. And Dracula’s seeming invincibility allows Van Helsing to spend almost an entire chapter listing off the veritable host of vampires’ traditional vulnerabilities: mirrors, sunlight, mountain rose, garlic, fragments of the consecrated Host, ash-wood stakes, running water… Meanwhile, the Creation has a nasty habit of turning up no matter where his Creator goes, regardless of how unlikely it seems that he could find out where he was. And, in addition to shrugging off Frankenstein’s pistol shots, the Creation bears with equanimity the frigid cold of the glacier and the Arctic in his ceaseless quest to torment the doctor.

The upshot of both these traits is that monsters negate both the ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ response in their human victims. Traits, you might recognize, we inherited from our animal ancestors. Knee-jerk instinctual reactions, our initial response to danger, won’t work on the supernatural; we have to dig deeper. We can activate our humanity and take advantage of cleverness, compassion, and friendship, as Harker and co. do in Dracula. Or we can surrender to our latent capacity for monstrosity and take on our pursuer’s ruthless viciousness, as the doctor does in Frankenstein. Which path would you take? Come see the shows and maybe you’ll find out.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Driven Before The Winds

Hi again, everybody! We’re about halfway through the run of Pericles and I wanted to check back in with you all, see how you were doing, brag about our amazing reviews and talk about our play for a while, to edify some of you and shame the rest into buying tickets and coming to see the show, like you know you should have already. And now that we’ve opened I can actually talk about specific, as opposed to structural, elements. We get to delve into what makes OUR production work, not just the building blocks and context of the play itself. And nothing makes our production work quite so much as the breakneck pace of the action.

Given what I’ve told you in my previous blog posts you probably know by now that a lot of stuff happens in this play, in a lot of different places, usually in very quick succession (or, in one notable place, after a 14-year time jump). Set in castles and palaces and temples and fishermen’s huts and beaches and tourney yards and gardens and whorehouses on at least six different islands and several ships, not to mention the storms and assassins and pirates and dream sequences and narrative interludes that dog our heroes, Pericles runs the risk of being disjointed, bogged down, and poorly structured [Much like this sentence! -KH]. Too much happens too quickly in too many places and it is easy to get lost. On a metatheatrical level there is something very interesting about that, the play running out of control like a ship tossed about in a storm. But just because something is intellectually interesting does not make it good theatre, as I have repeatedly been told at pitch meetings.

Pericles Shipwreck

From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. L-R: Dave Gamble, Jenna Berk, Grant Cloyd, Charlie Retzlaff, Jon Reynolds, Kerry McGee, Jennifer J. Hopkins. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Fortunately for us, our particular 90-minute small-cast stripped-down aesthetic works extremely well in this sort of situation. To continue the ship metaphor, our technical flexibility allows us to stay ahead of the storm. Instead of potentially stalling and losing momentum in lengthy scene transitions or costume changes, as a straight production might do, we can lean into it (which you might remember is my favorite device) and let the play rush us along. We trust in new lighting looks, our signature rapid costume changes, some quick box movements, and above all the intelligence of our audience, to understand that this new scene is happening in a new place. Instead of letting the settings and scene changes overwhelm and slow down the action we can use the breakneck action to speed ourselves up, keep the play moving too fast for anyone to get lost.

It helps, too, that we have more control over our pacing than a traditional companies. We are not beholden to each and every word of the text. We hold ourselves to a higher standard: a 90-minute show. Because we do so much cutting and rebalancing of the text to find the absolute bare bones of the story, we control more or less how long we spend in any given location. If we followed the flow of the play itself the audience would often spend just enough time somewhere to get used to it, and then be disoriented and lost again at the next scene transition. For us, though, movement becomes the norm instead of the exception. We can once again use the momentum of the play to our advantage, to keep the audience on their toes and ready for whatever comes next.

 

Pericles Party.JPG

From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. Foreground L-R: Jenna Berk, Jon Reynolds. Background L-R: Kerry McGee, Charlie Retzlaff, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Grant Cloyd, Dave Gamble. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

 

But all of those staging and cutting tricks wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t have the chops to sell it to the audience. For all of this to work we need to MOVE, and we need to have clarity and purpose. The audience is smart and they can follow our breakneck island-hopping if we trust them, but that trust has to go both ways. They have to trust US, as well, to guide them from place to place, or they’ll get hopelessly lost between who is who and where we are. As you may have guessed from the structure of this blog post, however, we have multiple advantages on this front as well. We’ve got a wonderfully trusting and energetic cast, an altogether-too-qualified movement team, and a proven history of stripping down classical stories and bringing them to a new audience. Oh, I guess our director is all right, too, seeing as he was the one who realized how to put all of these things together and shepherd this play from an inconsistent island-hopping hodge-podge to the critically acclaimed show you still have a chance to see! We’re running tonight, tomorrow, and then Wednesday through Saturday of next week, come see what I’m talking about!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Thrilling Adventure Hour and a Half

Good morning/afternoon/evening/sleepless midnight hours, whenever you do your independent-theatre-blog-reading. Its Tech Week here at the We Happy Factory, which means while everybody everybody else in the company works very hard to iron out any kinks in the production and make sure the play is the best it can be, I sit in a corner of the theatre and hope that someone has a historical or textual question that I can answer. I like to use this time to put together a blog post so it feels like I’m accomplishing something to draw upon the creative energy in the room and distill it to infuse some enthusiasm into my dry and staid prose.

Pericles has a lot going on. More than most of Shakespeare’s plays, more even than the other Romances. While he didn’t strictly obey the Aristotelian Unities of Time or Place, generally Shakespeare constrained himself to a handful of fairly nearby locations (sometimes as small as a single castle, city, or island) and a relatively brief timeline, not more than a few days or weeks. Some of them are a little more spread out, such as the Histories (and Lear) set in France and England, and sometimes, like Hamlet, their sense of time is more ambiguous. But none of them range as far afield and with so many different settings as in Pericles, not even Julius Caesar or Winter’s Tale, and only Winter’s Tale features such a tremendous time-warp in the middle of the play.

Time Warp

Its about time we did another Time Warp. From Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975.

That’s because Shakespeare was drawing on an ancient and well-pedigreed storytelling tradition when he wrote this play, a genre he otherwise avoided. Pericles is, to my mind, Shakespeare dipping his toes into what I like to think of as the Fantastic Adventure story. These stories are typified by a young hero either travelling by himself or being separated from his companions, encountering fantastic and mysterious circumstances, and triumphing over them. Repeat as needed. Pericles spends the play wandering the Mediterranean and searching for glory, fleeing villainous monarchs, rescuing cities, miraculously escaping storms, mourning…He fits the literal archetype of the Adventurer.

Arguably the first and most famous Fantastic Adventure, and the one which shares the most in common with our story, is Homer’s Odyssey. As you all doubtless know, this is the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey from the Trojan War to his home in Ithaca, and the trials and adventures he encounters along the way. Relevant for OUR interests, Odysseus too finds himself at the mercy of the divine, aided by Athena and opposed by Poseidon. Pericles’ adventures may be less fantastical than Odysseus’, he doesn’t blind any cyclopes or tie himself to the mast to hear the song of the sirens, but the two of them would be hard-pressed to determine whose tribulations were more punishing before they were reunited with their families.

1501_ 044

The Blinding of Polyphemus, by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1550-1551

The Odyssey, the Aeneid, and other similar Classical stories set the stage for (or, more likely, revealed parallel cultural evolution in) Celtic stories such as the legends of Cuchulainn and Beowulf and King Arthur, or Arabic stories like Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. This introduces a minor complication to my constructed through-line of the adventure story, in that the earlier Classical stories I cited were singular and self-contained, while the medieval ones are looser. The Odyssey is one continuous story with a beginning, ending, and continual forward progress in between, while Arthur or Robin Hood or Sinbad stories can be read out of order and independent of each other, having introduced and resolved their problem within the same story. But I would argue that the older Classical stories, and our own example Pericles, are also more or less episodic. While they are all marching towards a coherent goal (reunification with family, escaping Antiochan assassins, founding of Rome, etc), each of their individual adventures happens in a vacuum, and the accompanying stories can be told without any more backstory than “Pericles discovered himself shipwrecked”. The more you know about the character the better you’ll understand his actions, just like the more stories you’ve read featuring Gawayne or Alan-a-dale the better handle you’ll have on them, but the stories themselves are designed to be enjoyable without any context.

Alan_A_Dale

Alan-a-dale from Disney’s Robin Hood (1973). I will never pass up an opportunity to include a picture from this movie in the blog.

We can trace this kind of story all the way to the 20th century, and one of my all-time favorite genres; the pulp adventure story. It is really here that we see the pinnacle of the Fantastic Adventure take hold, embodied by characters like Tarzan, Solomon Kane, and Conan. These stories are utterly episodic; consequences seldom carry over from adventure to adventure, new allies and enemies alike are killed by the end of the story, and the hero finds himself in the exact situation he was in at the beginning. Looking forward and expanding your definitions a bit you can see this tradition continued in the original Star Trek, where no story lasted longer than two episodes. Clearly the Fantastic Adventure has got some legs.

James T Kirk

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, from Star Trek (1966-1969)

‘Why does this matter?’, I can hear you asking. ‘What’s so important about Pericles being an adventure story that you felt the need to say a thousand words about it at us?’ Aside from that I think it’s super neat to be able to trace a genre from the fires of a Greek basileus or Saxon mead-hall, through the Middle Ages, across the boards of the Globe Theatre, all the way to Conan the Cimmerian and Captain Kirk, it represents an unusual departure in form from Shakespeare’s usual style. Unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, which create a single problem which is resolved by the end of the play, Pericles allows the audience to accompany the protagonist as he encounters and solves multiple problems. [Stay tuned later in the week for a potential reason this play is conceptually unique in Shakespeare’s canon -KH] We get to see our hero deal with a number of different situations, romantic, tragic, comic, and absurd, before the story concludes. We have a chance to get to know Pericles better than any other Shakespearean character, because we see more of his life than anyone else.

If YOU’D like to get to know Pericles better, your chance is coming soon! Tickets are on sale NOW and performances begin this Wednesday the 16th! I’ll be there, you should be too! Won’t you come on an adventure with us?

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: The Greek Connection

Happy May, everybody! Dramaturge and blogslave Keith Hock, back again as promised to satisfy that cliffhanger/teaser from my first blog post in almost the amount of time I said I would take to do it! No, not the cryptic “George Wilkins” aside (hold on just a little longer for that), the other one, right at the end. Yeah, that Greek thing. Despite my rejoinder last time to not place too much weight on the specific locations where the show takes place I believe that there is a lot to unpack in the Hellenistic setting and time period of this play, possibly more than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays (with the exception of the Histories, including Julius Caesar and Anthony & Cleopatra, for obvious reasons).

THIS IS GOING TO BE ONE OF THOSE BLOG POSTS WITH SPOILERS FOR A 400-YEAR-OLD PLAY BY THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER IN HISTORY, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING REVEALED NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO STOP READING. ALSO I WILL BE REFERRING TO DIANA AND THE ‘GREEK’ GODS IN THE SAME SENTENCE, I KNOW DIANA IS THE ROMAN NAME, I DIDN’T WRITE THIS PLAY, TAKE YOUR PEDANTRY UP WITH SHAKESPEARE

Most of Shakespeare’s plays could happen in a vacuum. As I’m certain I’ve discussed before, the majesty of the Bard lies neither in his plotting, nor his set dressing, but in the language and psychology. Hamlet could happen anywhere that men are depressed and isolated, Lear and the (other) Romances wherever you can find daughters and their aging fathers. Just about every Italian play is set there because the Italians made it to the Renaissance first and wrote all the stories and plays that Shakespeare stole and improved (seriously, the cultural weight, if not the political significance, of the Italian peninsula between the Renaissance and the First World War cannot be overstated). Titus Andronicus is really just a show about family. Macbeth gains something (possibly something vaguely racist and clannish) from its Scottish setting but Kurosawa pretty concretely proved that that story has legs elsewhere with Throne of Blood. So why do I give this show so much more credit for its setting?

 

Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu, from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957)

 

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, or you read the title or the introductory paragraph of this post, you may have guessed the answer already. It should come as no surprise that I attach a lot of value to ancient Greek literature, particularly the Tragedies. As one of the cornerstones of Western art and quite possibly THE basis for the tradition of theatre I do not think my passion and respect for them is overblown, though some of my colleagues disagree. I have regular tantrums reasoned and mature discussions at pitch meetings over why I’m not allowed to stage a full mask-and-chorus Oresteia in one of our season slots or do a Seven Against Thebes/Prometheus Bound heraldry-and-pyrotechnics showcase as a fundraiser. My colleagues’ [correct -ed.] insistence on how unstageable, unmarketable, and unapproachable these shows are to a modern audience notwithstanding, their influence on the medium cannot be ignored. Since Shakespeare was probably about as smart as me I bet he thought the same thing. I believe that he took advantage of the Hellenistic setting of Pericles to consciously explore the tropes that typify Greek theatre, as a combination homage and experimental update.

There are two related Ancient Greek tropes that in my opinion really stand out in Pericles. The first is the intercession of the divine, a hallmark of Greek tragedies but few and far between in Shakespeare’s work (to my recollection the only other physical manifestations of gods in his plays are Jupiter in Cymbeline, which is basically a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Shakespeare’s other works, and Hecuba in Macbeth, whose appearance may have been a later addition to the play). Diana’s appearance in the penultimate scene mirrors the tendency of the Greek gods to appear out of nowhere at the end of the tragedies to resolve the plot, a trope so prevalent that it gave us the idiom deus ex machina, the god out of the machine, to describe an extraordinary and unearned conclusion to a story. The god in question would then explain why whatever cruelty they have inflicted on the hero and his family was justified, more or less because they said so and the whims of the gods are irresistible. The action Diana takes at the end of our play, to reunite the long-suffering Pericles with his wife and thereby turn his fortunes from miserable to joyous, does not strike me as very in-character for the notoriously virginal Diana, nor for the petty and vindictive Greek gods as a whole, but I suppose Shakespeare should get at least as much credit as I gave Racine for the need to update for new audience sensibilities. Besides, Pericles ISN’T a tragic hero; he isn’t being punished for his hubris, he is just an adventurer at the mercy of the gods.

Deus Ex

Box art for Eidos’ Deus Ex, (2000) Surely that is what this game was about.

 

Which conveniently segues us into the second trope, part of which I mentioned above; the inexorable will of the divine, and it being indistinguishable from fortune or luck. To the Greeks there was no such thing as random chance; all luck, either good or bad, was interpreted as the will of the gods. And they were completely helpless to the whims of fortune. Once the gods decide something (usually something bad), the decision is made. When Ajax figures out that Athena wants him dead, he kisses his wife goodbye, gives his son Eurysaces his famous shield, which is ALSO named Eurysaces, and trundles himself off to the beach to fall on his sword; his desires mean nothing, even to himself, in the face of Athena’s decree. Pericles seems to buy in completely to this philosophy [though many of the other characters, Marina especially, seem less on board with this fatalism, as we discussed in our dramaturgy rehearsal -KH]. Both Pericles himself and the omniscient narrator (thoroughly We Happy Few-ified for this production) tell us multiple times, in multiple scenes, that Pericles is utterly at the mercy of fortune. He accepts with equimanity both his marooning and the death of all his men by shipwreck and the miraculous recovery of his ancestral armor in the space of a single scene, and he attributes both his wife’s wooing and apparent demise to “the powers above us”, which “We cannot but obey”. It is not that Pericles has no agency; he just accepts that there are some things beyond his control and works to navigate AROUND those increasingly-common reversals of fortune in his life.

This is obviously not the only time that Shakespeare toyed with fate: I could write another entire blog post about the prophecy in Macbeth, and Romeo famously shrieks that he is “Fortune’s fool” after killing Tybalt. But Macbeth spends his entire play trying to game his prophecy, and Romeo is a 19-year-old in love, with more than his share of the accompanying self-involvement, while Pericles knows FOR CERTAIN that the gods are toying with him and is just trying to roll with the punches and see where he lands. By explicitly making Pericles the gods’ plaything Shakespeare had the opportunity to write a character who was made to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, just as Heracles and Oedipus and Odysseus and the other tragic heroes of antiquity would. Except Shakespeare, perhaps tired of killing his darlings, gets to engineer a happy ending.

To some of you this connection may feel like a stretch, to which I say get bent, why don’t you write your own blog if you’re so smart, why? Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with classical allusions and can be sourced to everything between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Iliad, Plutarch, and (apocryphally) Don Quixote. It seems unlikely, almost impossible, that he WOULDN’T be familiar with the tragedians given the breadth of his knowledge. Indeed, the hubristic downfall of his tragic heroes offers some pretty solid evidence of their influence on him. Besides, Pericles comes near the end of his career, when he was getting experimental with a new style. The similarities are too close, and they add too much to the play, for me to ignore. If you’re still not convinced, come see the show for yourself in a few weeks and try to change my mind! Tickets are available now!

Why Are Vampires So Sexy?

Monsters are gross. That’s their whole point, is to be unpleasant and horrifying to behold. Your mummies and wolfmen and Creatures from the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein[‘s Monster]s and g-g-g-g-ghosts are all designed to be hideous and repugnant. To go old school here for a second, their vile outward appearance is meant as an external reflection of their monstrous inner nature. Its how we know Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees are bad news and why we burned gross-looking old ladies as witches; because their appearance told us that they were trouble. I don’t mean to imply that the only kind of horror story is the kind with supernatural monsters (our own experience staging Poe would put the lie to that claim) but in those kinds of horror stories the villain is grotesque and wants to kill the heroes, and the heroes are right to fear them for their appearance.

Yet not so for Dracula. Dracula is a refined and sophisticated gentleman with an indefinable and foreign magnetism and he has a castle full of beautiful and nubile women. Sure, he starts off as a decrepit old man with bad breath and hair on his palms, but after a few midnight child snacks he turns into a STONE COLD FOX. And the Brides? Presumably their regular consumption of babies keeps them looking Fresh to Death as well, cuz, damn. Harker decries them time and again because Harker is a prude engaged to someone we are universally assured is the World’s Greatest Woman, but even he is ensnared by their beauty and must be saved by the Count. Lucy Westenra is so gorgeous she turns down an engagement to a cowboy so she can marry a lord (please take a moment to appreciate the absurdity of this actual plot point from Dracula). But even she gets hotter, in a dangerous, ‘wanton’ way, after the Count gets his teeth, and blood, and [EXPURGATED FOR REASONS OF PROPRIETY -ed.] into her. And, lest we assume that hotness is a newly added facet to accommodate the perverts and sex-starved teens and, ugh, “Millennials” who consume our pop culture, I must inform you that Dracula and his Brides have been super sexy from the jump. If anything, earlier interpretations on film UNDERplayed their attractiveness.

Orlok

Looking at you, Orlok.  Max Shreck as Count Orlok, from W. F. Murnau’s Nosteratu, 1922.

A cursory glance through other, later vampire fiction bears out this odd inversion of the monster trope. It seems like the only argument in the Buffyverse is whether Angel or Spike are hotter. True Blood and the Southern Vampire Mysteries novels it was based on might as well be grouped in the “Vampire Erotica” section of your local library, and I assure you they would not be the only books on those shelves. I probably shouldn’t admit in a public forum how much I know about the lesbian-vampire subgenre of Italian Giallo films of the 1970s. Vampires are almost universally the Hot Monster, to the point that when they aren’t, like I Am Legend or Stakeland, the very fact of their ugliness becomes part of the point of the piece.

Angel from Buffy

Its Angel. I will die on this hill.   David Boreanaz as Angel, from The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

It seems clear from this evidence that sexiness is an integral part of the vampire’s identity. But what purpose does it serve in a horror story, seeing as it directly contradicts what I said in the first paragraph about monsters?

The difference is the intention of the story, and of the monster. Most monsters and monster stories represent a physical attack: wolfmen and zombies want to eat you, ghosts want to drive you away, slashers want to punish you, usually for having sex. But vampires represent a psychic assault. Vampires do not aim to kill, their desire is to corrupt. Despite being entirely in his power throughout the opening the Count doesn’t kill Harker, though it would have been the tactically sounder move. And it is significant that the only targets of vampirism we see are young women and innocent children [the doomed sailors of the Demeter are driven mad, not fed upon]. Dracula has no interest in Arthur or Seward or Morris, because they aren’t beautiful unmarried women that he can ruin. Dracula’s sexuality is a weapon, just like Jason’s machete or Leatherface’s chainsaw, and it is used for the same purpose; to destroy his victims. Make no mistake, the vampire is just as monstrous as the ghost or the serial killer.

Perhaps even more so, for they make their victims complicit in their own destruction. Observe the victim’s reactions to the attacks in the book. Men, women, children, all are drawn in despite themselves. Both Mina and Jonathan describe being disgusted by the Count and the Blonde Bride, respectively, but unwilling to resist. They both mention part of themselves actually being eager for the vampire to bite, kiss, and corrupt them. Vampires are so appealing that upstanding ladies and gentlemen have no choice but to surrender their self-control to them, knowing full well the consequences will be the victim’s ruination, death, and transformation into another agent of evil and corruption. The reason we fear the vampire, despite their beauty, is that they represent the wilful sacrifice of innocence and agency in favor of our baser desires.

Fernando Fernandez Dracula

Lucy and the Count. From Fernando Fernandez’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1984

If you want to surrender YOUR self-control to the sexiness of We Happy Few’s Dracula, performed by Kerry McGee, Meg Lowey, Jon Reynolds and Grant Cloyd and directed by the sexiest one of them all, Bob Pike, come to the Shed tonight and/or tomorrow! I’d recommend you bring cash and a drink, though you will find a complementary drink there with your ticket. See OUR WEBSITE for details. If you can’t make it this weekend, we’ll sure miss you, but never fear! We will have more showings spread out in the city through September and October. I hope to see you at one of them soon!