Confusion Now Hath Made His Masterpiece

Hello everybody! We are halfway through the run of our critically acclaimed Macbeth, and you know what that means! I am finally free to discuss some of the staging decisions that we made, instead of focusing on tangential aspects of the show’s history or our concept for it. Instead of discussing the play Macbeth, I can discuss our production of Macbeth. Which is very exciting, because I’ve wanted to discuss this topic since I walked into the theatre for tech rehearsal and saw the stage for the first time.

This show actually has one of our more traditional stagings. I think it is the closest we’ve ever gotten to actually using even the suggestion of a proscenium [don’t tell Hannah I said that or she’ll fly back here and re-stage it -KH]. All we did is turn the theatre around. And I can imagine, if this is your first experience in the space at CHAW, you might not notice that anything is different. But if you’re familiar with that theatre, and you walked in and saw the room rotated 180 degrees, and then took a seat on the stage, where you normally watch the action happen, and watched the actors moving up and down on the risers that you normally sit on…its a profoundly disorienting sensation. It isn’t disorienting in the ‘takes you out of the world of the play’ way, our space is still recognizable as a stage. Only its backwards, and that feels…wrong.

I don’t mean to imply that the staging makes the audience complicit in the action, or suggest that in fact THEY are the ones who are being watched. There is certainly space in Macbeth to explore both of those ideas; any show that features violence inherently makes the argument that its watching audience at least passively approves of the violence, and the Weird Sisters’ nebulous existence in the universe of the show (along with, metatextually, its built-in audience of ghosts) give the enterprising Panopticon enthusiast enough ammunition to do themselves some serious harm. But our show doesn’t bear out either of those interpretations. We are much more interested in the sense of unfamiliarity that the change engenders, with the idea of losing control of your surroundings and losing touch with reality.

WHF_MacBeth-13

Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

On a less meta-theatrical, more staging level, our establishment of an actual set, with a chair and empty picture frames on the wall and all that, is ripe with opportunities for disorientation. It is easy to understand how the stage can be Duncan’s (later Macbeth’s) throne room and the Macbeths’ sitting room. It’s not that far of a stretch to make it the Macduff estate and Macbeth’s banquet hall, as well. But when the stage is supposed to be the witches’ heath, or England, or Birnam Wood, it becomes a little more…incongruous. Certainly on one level the central presence of the throne makes a straightforward point about the dominating power the kingship holds over the play as a whole. But on a less metaphorical level, the throne doesn’t belong there. The picture frames don’t belong there. It creates a cognitive dissonance, a sense of confusion about where we really are. A simple blackbox would be less confusing, because the audience would be forced to imagine ALL of the set pieces and environs. But instead, this design forces the audience to un-see portions of the set, to ignore what their eyes are telling them is right there.

Messing with the playing space is only one of the ways we played with a sense of discomfort, disorientation, and confusion in this show. Much has been made of our sound design for this performance, and all of it deserved. Sound is a tempting and powerful but notoriously difficult beast to harness for this sort of disorienting performance [I speak from 4 long years of college soundboard operating experience -KH]. Many companies, ourselves often included, will shy away from a concept so reliant on pre-recorded sound, eschewing it as both high-risk and insufficiently…earthy, DIY, visceral, actor-generated, however you prefer to conceive that in your mind. But sometimes, like for this show, the risk is worth the reward, because it allows you to blur the line between diegetic and nondiegetic sound. If a character brings a drum on stage and bangs it, everyone else on stage can and must hear it. But when the sound of a drum just…starts…playing, it is open for interpretation who, if anyone, can hear. And if a character can hear something the audience can hear, but the rest of the cast can’t, what else are they aware of? Can they see the audience too? The miracle of pre-recorded sound also opens the door for all manner of shenanigans about who is speaking, and where the sounds are coming from. When Macbeth hears his wife’s voice on the wind, or his own, whispering to him about a title he has not yet earned, he is understandably unsettled. When we in the audience see a character in front of us, and then hear their voice coming from behind us, we are likewise discomfited.

But let’s set aside the technical aspects of the show for a second and examine how the text and action also push and disorient us. This show intentionally tells us very little about the passage of time. We have no idea how long Macbeth reigned. In the source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Macbeth had a reasonably prosperous 10-year reign before being overthrown, but in the play we are given no clues how much time passes. We know that the assassination happens a few days after the prophecy, and we are given to understand that Macbeth’s coronation takes place shortly thereafter, but nothing after that. This can be seen as an issue with the text, and is often a problem in other productions; Macbeth has a reputation for dragging in the second half, as it wades through interminable meandering paranoia with no clear sense of time. Macbeth could have reigned for years, and it certainly feels like it sometimes. But when you cut a show down to 90 minutes that meandering suddenly picks up a breakneck pace. You’re still lost, but it feels much more frantic. Instead of losing momentum in the wake of his ascendency, our Macbeth gains it, hardly taking his seat on the throne before he begins to worry about the threat allegedly posed by Banquo, and then can barely turn around but he runs to the forest to learn new things to fear from the witches, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the doom at the end of his prophecy. It feels like the entire show happens in a bare handful of days. Instead of the lack of time sense dragging the play down, our production leans into it and allows it to mean that almost no time has passed. Like running headlong down a hill with no way to stop and no idea what’s at the bottom, Macbeth hurdles through the second half of the play, having unwittingly surrendered control of himself to his ambition. And the audience finds themselves dragged with him, trying to catch up or at least catch a breath as the play rushes to the end, only to SLAM into “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, when it drops back to a well-deserved crawl for its final scenes, a final moment of emotional clarify for Macbeth but a tremendously disorienting snap of pacing whiplash for the audience.

All of these things, the sound and the set and the timing, all serve to disorient the audience and keep them on their toes. Some might say that trying to confound and discomfit the audience is a bad thing, but Brecht and I would argue otherwise. We aren’t quite going for a Brechtian level of alienation in this production but we’re certainly in the same ballpark. But aside from arguments of theatre as a tool of class pedagogy, this is a play full of magic, ghosts, witches, and unintended consequences. It should be difficult and unnerving, and it should keep you off balance. Macbeth’s actions have disrupted nature itself; the night of Duncan’s murder the world is shaken with wind, thunder, and lightning, and his horses EAT each other. Macbeth’s sin has thrown very world off balance, as the creators of Macbeth’s world on the stage it is our responsibility to mirror that imbalance however possible. If you think it sounds fun to be disoriented and confused by the staging of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, why don’t you come see it? We’ve got a show TONIGHT, and more shows until March 30th! I hope to see you there!

Macbeth: Superstition

Theatre people, much like the criminals with whom we have long been associated, are a superstitious, cowardly lot. But unlike our felonious brethren, we are not frightened of a psychologically damaged billionaire wearing a bat costume, no matter how many gadgets he possesses. We are much more afraid of the spaces where we work, the shows that we perform, and the ever-present menace of the audience. Things can go wrong on stage. Disastrously so. In an effort to mitigate these risks or feign control over the uncontrollable, we have devised any number of superstitions and rituals to placate whatever malevolent or hubris-punishing spirits would seek to ruin our shows. But surely there could be nothing foolhardy or dangerous about explaining all of these fears and superstitions before the opening of a famously cursed play, right? …right?

I am aware that even writing this blog is a gamble, but I am putting my faith in faerie tale rules, where naming a thing gives you power over it, instead of horror rules, where mentioning a thing draws its attention to you. If I am wrong I beg indulgence of Thespis, and beseech Saints Genesius and Jerome to protect our humble company and me, personally, from the consequences of my arrogance.

Saint Genesius protoicon

Icon of Genesius, patron saint of actors. Image commissioned by the Fraternity of St. Genesius, 2007.

Like I mentioned above, things can go very wrong in a performance. A lot, a LOT, of moving parts go into every show, and any of them can go off the rails at any time. And Murphy’s Law tells us that ALL of them will go wrong. It is therefore an article of faith that as many of those things as possible should go wrong during the dress rehearsals. What better time could there be to jump some lines, to burn out a lamp, to rip a seam on a costume, to miss a cue? As humans, our faulty comprehension of probability tells us that if an unlikely thing happens it is guaranteed not to happen again for a good long while, whereas if something HASN’T happened for a some time, we may well be due for it. That’s why a bad dress rehearsal makes for a good opening night. It is an opportunity to burn through a bunch of mistakes in a controlled environment so we don’t have to be afraid they will happen while the audience is watching.

Another of the myriad things we fear is the sound of whistling. Unless the play specifically calls for it, whistling is verboten anywhere on- or backstage, and, to be safe, anywhere in the theatre at all. The possibly-apocryphal reason for this injunction lurks in the fly loft, the network of ropes, pulleys, curtains, weights, sandbags, lights, and scenery pieces that hangs like the Sword of Damocles above many stages. When theatres began hanging scenery above the stage to raise and lower into the audience’s field of vision, they routinely hired sailors to run the complicated rigging, sailors being second only to perverts in their familiarity with ropes. These sailors imported their use of whistling as signals to each other of when something needed to go up or down. An errant whistle could therefore result in a flat embarrassingly rising at the wrong time, or more dangerously in an unexpected sandbag hurtling to the ground. Although no company to my knowledge retains such an archaic and distracting cueing system, and many theatres do not even have a fly loft, including our own home base of CHAW, the theatre has a long institutional memory and being safe is generally preferable to being sorry.

We are also afraid of g-g-g-ghosts. Every theatre I have worked in has had at least one resident ghost, although I only ever met one, working late on a paper in my college theatre [s/o to Harper Joy! -KH]. Sometimes they’re helpful, other times…less so. Most of the time they show themselves late at night when people are alone, and so their appearances are usually a hint, subtle or otherwise, that you need to go home and get some sleep. In addition to every theatre’s Ghost-in-Residence, we also have the spectre of Thespis to contend with. Thespis, the (Western) world’s first actor and the namesake of the word “Thespian”, haunts the theatrical and performing-arts world on November 23rd, the date when he first stepped out of the chorus and delivered lines as a character in a play. His portfolio is more mischievous than our resident ghosts, concerned, like the good Greek Tragedian he is, on exposing hubris and encouraging humility. Fortunately for us he seems to have mellowed in his old age, because his lessons tend to be merely embarrassing, and not as lethal as his former colleagues Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides might prefer.

Sports Night Thespis

L-R: Jeff Mooring as Dave, Felicity Huffman as Dana Whitaker, Joshua Malina as Jeremy Goodwin, Ron Ostrow as Will. From Sports Night, Season 1 Episode 8, “Thespis”, 1998.

While Thespis is simply a force who must be endured, resident ghosts are more easily placated. What they want is to get to use the stage again every once in a while. That’s why they chase us home if we’re around too late, and it’s why we leave them the ghost light, a light that stays on in the middle of the stage all night when the rest of the lights are off and the theatre is (or, at least, supposed to be) abandoned. Often, but not always, a bare bulb on a floor lamp, the ghost light lets the ghosts see and put on their own shows in the space while we are at home asleep. Very conveniently, the ghost light also illuminates the stage for any mortals who are inadvisably wandering through the theatre late at night. A dark stage is rife with potential hazards, including open trapdoors, the orchestra pit, and loose tools and pieces of scenery, just waiting for a careless or overtired technician, stage manager, or actor’s legs to trip and neck to break.

Ghost Light

Image from ramagrrl on Flickr.

Speaking of breaking bones, one of the best-known theatre superstitions is the phrase “break a leg”. Used instead of the prosaic “good luck”, it is a defense against jinxing, a reproving assertion that a good show doesn’t need luck to be successful, and a bit of gallows humor. It may also be related to failed actor but successful assassin John Wilkes Booth, who injured his leg when he leapt down to the stage after killing President Abraham Lincoln at a production of Our American Cousin [which, along with RUR and The King in Yellow, routinely tops my season proposal list -KH]. The French, because they simply MUST be different, instead say “merde”, literally “shit”, allegedly a roundabout reference to the hope that there would be many carriages dropping patrons off in front of the theatre and, therefore, a good deal of horse manure on the street. And I am given to understand that Australians say “Chooka!” instead, for reasons perhaps best left to themselves.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the play Macbeth itself, which has a sinister reputation. Besides being notoriously difficult to execute well, it is believed to be actively cursed, perhaps on account of the witches and ghosts and blood that permeates the show. This curse has been around seemingly as long as the show itself, and it seems to me that every person and company has a different theory about how the curse came about. Maybe Shakespeare, intentionally or otherwise, included real magic spells in the text. Maybe a local coven took offense to the portrayal of witches on stage and hexed it. Maybe Thomas Middleton’s alteration of the text angered Shakespeare’s ghost. Whatever the reason, strange things undeniably happen during Macbeth performances, including bankruptcy, actor injuries, fires, and disappearances.

Ian Peakes Macbeth.jpg

Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, in Folger Theatre/Two River Theatre co-production of Macbeth, 2008. Photo by Carroll Pratt

One piece of lore universally agreed upon is that saying the name of the play is forbidden. It is a sure-fire way to draw the unwanted attention of whatever actual witches or murdered Scots or discontented actors have seen fit to torment the foolish. It is instead referred to as Mackers or the Scottish Play, and the characters as Lord and Lady M [or, if you’re me, Mr. and Mrs. Scottish Play -KH]. The more astute among my audience will recognize that such a blanket ban on both the title of the play and the name of its main character would make it impossible to rehearse, advertise, or perform, so it should be noted that the ban only applies onstage when not rehearsing or performing the show itself. Fortunately, and very unusually, this curse comes with a countercharm. While the details vary from company to company, the basic form calls for the offending party to immediately exit the theatre, run around it three times, and spit or curse. Embellishments may include nudity, quotations from other Shakespeare, holy scripture, a slap, or permission to re-enter the space. In this way the curse will be satisfied and disaster, hopefully, averted.

Your belief in these superstitions may vary, but I assure you they are real to us, and despite my tone we do take them seriously. I myself wear a tie line bracelet as a good luck charm that I never remove, because things can always go wrong and you never know when a length of tie line will come in handy. If you have any charms or rituals you’d like to share I’d be thrilled to hear about them at the show, for which tickets are available now! I’ll be working the box office for Scottish Play most weekends, and if you come on either the 15th or 22nd of March I am hosting a talkback after the shows! In the meantime, keep us in your thoughts but whatever you do, don’t wish us luck.

Frankenstein’s Blogster: I’m So Lonely

Happy Halloween, everyone! Blogslave Keith Hock back again to share some more spooky scary horror thoughts with you before the Halloween Bell rings and I turn back into a pumpkin […right? My personal mythology is getting a little muddy -KH] and have to go back to talking about staging and lighting and direction and all that, you know, actual theatre stuff on this blog I write for a theatre company.

But before that happens I have one last horror trope discussion that I want to squeeze in, one that each of our three shows touches on differently: solitude. I’ve touched on this topic once before, but only in passing, and it was a LONG time ago. I think it’s about due for a deeper exploration, wouldn’t you say? Ordinarily I would invite you to join me on this journey for a little while, but it would be counter to my theme this time. So instead I will ask you to focus on the fact that you’re reading this by yourself. No one is with you. If you’re at work, everyone else is at their own desks, working on their projects or goldbricking like you, by themselves. If you’re on the train or the bus, even if you’re pressed in with people, each and every one of them, yourself included, is alone. Headphones crammed in both ears, eyes locked on your phones, willing away the sensation of being surrounded by strangers. Maybe you’re at home, sequestered from the dark chill outside, turning on all the lights so you don’t get sad and desperately clinging to whatever Netflix show you half-watch for company and noise, any noise to hide from the cold, mechanical tick-tock of that old-fashioned clock that you don’t remember buying or hanging up [whoa, lost the thread a little bit there. Let’s rein this back in. -ed.] Anyway, meditate on the intense loneliness that permeates modern life while we explore isolation in horror.

Frankenstein Alone

Scott Whalen, from WHF’s 2018 production of Frankenstein. Photo by Mark Williams Hoeschler

Let’s start from the same place I started oh those many moons ago, when we were adapting our first Poe story. At the time I called out how uncommon it was that Poe would write a horror story that could so easily be rendered as a dialogue, because it suited our purposes from a staging perspective. And I had some, frankly, pretty stupid and poorly-written ideas about what made horror such a solitary genre. If I somehow had even less integrity than I already do I would have secretly edited that paragraph so that I sounded less dumb and had a halfway-coherent thesis. But instead I will leave it as a monument to the ignorance of youth, and will make some more bold and poorly substantiated claims here which certainly I will not be embarrassed to look back upon in another three years. Only this time, instead of broad generalizations about horror as a whole (which I have saved for my dramaturgy notes) I will observe solitude through the lens of our three adaptations, to see how different authors interpret this necessary facet of their genre.

In Dracula, solitude equals vulnerability, straight up-and-down. Lucy, Mina, and Jonathan are in the most danger when they are alone, separated from their allies. This should not be surprising for a book that is more transparently about the power of friendship than Harry Potter, a book series so transparently about the power of friendship that the seventh book opens with a quote about how the bonds of friendship are so powerful that they transcend death itself. Dracula prides himself on his hunting prowess, comparing himself to a wolf. But his wolf-lore is lacking, because he failed to notice that wolves hunt in packs. Once his prey are able to join together and work as a team they quickly turn the tables on the Count. The message is clear: while the world may be full of mystery and danger, there is no challenge that cannot be overcome with friends.

Garlic.JPG

L-R: Kerry McGee, Jon Reynolds, and Meg Lowey, ready to hunt some vampires.

Poe seldom used isolation as a theme in and of itself. He often used it as a symptom of sorrow, as in The Raven or Annabel Lee, or simply as a condition, a necessary precursor to the story he wanted to tell; for The Pit and the Pendulum to work the protagonist must be by himself, but his solitude doesn’t MEAN anything ulterior to the text. But most frequently for Poe, loneliness was closely associated with madness, though which one led to the other is not always necessarily clear and varies from story to story. Considering that Poe’s personal life was rife with personal tragedies, loss, and betrayal, it makes sense that he would be both desperate for, and suspicious of, companionship. Perhaps the best example is The Tell-tale Heart. Our murderous ‘hero’ at first seems to be driven mad by the mere presence of his elderly roommate, and then, if possible, driven even madder by his absence. Unable to tolerate either companionship or isolation, his unraveling mirror’s his author’s, and the reader’s, struggles to find their place in the human community.

Frankenstein is more explicit about the theme of solitude than Poe, for whom its meaning varies depending on the demands of the story, and more nuanced than Dracula, where it is directly refuted by demonstrating the importance of friendship. For Victor Frankenstein solitude brushes perilously close to solipsism. He needs to be alone while he works, he cannot bear Clerval’s presence or respond to his father’s letters. Even his wedding night he spends by himself, scorning his bride in a misguided attempt to outwit his far more cunning Creation. Frankenstein erects countless barriers between himself and the people who care about him, in the name of keeping them safe from his ‘tortured genius’. Contrast this with the Creation himself, an actual tortured genius who would love nothing more than simple human contact but is stymied by the cruel accident of his birth. Victor scorns the love that is heaped upon him at every turn in his arrogant pursuit of solitude, while his Creation, cursed to an eternity of isolation, hunts desperately for any sort of companionship or, indeed, attention.

 

If you would like to have friends to help keep you safe and sane from the encroaching darkness that typifies the human condition, why not invite someone to come with you to see one (or all) of our shows? We are running until the 10th of November, and tickets, though going fast, are still available! I hope to see you there!

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.

Frankenstein’s Blogster: Genre Credentials

Welcome back, everybody! It is October, the month universally regarded as the spookiest (tough break December, and by extension Krampus, Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and the Mari Lwyd. Come back when Santa turns back into the Hogfather). And we are only a few short weeks from our next show opening. AND that show happens to be very horror-centric, being, indeed, three adaptations of 19th-century horror stories performed in repertory. All of which means that, for the next month or so, my shackles have been loosened and my frantic and ceaseless gibberings on the nature of fear, which I usually howl fruitlessly to the cold earless stones in the basement of the We Happy Manor, will be collected, THOROUGHLY edited, and published for the entertainment and edification of you, the reader! And today my ravings have been compiled into some more thoughts about horror in general and Frankenstein and Poe in particular, and also a good deal about science fiction. Because we are not in show yet, and I do my best to avoid show spoilers before opening even though we have never staged a story that was less than one hundred years old, I am going to avoid text-specific discussion for the time being and focus on Frankenstein’s role in literature as a whole.

Mari Lwyd

The Mari Lwyd, a Welsh ghost horse that breaks into your house and challenges you to singing competitions at Christmas, and maybe the single scariest thing I’ve ever seen.

You may recall last time I hinted at Frankenstein being the (or at least ‘a’) foundational document of two distinct literary genres, which also happen to be my favorites: horror and science fiction. This unusual distinction happens to be shared by WHF’s favorite depressed big-headed alcoholic son Edgar Allan Poe. [He also may have invented the Mystery genre and was an integral figure in the foundation of American Letters. But I’ve already discussed the latter at length and now is not the time for the former, so let’s stay on topic. -ed.] Both claims bear consideration for both authors, but I think that one genre’s case for their respective maternity and paternity is more valid than the other. And, to muddy the waters of this already-confusing paragraph even further, I think the genre in question is NOT the one with which they are most closely associated. It is my contention that Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe have more to do with the creation of science fiction than with the creation of horror, despite being pillars of the horror genre and only being associated with science fiction by nerds like me who think about stuff like the origin and evolution of genres.

From a chronological perspective this is easy to prove; horror as a ‘genre’ is impossible to define or date with any degree of certainty and so began whenever the chronicler in question chooses to begin counting older than science fiction. When Mary Shelley began Frankenstein in 1814 she and her companions were explicitly trying to write stories in the model of the German ghost stories they had been reading to entertain themselves earlier in the trip. The Castle of Otranto, the widely-acknowledged originator of the Gothic novel, was published in 1764, a half-century previous. Depending on how pedantic you feel like being you can follow the trail of horror and horror-adjacent elements (witches, ghosts, demons, madness, unattainable knowledge, etc) back to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Celtic faerie tales, medieval morality plays…you can trace it all the way back to the Greeks if you so choose. [and I think we both know I would, were I given the opportunity -KH] As for Poe, he didn’t start writing until 20 years after Shelley. He can’t even lay claim to be the first American horror writer; Washington Irving beat him to the punch by a decade with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Certainly Shelley and Poe were early contributors to the modern period of horror, and they are rightfully regarded as integral to the genre, but to label them founders is a stretch.

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ytxzgejd?query=V0042200&page=1

But it is by no means unreasonable to pin the origins of science fiction firmly onto Frankenstein’s preternaturally broad, corpse-like shoulders. If you feel like doing a fair amount of digging you can probably find some vaguely sci-fi-y stories earlier, predominantly dull-as-dishwater Utopian essays and other unreadable Enlightenment works. But, to my knowledge at least, nothing approaching the popular milieu or carrying the momentum of a coherent literary philosophy. And then up lumbered Frankenstein, a story all about the possibilities and dangers afforded mankind by galvanism, chemistry, and anatomy. Shortly thereafter arrived Poe, telling tales of balloon rides to the moon, scientists feverishly studying the chemical components of apocalyptic comets, and the mind-expanding opportunities presented by hypnosis. Poe’s stories are obviously, inescapably inspirations for Jules Verne; The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon could not exist without Poe. Verne and H. G. Wells are traditionally tapped as the Fathers of Science Fiction, and without a doubt they popularized the genre, but they are disqualified for the exact same reason that I stripped Shelley and Poe of their title: our linear comprehension of time. Verne was first published in the 1850s, Wells in the 1890s, so Shelley and Poe have the drop on them by several decades. But chronology is just numbers, and numbers are just facts, and facts are boring. Let’s get into why we remember Shelley and Poe as horror masters and not as science fiction innovators.

Science fiction is about human’s reaction to technology. It is no accident that science fiction emerged as a genre in the 19th century, a period of tremendous technological upheaval. Frankenstein takes, at best, a dim view of what can be gained from advances in science and technology, a reaction which we might expect given Shelley’s conflicted Romantic sensibilities.  Poe’s science fiction stories, by contrast, posit new technologies as tools to advance human interests; in his mind science is neither to be feared nor worshipped, but used. That utilitarian approach was the standard direction science fiction writers took with their stories in the genre’s awkward and optimistic youth (and again in the Atomic Age of the 1940s and ‘50s). Shelley’s more nuanced take on the pros and cons of new technology put her several decades ahead of the curve, closer to Wells’ Morlocks and islands of animal-men than to Verne’s uncomplicated adventures and fantastical apparati.

Amazing Stories October 1926

Old school science fiction was WILD, y’all.

The technology to which authors react also changes rapidly. At the time Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein experiments in electricity were new and exciting! It was a barely-understood phenomenon, a bucking bronco of science that humanity was hoping to saddle and harness for the good of mankind. Two centuries later, we have enslaved lightning so thoroughly that many of you are reading this blog post on electronic devices that you carry in your back pocket. Experiments in electricity that were cutting-edge in 1818 are now not even commonplace, but old-fashioned. As technology becomes obsolete, reactions to that technology must of necessity also become obsolete. It is hard for us to recognize Frankenstein as science fiction because, to be trite, the science it is reacting to is no longer fiction. Poe’s science fiction stories have also largely been rendered obsolete by the passage of time, although the larger reason we don’t remember them is that they weren’t very good and he didn’t write very many.

The reason they are still associated with the horror genre, by contrast, is that horror doesn’t change. We still recognize Macbeth as a horror story. If you heard a Roman ghost story you would recognize it as a horror story too. A good horror story in 1818 or 1843 remains a good horror story to this day, and will persist in being a good horror story until every creature which can comprehend both language and fear is dead. Because horror isn’t about what we fear, but that we fear. Fear is eternal; the dark is constant. Shelley and Poe’s recognition of this enduring truth, and their ability to capture and express it to their terrified audience, is what keeps them firmly ensconced in the annals of horror mastery.

FDR Fear

Noted horror scholar and American politician F. Delano Roosevelt.

I will be expounding on this topic in greater detail in the dramaturgy notes in our programs, so if you would like to learn more about the universal nature of fear (and who wouldn’t) be sure to come to our shows. We open on October 18th with Frankenstein, and will be performing it, A Midnight Dreary, and Dracula from then until the 10th of November. Get your tickets now and come join us!

Frankenstein History Lesson: Isn’t It Romantic?

Welcome back, boys and ghouls! The continual clouds and drizzle outside have informed me that, at long last, DC’s hot miserable humid nightmare of a summer has ended and we can finally move into the comparative comfort of our cooler but somehow equally sticky autumn. And with the changing of the seasons returns We Happy Few, emerging from our opposite hibernation to prepare for our upcoming season. Beginning in mid-October we will be presenting our first performance in repertory, as we conclude our first Classics-in-Action Cycle with the Horror Rep. We are remounting 2016’s A Midnight Dreary and last year’s Dracula and, just in time for the 200th anniversary, introducing our brand-spanking-new adaptation of Frankenstein! As you might imagine, since you’ve already read at least 6000 combined words about our adaptations of Poe and Dracula, and since I mentioned the whole anniversary thing, and also because of the title at the top of this blog post, I’m planning on spending some time today talking about Frankenstein. Specifically the literary origins and context of this, a cornerstone of Gothic fiction and arguably the foundation of both science fiction and horror [yr. humble narrator’s two favorite genres, in case I haven’t made that abundantly clear -KH], borne from deep within the English Romantic movement. Let’s get to it.

The grim weather of DC fall puts me in the mind of the legendary origins of Frankenstein. On a similarly grey and drizzly day while on vacation in Geneva in 1816, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his lover and wife-to-be Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, their boyfriend and fellow Romantic writer Lord Byron, and his doctor John Polidori decided to entertain themselves by writing spooky stories when they couldn’t play outside. Percy wrote a largely forgotten ghost story, Polidori a moderately famous novella called The Vampyre, Byron doubtless wrote something tedious about himself, and Mary, unable to offer anything at the time, wracked her brain for a while before offering up the foundation for what would become Frankenstein. Contrary to popular (or, at least, my) belief, she did not write the story at one go on that very evening, as if in a trance or fugue state, but rather worked at it for months before it was finished and saw print. Mary Shelley’s own introduction to the second edition of the story describes her husband frequently asking as to her progress and encouraging her to expand the story from a mere fragment to the full-length masterpiece it would become. It should be unsurprising that a woman with the blood of revolutionary intellectuals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and so frequently in the company of Romantic greats Percy Shelley and Byron, should produce such a remarkable and long-lasting story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What was this “Romanticism” that Mary found herself surrounded by, and what influence could it have had on her writing?

Romanticism as an artistic/cultural movement varied somewhat from country to country (unsurprising for something so deeply connected to the rise of nationalism), but there are a handful of universal elements: a fondness for pastoralism, an affinity with nature, the idealization of the past and accompanying mistrust of progress, and increased trust in emotion and individuality at the expense of reason and parochialism. In America Romanticism tended to focus on the frontier and the vast swathes of unspoiled nature that could be found there. In Continental Europe, particularly in France and what is now Germany and Italy, it frequently took on a political flavor and often emphasized shared cultural traditions, especially language, and was instrumental in the consolidation of both of those nations as nations.

wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Casper David Friedrich, 1818. I still maintain that this picture will tell you everything about Romanticism you need to know.

English Romanticism cannot be so easily keyholed, not least because I am more familiar with it and did extra research about it, in order to write this blog post. It did not have access to the Great Wide Open that inspired the Americans, nor their bright and youthful optimism. It also largely avoided the political and revolutionary timbre of the Continentals, presumably by the same mysterious force that quarantined the island from the bloody populist rebellions which swept across Europe in the 19th century. [Please refer to the author’s unpublished dramaturgy notes from Henry V and to Chapter 38 of the Napoleonic Faerie novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for two contrasting theories on how these rebellions could have been avoided. -ed.] While German Romantics explored their own storied history, the English Romantics usually spent their energies on the Ancient Greeks and Romans, presumably because the Arthur legend had been claimed by more conservative, reactionary writers of prior generations. For every English poem where a poet spent his ink on tales of that legendary past (Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias and Prometheus Unbound, most of Byron) there was another who had concerned themselves with nature and meditation (Keats’ Ode to A Nightingale, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey). Percy and Mary Shelley were avowed and vehement atheists, while Blake wrote an entire book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to interpret his faith through his Romantic beliefs.

But I’m not just here to talk about English Romanticism, I’m here to talk about Frankenstein. And despite its pedigree and the unique circumstances of its birth, Frankenstein is clearly NOT a true Romantic work in the way that Prometheus Unbound or Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage or Tintern Abbey are. It certainly contains some of the earmarks, though queerly twisted; note the story’s ambivalence towards the pursuit of knowledge, or Nature’s cruelly destructive majesty typified by the glacier, the lightning bolt, the Arctic. But it does not reflect Romantic beliefs so much as reference and question them. In this way it almost seems like a reaction to Romanticism, the dichotomy within both the Doctor and the Creature between their reason and their emotion mirroring, perhaps, Mary Shelley’s conflict with the movement. In any case, our story thematically hews closer to a Gothic aesthetic. Frankenstein’s aristocratic protagonist, the propensity by both him and the antagonist for melodramatic versifying, the suspiciously well-timed thunderstorms at dramatically convenient moments, the twinges of the supernatural, all aesthetically link the story more closely to the crumbling castles and tortured antiheroes of Gothic icons like Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe than to the bucolic likes of Wordsworth and Keats. Which is convenient, because we are not presenting dramatizations of Romantic poems, but of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Poe.

Neuschwanstein Lightning Filippo Rome.jpg

Neuschwanstein Castle. Photo by Filippo Rome. This picture is, likewise, basically just Gothic literature in a nutshell

Some other time I will come back and tell you about the bona fides of Frankenstein’s connection to horror and science fiction, as I mentioned earlier. For now I hope that this high school-level recapitulation of Romantic literature and my vague assertions as to how it alternatively influenced and differs from our story piques your curiosity about our show. Tickets are on sale now for performances of Dracula, A Midnight Dreary, and Frankenstein! Come check it out!

What Makes Vampires So Monstrous?

Hi there, everyone. Blogslave Keith Hock here with a SPOOK-tacular October blog post! I’m sorry I couldn’t give you anything creepy or scarifiying last week, focused as I was on historiography, so this week I tried to make the blog extra terrifying to make up for it.  Last time I talked to you about vampires I told you about one of their most important and recognizable trait (their sexiness) and the way that that separated them from the other monsters. Today I want to talk to you about something they share with other monsters, and their OTHER most recognizable trait: the blood drinking. Or, to broaden the synecdoche a little bit, people-eating. Anthropophagy. And, most importantly, cannibalism, because Dracula and his coterie at one point WERE human, even if they are no longer. That ‘if’ is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.

Eating people is shorthand for monstrous. Always has been. It is a simple shorthand: to give a good indication of how awful a creature is, have them not merely kill people but to devour them as well. It makes audience understand exactly how dangerous the creature is, and how little regard it has of the rules of society. The first thing that Grendel does when he assaults Heorot is snatch up a warrior to eat. Ancient Greece abounded with these monsters. Seemingly half of Hercules’ quests revolved around him dealing with some sort of man-eating animals, be they horse or bird or lion, and between Scylla snatching sailors out of his ship, the Laestrygonians spear-fishing his crew, Polyphemus gobbling up his men in the cave, and Circe’s abortive barbecue, it seems likely that Odysseus had more men eaten by monsters than killed in battle during the Trojan War. Fairy tale giants and witches from Jack’s Beanstalk to the Baba Yaga would literally announce their intentions to cook and eat their victims. It is hard to think of a monster that DOESN’T eat people.

To Serve Man

“To Serve Man”, The Twilight Zone, 1962.

But what happens when the the man-eater is human? There is precious little stopping one sufficiently motivated person from eating another, after all. We are little more than skin suits holding together a heap of muscles and fat cunningly wrapped around a skeleton in such a way that it becomes ambulatory. It’s not like human bodies are poisonous (unless you eat too many brains) or made of wood or iron or something indigestible. From a purely practical perspective there is no reason for humans to NOT eat other humans. And yet, with a few isolated cultural exceptions such as [allegedly] the Caribe and New Guinean mountain tribes, cannibalism is regarded as an ultimate taboo. Eating manflesh serves as an indicator of abandoning your own humanity. To treat your fellow man not as a fellow traveller but as a source of food suggests that you have surrendered your commonality with him.

Allow me to present some examples, starting where else but Ancient Greece and my second-favorite cursed bloodline, the Atreides. This familial curse began with Tantalus, who killed and cooked his son Pelops into a dish as a sacrifice to the gods. Why exactly he thought the gods would like this the stories do not make clear. The gods, being gods, immediately knew what he had done and were horrorstruck by it. Again, being gods, they resurrected Pelops, and then laid a familial curse on the bloodline and sentenced Tantalus to eternal torment submerged up to his head in water he could not drink and surrounded by grapes he could not eat. But wait! Having somehow not learned the lesson from his Grandpa, family namer Atreus took revenge on his brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and crown by killing Thyestes’ sons (Pleisthenes and another Tantalus), cooking them into a pie, and feeding them to him. You may recognize this plot point from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where it serves a similar purpose: to explore the hideous depths of depravity, the risks to one’s own soul, that will be explored in the search for revenge. Atreus, like Titus, took care to ensure that Thyestes actually ate before the secret was revealed, and Thyestes was rewarded for his accidental cannibalism with exile and a doubling-down of the familial curse. Atreus would go on to be killed by Thyestes’ other son Aegisthus, who would be killed in HIS turn by Atreus’ grandson Orestes. I find it particularly striking that even the Greek gods, perhaps the most deviant pantheon I can think of, drew the line at cannibalism, and even the accidental consumption of human flesh called for expiation.

Saturn Devouring His Son

But perhaps they had a reason to dislike the idea. “Saturn Devouring His Son”, Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823.

Lest you believe that the only thing I know anything about is the Greeks and Shakespeare, let me share a non-European example as well. The Wendigo is a Native American legend from the Great Lakes region, occupying the nebulous territory between a monster and a curse. A Wendigo encountered in the wild, as it were, was ash-grey and rail-thin; think a skeleton that has been wrapped in skin and then vacuum-sealed. They were voracious man-eaters who thrived on winter, cold, isolation, hunger, and darkness. But the more interesting element of the Wendigo, especially for my purposes, is not this “monster-of-the-week” aspect, but their cultural cachet. There was a pervasive idea in the Algonquian tribes that a human could become a Wendigo if they were overcome by greed, or ate human flesh. The need to consume would trigger a transformation within them, and their humanity would be surrendered in exchange for an unending hunger, an insatiable need to have more, and more, and more. The Wendigo legend is not dissimilar from the European werewolf, as it depicts a human literally abandoning their humanity in the service of their dark appetites.

Wendigo Souza

“Wendigo”, by Marcelo de Souza, 2010.

Cannibalism appears in modern culture, too, except that instead of legends and fairy tales we have movies and tv shows and books. Cannibalism is used as shorthand for an abandonment of civilization, the rejection of and contempt for rules, norms, and mores. Often in post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Neil Marshall’s Doomsday or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is an acknowledgement that society has abandoned them, and so they are right to return the favor. In science fiction scenarios, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or (with a somewhat different intention) Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, it carries the idea that the cannibals think they have more important issues to think about than their humanity. In suspense and crime thrillers, like the various iterations of the Hannibal Lecter character and the tv show Bones, it signifies a character believing himself to above the rules, too smart to be tied down by the laws of society that keep the ‘normals’ in check. In each of these settings the cannibalistic characters believe that they have something to gain by losing their humanity. It is a clear trade that is being defined in each of these situations, and it is a trade that they are all glad to make because they place no value on their conscience.

Wolves

Dracula and his vampiric children fit very neatly into this trade-off. Dracula consciously and positively identifies himself with predators, particularly the wolf. In his mind the human world is little more than a herd of sheep or cattle for him to toy with and prey upon at his leisure. He willingly accepts the gifts of the monster, the strength and cunning and charisma and ruthlessness, and regards the faith and compassion which he has lost as liabilities. Because he has willingly surrendered these human traits he holds them in faint regard. But his scorn for humanity, especially human companionship and loyalty, ends up being his downfall.

If you want to SEE this downfall, you’ve still got a couple more chances this month! Dracula will be returning to Spectre Arts down in Raleigh this weekend if you feel like taking a road trip down to beautiful North Carolina. If travelling to the Tar Heel State is not in the cards for you, fear not! We have a few additional performances here in the Nation’s Capital as well, including one at the Southeast Public Library on the 26th and another at CHAW on the 30th. I hope to see you there!