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

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!