I Dare Do All That May Become A Man

Hey folks. Tonight is opening night, we’ve gotten through our previews, so I think it’s time for us to talk about something a little more serious, but relevant and necessary to understand for this show. Unfortunately not everything can be ghosts and magic and basketball; sometimes I have to provide more concrete context. And sometimes that context isn’t about something fun or old-timey, but is instead a dangerous and insidious real world problem that gave us an anchor point for the concept of this production. A problem like, for example, toxic masculinity. That’s right, I’m going to talk about the pernicious influence of masculinity on men, and the way that it impacts and can be identified in Macbeth, for 1500 words. If you’d rather not engage with this topic, first of all I don’t blame you, and second, why don’t you read this piece about acknowledging artifice on stage that I wrote a few years ago, and pretend we’re talking about that instead. It’ll still be relevant and it WON’T be a bummer!

Since you’re alive and Online in this, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nineteen, I’m certain you’re at the least aware of toxic masculinity. But in the interest of clarity it is helpful to define our terms anyway. Toxic, or hegemonic, masculinity is a restrictive and dangerous understanding of what it means to be a man, typified by the deadening of any emotion but anger, the demonstration of sexual prowess, an all-but-solipsistic view of the world, the necessity of being a dominant figure in the world around you, and the willingness, if not open eagerness, to impose that dominance through physical violence. It is also referred to as hegemonic masculinity, since (as a casual look at our society will no doubt demonstrate) it is and long has been the dominant force in the Western world. Ceaselessly upheld by just about every institution in existence, it is ubiquitous to the point that it has until recently been invisible, “just the way things worked”.

Trump Tantrum

Picture unrelated.

A necessary aspect of this culture is the denigration of those who do not fall into this carefully curated vision of manliness and a need to rebuke or correct them for their transgressions, preferably through the application of the aforementioned violence. Any such rejection of the values of toxic masculinity is regarded as what you might call gender treason, an admission of personal weakness, and an existential threat to the concept of manhood. It is, as you see, an extraordinarily fragile worldview, requiring near-constant external affirmation and outright antagonism towards other beliefs. For our purposes there are three main facets of toxic masculinity to consider: the death of feeling, self-policing, and its performative nature. Fortunately we are observing this through the lens of Macbeth and not that of Titus Andronicus, so I do not have to engage in this blog with the truly monstrous sexual violence that comes part and parcel with a need to dominate your surroundings, a hypersensitivity to perceived slights, and the arrogance of unacknowledged privilege.

[Side note: As a straight white cis man it seems to me that I am either the best or the worst person to talk about this subject, but since I’m the one whose job it is to write these blogs let’s defer to my lived experience in it instead of disqualifying me for my potential for blind spots. -KH]

Of all these aspects of toxicity, the murder of emotion is the one most harmful to the men themselves, as well as the aspect that can be most clearly observed in the character of Macbeth. Acknowledging feelings, and sharing those feelings with friends and loved ones, is feminine, and therefore weak. A real man doesn’t expose their weaknesses, and he ESPECIALLY doesn’t complain about how he’s feeling. The strong man is strong enough to bear any torment. And if he isn’t he suffers in silence, until he can take his revenge, because anger is the only acceptable emotion. This puts an often-unbearable weight on men to pretend they have no feelings, until either they’ve successfully killed their emotional sides, find a way to convert any emotion into rage, or snap and commit suicide.

Macbeth gives us a wonderful pair of examples of this attitude late in the show, from Macbeth and Macduff. Upon learning of his wife’s death, Macbeth responds with his most famous soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, which gives us a peek into the nihilism, desolation, and apparent death wish that now make up his psyche. Macbeth’s soul has been so consumed by his desire for domination and strength that he cannot summon up a tear or a sweet word for his wife and partner. Gone is the passionate lover, the loyal retainer, the man who joked with his friend Banquo; all replaced by a brief candle, lighting the way to dusty death. By contrast, Macduff makes no secret of the terrible depths of his emotion when he learns of HIS wife’s death, and when he is enjoined to “Dispute it like a man” by Malcolm, Macduff counters that a real man can, will, and must embrace his feelings. This exchange is riddled with Malcolm’s repeated insistence that Macduff man up, pull himself together, and use his grief to fuel his rage. There has been no hint at any point elsewhere in the play that Macduff is weak, but this display of emotion so upsets and discomfits Malcom that he demands, over and over, that Macduff stop crying and “[l]et grief convert to anger.”

This could not be a more perfect example of the self-policing that men do. It is very important to note that there is no outside observer setting or enforcing these standards, nor a biological imperative driving men to execute these masculine traits, despite what its proponents may lead you to believe. Baby boys aren’t born with a need to impose dominance on their surroundings. All of these attitudes and behaviors are learned from, and enforced by, other men. I regularly refer to masculinity as a Death Cult, and while there is no Messianic figure extolling these ‘virtues’ from on high, there is certainly a cultlike internal enforcement of these values between men. Look shortly before the banquet scene, when Macbeth recruits a “Murtherer”, whatever that is, to do his dirty work for him. Macbeth is able to provoke the assassin into action by calling his manliness into question, noting that there are as many different kinds of ‘men’ as there are dogs, and taunting him into proving his masculinity.

Macbeth Assassin

L-R: Dylan Fleming as Murderer, Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

And the fact that this taunt works on the killer proves that, because it is entirely self-policed and self-defined, how performative toxic masculinity of necessity has to be. It’s a race to the bottom in an echo chamber, where every man assumes they are being judged by every other man and they must demonstrate their bona fides to each other at all times, lest they be outed and ridiculed, at best, for not being real men. It is the sort of thing that, in our society, leads men to feign interest in sports instead of poetry, or drink brown liquor instead of fruit-heavy cocktails, or wear nothing but utilitarian earth tones. And it is the sort of thing that Macbeth proves time and again. When Siward refuses to mourn his son’s death because he died fighting, he is performing his manliness. When Macbeth would rather die than be taken captive and be forced to kneel before Malcolm, he is performing his manliness. When he is frightened by the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, Macbeth angrily lists his credentials, all the things he isn’t afraid of, as evidence that this apparition is hideous enough to even frighten a MAN.

This show also clearly demonstrates that belief in the cult is not limited to men. Women can and often do buy in to the rules that men are expected to abide by. In that banquet scene it is not one of the male guests, but rather Lady M who calls Macbeth on being “quite unmann’d in folly”, and when he gets cold feet before the murder she is there to coax him into manly action. Lady Macbeth is so on board with this conception of masculinity that she openly laments her misfortune in being a woman, and wishes she were a man, or at the least, “unsex[ed]”, so that she would be allowed to seize the power that her husband apparently struggles with. As a woman she feels these aggressive, ambitious thoughts, but instead of accepting them as part of her personality she wishes she were a man, so those thoughts would be not only acceptable, but normal.

Lady M.jpg

Raven Bonniwell as Lady Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 Production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

This is obviously a tiny, TINY primer on the pervasive danger of toxic masculinity. I have skipped over a lot of the inherent privileges and ALL of the sexual violence that is arguably its most appalling feature. And because I was viewing it through an inherently violent play I left most of the potential for physical violence to be inferred, instead of addressing it directly. But regardless I hope that this will help you interpret the toxic conceptions of masculinity that pervade not only our play, but the world we live in as a whole. If you want to see all of this play out on stage, tickets are available now! We are sold out for the rest of this weekend but the show runs until the end of the month!

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.

Macbeth: Prophecy Lesson

Tarot

Happy February, everybody! Well done on making it through January, the worst month of the year! Now we’ve just got another month of winter left before March arrives, bringing with it spring and cherry blossoms and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the Studio Ghibli festival at E Street and all good things in the world. This year March heralds even more good news than usual, because our production of Macbeth begins then! We start rehearsals today and so, as is my wont, I will now begin sharing play-adjacent and contextual blog posts to whet your appetite for the show.

There’s a lot going on in Macbeth. It is one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays, and it also happens to be the shortest (possibly because we are missing parts of the play). It is also one of the most explicitly magical, which as you might imagine is of great interest to me. Part of the magic in this play, and also the inciting action of the story, is in the prophecies that Macbeth and Banquo receive from a trio of witches at the top of the show: that Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, and that Banquo’s descendents shall reign though he does not. Macbeth later demands (and, surprisingly, receives) additional prophecies later in the show when he somehow tracks down the witches in Act 4, unintentionally revealing the seeds of his own destruction to those with the knowledge to read their auguries. Macbeth, to his woe, cannot interpret even the most straightforward of prophecies and leaves himself wide open for his tragic demise. But hopefully, once you finish this blog post, you will be able to read these signs for yourself and plan accordingly, should you receive any prophecies in the future.

Roll the Bones Gabor Hearthstone

Roll the Bones, from Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne. Original art by Gabor Szikszai

There are two prevailing arguments on the nature of prophecies: either they are objective truth, or they bring themselves about by the hearing of them. In practical terms there is little difference, except that it gives people a chance to argue about it, as Macbeth director Hannah Todd and I have done at literally every opportunity: I am of the opinion that they are objectively true, whether they are heard or not, while Hannah maintains that once the subject of a prophecy hears it they set into motion a series of events that will lead to its fulfillment. Unfortunately the realities of storytelling mean that in order for a prophecy to exist in the world of a story the audience and at least one other character must ‘hear’ it. And due to the linear nature of time we can only ever see one path from prophecy-dictated to prophecy-fulfilled. It is therefore impossible for us to know which theory is correct. [mine -KH] Conveniently for us, though, the arcane and unknowable rules governing fortune-telling are not relevant for understanding those rules from a practical/narrative perspective, so this will all be helpful no matter what theory you believe.

This is going to sound obvious but it is a good place to start and is worth really hammering home. Prophecies must happen. It is impossible for a prophecy to not come to pass, regardless of the mechanism by which it does so. Once a prophecy is made it cannot not happen. It is information about the future that the characters KNOW to be true, unless they heard it from Cassandra, in which case it is no less true but they refuse to believe it. Prophecies are not ‘likely’ or ’probable’ or any of that equivocating garbage, they are The Truth. And that is a hell of a thing for a character in a story to know. It is one thing for us to sit on our genre-savvy high horses and posit that of course Harry Potter will kill Voldemort, because that is what the heroes of YA fantasy do. It is another thing entirely for Harry Potter himself to wrap his head around the prophecy and understand that the outcome WILL BE and MUST BE and CANNOT BE OTHER THAN one of them killing the other.

The Department of Mysteries.jpg

Chapter illustration for “The Department of Mysteries”, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Art by Mary Grandpre.

The argument can be made that this ruins the story, especially when the prophecy is more final than ‘one of you will die’. Predictability is the enemy of excitement, and prophecies are nothing if not predictable. It’s why you read the last page of the book last. Merlin knows the entire time that he will be imprisoned in a tree by Nimue and it saps every adventure he goes on beforehand of any tension, because we know he has to survive and make it to that tree. This is what makes prequels bad; there are no stakes. Everyone you already knew will live and, most likely, most of the new characters will die.

If properly used, however, their inherent inevitability can play a key role in a prophecy’s value, despite this narrative risk. The Greeks, as I’m sure you remember, were especially partial to prophecies, serving as reminders of the inexorable will of the gods. The Curse of Oedipus comes part and parcel with not one but two fatal prophecies; that Laius’ son (Oedipus) would kill him and marry his wife, and that the sons of Oedipus (Polyneices and Eteocles) would kill each other. In both of these situations the victim of the prophecy knew the prophecy in advance, but not the manner in which it would be fulfilled, and their reactions tell us everything we need to know about defying the gods. Laius, knowing the prophecy, sent his son out into the wilderness to die, and believed he had beaten the gods at their own game and was therefore invulnerable. It must, therefore, have come as a tremendous shock when he was murdered in the open road. By contrast, Eteocles is fully aware that he must kill, and be killed by, his brother Polyneices, so he consciously arranges for their single combat during the defense of Thebes. Knowing as he did that circumstances would eventually align such that they killed each other, he chooses to accept his fate and meet death in a manner of his own choosing. Attempting to subvert a prophecy either, depending on what theory you buy into, leads directly to the prophecy being fulfilled OR forces the universe to construct a more and more elaborate series of events in order to bring it about, Final Destination-style. There is no running from your fate.

That it not to say that prophecies cannot be manipulated, though, if you are savvy enough. It is wise to pay exact attention to the language used in prophecies, because they are as literal as can be, and they reward close readings. This is the same method by which faeries so easily escape contracts and wish-givers grant ironic rewards, but it can have more serious consequences as well. When the Witch-King of Angmar issued his challenges to Earnur, last king of Gondor, he did so secure in the knowledge that “not by the hand of man will he fall.” This prophecy kept him safe for almost a thousand years, until he was blindsided by some unexpected combatants at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This example is interestingly complicated by the fact that that setting has two different meanings of “man”, i.e. the Race of Man or the male gender. And as the eventual fall of the Witch-King involves both a non-human male AND a human woman, the exact nature of that prophecy remains unclear.

Eowyn Witch King

From The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003. L-R: Miranda Otto as Eowyn, Lawrence Makoare as the Witch-King.

Which is a perfect segue into my next point: this sort of interpretation cuts both ways. The Jedi Council okays the training of Anakin Skywalker because he is prophesied to “bring balance” to the Force. But they, blinded by their arrogance, fail to consider that the balance he brings might break bad for them. [This sentence brought to you by the letter B! -ed.] It is STILL not clear exactly what sort of balance the Curse of the Skywalkers is meant to bring to the Force, as the saga isn’t complete yet, but obviously it started with the fall of the Jedi Order, which is probably not what they had in mind. A prophecy may be a useful tool, but it is also a dangerous one, and it is never more dangerous than when its wielder thinks they understand it.

There is a reason I have referred to prophecies twice in the context of curses. By and large, if you are the subject OR object of a prophecy, it is bad news. In every story I have mentioned in this essay thus far, the only character for whom things have gone not horribly by the end was Harry Potter, and even he got his parents killed because he MIGHT have been the Chosen One. Macbeth thinks he has been given a boon by the witches when he receives his prophecy, but in reality it drives an otherwise honorable and loyal man to regicide, paranoia, and child-slaughter.

Come and track that descent into madness and death with us at the show! We open on the 6th of March and run until the 30th, and tickets are available even as we speak. Until then, try to avoid learning what will happen to you in the future, no matter how tempting that sorcerer’s offer sounds. It will not go the way you think.

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!