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!

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!

Poe and the Halloween Tradition

Today I want to talk to you about a historic and time-honored Halloween tradition. Something that everyone above a certain age associates with Halloween and Halloween parties. Something you’ll see in many, many Halloween movies. Something that our dear friend Edgar Allan Poe was very familiar with, which he wrote about on more than one occasion. Something that, for many of us, life Halloween would feel incomplete without. I am speaking, of course, of alcohol. So on this spookiest of days, me and this adorable bottle of absinthe I found at the liquor store last week want to share some thoughts about drinking, Poe, our newly adapted Poe piece “A Midnight Dreary”, our upcoming Durham performance thereof, and the way in which those things might be related.

absinthe

Look how little and cute it is!

As I alluded to when last we spoke, Poe had an unfortunate relationship with alcohol. He was unable to control himself in its presence and so he endeavored to teetotal. Unfortunately, the culture of the time regularly found him attending social gatherings where drinking would be expected and he fell from the wagon more than once. While attending these events Poe had a tendency to drink to excess and make a fool of himself, an attribute that he and I share. I can fortunately say that my propensity for blacking out over-imbibing at parties has not seriously damaged my life or prospects, but Mr. Poe cannot say the same, as his drinking problem cost him at least two jobs and twice as many friendships. It is to his credit that he, unlike me (and, hopefully, you), hated the habit and its effect on him and routinely attempted to abstain and distance himself from alcohol, an effort which is no less noble for it having been unsuccessful. I have every confidence that my fine readers can hold their liquor better than poor Edgar, however, and as our upcoming performances are thematically paired with a variety of wines, I encourage you to put the thought of Poe drinking himself to death on the cold autumn streets of Baltimore out of your minds. Contemplate instead how delicious these wines sound, and how appropriately they have been matched by We Happy Few’s Bartender-in-Residence Kerry McGee.

masque-of-red-death-extraordinary-tales

From Extraordinary Tales, 2013. Directed by Raul Garcia.

First on the docket is The Masque of the Red Death, which is, appropriately for a party, matched with a sparking wine. But not just any sparkling wine. This is a SPECIAL party, to celebrate the end of the world, so ordinary champagne or prosecco would never do (also, there’s nothing scary about champagne, unless you’re exceptionally prone to hangovers). This is an almond-flavored sparkling wine, to give it that extra special decadence, that rich little kick of marzipan. But marzipan isn’t the only thing you can make out of almonds, is it? The more morbid of my readers will recall that the taste or smell of bitter almonds is a telltale sign of cyanide, a popular poison you might recognize as the one that brought down Jonestown but failed to kill famed Russian necromancer Rasputin. While the titular Red Death did not manifest as poison in the wine, but rather as a plague on the countryside, we felt the surprise of the almond flavor in the wine makes a fitting match to the uninvited guest who gate-crashes Prince Prospero’s party.

Next up is The Cask of Amontillado. I will give you three guesses as to what wine we chose for this story.

whats-the-word

That’s right. T-Bird.

Nah, we went with the obvious for this one. Amontillado is a Spanish sherry with a sweet nose that does not exactly translate to the taste, which is much drier than you might expect. The variance between the scent and flavor means that this drink comes with an unexpected surprise, just as the sparking wine did. Similar to the sort of surprise you might encounter if a dear friend had told you about a cask of sherry he had purchased and wanted you to verify the quality of, but then instead he got you drunk and walled you up in his basement. Above all I would say Amontillado tastes like revenge, and much like revenge it is best served cold.

For The Tell-Tale Heart we decided to keep up the bait-and-switch flavor profile we used for the other stories, though the third drink is better known and therefore the twist is less surprising than the others. Our wine of choice for this story is Velvet Moon Cabernet Sauvignon from Trader Joe’s, the #1 store for the wino on a budget. [Trader Joe’s sponsor us please! -KH] Velvet Moon, in the nature of Cab Sauvs everywhere, is fruity and full bodied with a hefty dose of tannins. It has the rich color of arterial blood, the full profile of a satisfied obsession, and the bitterness of regret. That is not to say that you will be left unsatisfied by either the drink or the story, merely that the way something starts is seldom the way that it ends. Sometimes your wine turns bitter on your palate, and sometimes the motiveless murder of a dear friend because he had cataracts results in you shrieking your guilt to the police in an effort to expiate yourself and silence the ceaseless pounding of his impossibly-still-beating heart.

tell-tale-heart-fores

The Tell-Tale Heart, by David G. Fores.

If these wines sound interesting to you, especially in connection with these chilling stories, brought to the stage by Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee, and Jon Reynolds under the direction of Bridget Grace Sheaff, then please join us for “A Midnight Dreary”, to be performed at Spectre Arts in Durham, North Carolina the evenings of November 11th and 12th. For my thousands of readers in the Raleigh-Durham area this should be an easy trip. For those in the greater DC metro area it is a scant four hour drive, and for those of you in the rest of the country and world, I say to you a journey of ten thousand miles would be a small price to pay to see a show of this caliber. If that travel seems a little much for you, however, then fear not! Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we will have additional performances of this show in January, here in our nation’s capital. Keep an eye on this space and our website and twitter for additional details as they develop. Honestly it would probably be better to just come down to North Carolina on the 11th or 12th, though.

Until next time, I hope you all have a spooky and responsible-drinking good time tonight. Keep your cell phones charged, be sure to check the back seat for killers, and whatever you do, don’t split up.

Keith Hock

Cask of Amontillado: From the Page to the …Bar

Hi everyone! Did you miss me? It’s Keith Hock, We Happy Few’s Production Manager, Technical Director, and, according these new business cards… Blogslave [that can’t be right]. Today I’m here to tell you about something that we did for Halloween. I don’t just want to brag to you about how we did a cool thing that you probably didn’t see (although, in your face, it was awesome), I wanted to talk to you about what we did, why we did it, and how it worked. By the end of this post, if I’ve done my job correctly, you’ll feel like you were really there!

First things first. What did we do that I will spend the next 1500 words talking about? If you would take the time to look at the title of the blog post you’re reading you would realize that it PROBABLY had something to do with The Cask of Amontillado. In point of fact, we performed it, but that’s not all! Not only did we perform Cask, we performed it on Halloween night, and not only THAT, we performed it in Mockingbird Hill, a sherry bar. I would hope that at least the superficial reasons why would do such a thing be obvious, but because I love the sound of my fingers clattering on a keyboard I will explain our reasoning, from the simple to the literary to the practical.

Poe

From a superficial angle, Mockingbird Hill asked us to perform this piece on Halloween because it is a SPOOKY STORY ::wink:: that prominently features a CASK OF SHERRY ::wink, wink::. You would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate choice of story for a Halloween reading for ANY bar, much less one known for its sherry. If you WERE inclined to seek other booze-themed stories to read, however, Poe would probably be a good place to start (much better than that teetotaling racist H. P. Lovecraft). Poe is somewhat of a hero around Mockingbird Hill for his fondness for sherry specifically and drinking in general. He is even more of a figure in his native Baltimore, which seems to have forgiven him for dying penniless, drunk and alone in one of their gutters and has both a football franchise and brewery named in honor of his most famous piece, The Raven.

Poe would be an excellent choice for a Halloween READING, but, as my astute readers may have noted, we did not simply put on a reading, we had a PERFORMANCE, and performances are a horse of a much different color. Poe wrote his stories to be read; at most read aloud. Only once did he set his pen to write a play, and that unfinished, so we must take some liberties and do some adapting to bring his work from the page to the stage. In this, as well, Cask is uniquely suited within Poe’s bibliography for performance. It holds a number of advantages over other stories. It has two characters engaging in dialogue, for example, a trivial-sounding but important mark in its favor. The horror genre being what it is, an investigation of the unknown and unknowable, a mirror in our souls reflecting the darkness surrounding us (or is the mirror on the outside reflecting the darkness within?), stories in the milieu tend to be intensely personal and singly narrated. There is a reason both Lovecraft and Poe preferred to structure their pieces as the diary entries, letters, confessions or reminiscences of men going mad or killing themselves; to fear is to weaken, none would CHOOSE to share their fear unless they had no choice. Even this story, we discover at the end, is a confession of sorts, taking place long after the events described within. However, until it reaches that point, Cask remains more or less a dialogue and, if not unique, certainly unusual in the horror canon, an oddity we will gladly turn to our advantage.

Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter

The Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter, Bill Keane & H. P. Lovecraft

Cask has additional advantages, from a practical perspective; namely, it takes place almost entirely in a creepy cavern, surrounded by darkness and aged bottles of wine, eerily similar to the interior of Mockingbird Hill even before our Montresor, the inimitable Kerry McGee, graced the wall with a handmade banner of the family crest. Compare this setting to The Fall of the House of Usher’s disintegrating mansion, or the overkill oubliette of The Pit & The Pendulum, or The Masque of the Red Death’s seven-roomed Rainbow Party Palace. Creating an appropriate setting can be set aside for a reading, such detail is unnecessary for a reading, but as I’ve said time and again, we put on a PERFORMANCE, and unless your performance is Our Town [never do Our Town], it is useful to your audience to at least create the illusion that your characters are somewhere else than “in a bar on Halloween” or “standing under hot lights surrounded by people”. It doesn’t have to be much (our own Hamlet had nothing more than a box filled with mirrors and some rapidly changing costumes), as long as you demonstrate to your audience that for the next few minutes or hours they are not where they are, but where you want them to be.

From We Happy Few's 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few's 2015 Production of The Cask of Amontillado.  L-R audience members, background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

But enough about what makes The Cask of Amontillado such an excellent choice for this event. Why, as I have been so insistent, did we choose to do a performance instead of a reading? What was gained by our performing it? Why go through all that trouble?

I am glad you asked. The primary reason is that we are a THEATRE COMPANY, not a literary society. Performances are what we do. This is not to say we are above staged readings, a time-honored tool for approaching and performing scripts that we, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, may be showing off for you in the not-too-distant future. Simply that, in this situation, with this piece, and this setting, it would be a criminal waste of their talent for us to give scripts to Raven Bonniwell and Kerry McGee and then tell them “uh, yeah, just stand there and read it out loud” [Also, I would be fired if I spoke to them that way]. Indeed, Mockingbird Hill HAS in the past simply done staged readings of this piece for Halloween. In the last two years they have realized how much more interesting they can make it by having it staged instead of merely read.

The second, and arguably more interesting, reason, is that it allows us to draw additional meaning from the piece. A cursory glance through the text will tell you that it is absolutely RIDDLED with meaning and references, some more transparent than others (any idiot can suss out the significance of Masonic imagery or the appropriateness of the Montresor banner; how significant is it that it was Carnival, or that the walls are covered in nitre, or that the cask is specifically of Amontillado?  I don’t know, but I would wager that they matter). By staging it we can explore the text more thoroughly, emphasizing some of the meaning and, I dare say, adding some ourselves.

As one might expect from a story that is predominantly set in a labyrinth of crypts and ends with one of the characters entombed behind some fresh masonry and a wall of bones, The Cask of Amontillado trades heavily on a sense of claustrophobia. Time and again we are reminded of the dampness of the environment, the foulness of the air, the bones of Montresors past surrounding, the cramped tunnels and the dreadful solidity of the granite around them. But it is one thing to read of such things, it is another entirely to watch, shoulder to shoulder, crowded in around our actors as they hike through the tunnels into the pit. Barely able to turn around lest they strike an audience member, bound not by their imaginations as to the dimensions of the tunnels but by the reality of their playing space, they bring the audience into the abyss with them, to the point that when they lifted their flambeaux upward to observe the “nitre” on the ceiling, the audience looked as well, though there was nothing on the ceiling but heating ducts! And while the description of Montresor walling Fortunato up in her tomb, laughing and screaming the whole way, is something quite brutal, it doesn’t hold a candle to the finality of a screamed “Yes, for the love of God!” and a door closing on the terrified but very real face of Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few's 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunado), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunato), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

In this way we can accentuate what is already there. But what of adding our own meaning, as I alluded to earlier? It is also very doable (I would never lie to you) and in this case it is accomplished by the exact same means; the crowd surrounding them. As you may recall, at the very end we discover that this murder was committed some 50 years before, and that the remains have not been disturbed in that intervening time; indeed would be difficult to even find re-concealed behind the bones. And we have noticed that Montresor is at some pains to conceal her crime; in addition to sending her staff away, she chooses the bottommost crypt in her family’s creepy labyrinth of a wine cellar, and seals Fortunato away behind both a wall of bricks and a pile of bones. Note also that, though she had her rapier, she did not stab Fortunato, simply left her to starve, eliminating the potential for a bloody weapon in her possession. Montresor has completely concealed her crime and, within the context of the story, her explanation at the end is little more than an opportunity to reveal the 50 years twist (with a minor twinge of guilt). With an audience, however, her final pronouncement changes the tenor of the whole venture; her attitude (at least in Kerry McGee’s capable hands) changes to a taunting gloat to an appreciative audience. In other hands, with different motives or a simple framing mechanism (even a different setting or new costumes) it could be a confession to a priest or detective, a confrontation with a new generation of Fortunato, an explanation for a new generation of Montresor, the raving of a lunatic…options as wide as your director and actors’ imaginations.

I hope you all enjoyed my lengthy and pedantic explanation of our choices and methods in our recent performance of The Cask of Amontillado. If you liked this, please let me know! If you hated it, let me know that as well! I’m not going to stop writing these anytime soon, though, in fact you should expect another one later this month. As we expand our wheelhouse beyond the Elizabethan and begin to explore more and different pieces, you will find me there, to ruin the mystery and explain the magic. Until next time,

I have the honor to be, Yr Obedient Servant,

K. Hock