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An theatrical analysis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

1. The performing space:

The concrete and the blacks should be placed thoughtfully.  Why not have a chunk of stone visible, possibly to enhance the sense of being closed in. I believe that part of the strangeness of the Stevenson story is that everything feels so intensely claustrophobic, despite the fact that so much takes place.  The effect of the horror must very specifically not rely on physical violence.  Physical violence on stage requires an enormous amount of preparation, no matter how adept and knowledgeable people are and more often than not is unconvincing to a theater audience.

2. The element of a detective personage in theater:

The Stevenson story is told through the perspective of Mr. Utterson, a circumspect lawyer who, against his better instincts, becomes enmeshed in uncovering the relationship between the good Dr. Jekyll and the evil Mr. Hyde. One way to put the importance of the character of any detective in fiction/film/theater/etc. is that they are principally motivated by an intense desire to understand, to know what is true in order to know why it is true.  The “solution” to the mystery is the who and the how, but it’s always the why that  drives fictional detectives. It’s amazing how many detectives risk their own lives (and often those of others in their path) long after the client has stopped paying, their boss has told them to lay off, etc.  Utterson pursues understanding Jekyll/Hyde despite what he knows to be risks that are extremely out-of-character for the cautious person he is, because of his personal necessity to understand what’s going on.

3. Philosophical and psychological dimensions of Jekyll and Hyde:

The pseudo-philosophical/psychological question Jekyll and Hyde posits is this:  Is all that holds a person to rectitude, to behaving “properly” the danger of consequences, wether from society, from one’s conscience, or from eternal damnation and the loss of one’s soul? The question is pseudo-philosophic and pseudo-psychological because we know the answer: fear, or lack of it, for consequences is not the only reason people act decently toward each other. Psychologically, empathy that leads us to treat other human beings as we’d wish to be treated ourselves. To the degree we recognize the humanness in the other, identical at base to our own, we naturally tend to respond well, not needing either moral code or fear of consequences to hold ourselves in line.

This is exactly what goes wrong in the psychopath:  empathy is absent, replaced by hatred of what is human in the other.   It’s not a failure of logic, belief, or religious conviction; nor is it a matter of being able to evade consequences that leads to heinous acts between people.  It is a matter of knowing that the other is a human being like oneself as so as deserving of joy and not terrible pain that impels to act compassionately rather than rapaciously.

But Dr. Jekyll, despite being an apparently decent person and dedicate scientist, turns his intelligence to nefarious ends. He chooses to become Hyde. Interestingly, in the original novella we know little about what, precisely, Dr. Jekyll does when he becomes Mr. Hyde, other than that his behavior is cruel and horrible. He becomes completely unfettered by a conscience and immune to being caught because he can so easily “escape” by re-assuming his identity as a respectable doctor. In the Stevenson story we know of only two crimes:  First, when he runs headlong into a young girl, he stomps on her and leaves her injured in the street without a backward glance.  Second, in an encounter with a highly respectable stranger, Mr. Hyde becomes enraged and bludgeons the gentleman to death with his cane.

Movie versions, beginning with iconic 1920 film starring John Barrymore as Jekyll/Hyde, paint his crimes more explicitly as revolving around sexual licentiousness.  Movie versions have also introduced the notion that Dr. Jekyll is a “pure” man known for his good work who has a lovely and innocent fiancé who adores him.  This additional conflict, that is, how Jekyll as Hyde behaves in ways completely incompatible with the good doctor’s persona are now ingrained in the popular expectations of the story.

But Dr. Jekyll is not the modern cable TV  psychopath.   He has ideas that upset a fellow doctor/scientist, but we don’t know anything about these ideas, except that they are what a fellow doctor/scientist refers to as “transcendental science,” i.e. the use of science to play God, to toy with fundamental moral and ethical constraints on mind and action.  Mr. Hyde is the successful conclusion of what Dr. Jekyll as aiming for, not some colossal error.   His only error was his belief that he would be able to continually turn himself back to Dr. Jekyll.

But whatever is the sum total of what Mr. Hyde is, it is something to which Dr. Jekyll is clearly addicted.   He lusts to be Mr. Hyde.   So it is certainly true that every bit of who Dr. Jekyll is, is made real in Mr. Hyde.

So what makes Jekyll and Hyde fascinating to us as vibrant a myth as Greek mythology was to the Greeks?   The notion of good and evil embodied in the same being, separated only by a single act (drinking of the potion or its antidote) has a fascination, despite its status as something of a trope, its cliched overuse.

 

The allure of consequence-less misbehavior is only heightened by the underlying fatalistic sense that, sooner or later, the “chickens will come home to roost,” or, to frame it in more classical terms, that the hero’s fatal flaw will be the hero’s destruction.   Some psychiatrists argue that the psychopath want to be undone, requires that violence be revealed. This truth of this assertion is uncertain: there are too many unsolved horrific crimes. But this is ultimately the case with Dr. Jekyll who begins to find his transformation into Mr. Hyde increasingly terrible.

 

Thus Jekyll/Hyde is not made-for-the-breaking-news psychopathy devoid of any “normal” human compassion and fully consumed with a lust to destroy.   Jekyll/Hyde, rather, is the human divide between good and evil, the human who takes shame-filled pleasures, the human whose guilt motivates not to stop doing evil, but to keep that evil secret.

Dr. Jekyll knows that he contains both good and evil. His explicit goal is to separate these two into separate beings. This is far more important than the opportunity to commit evil while avoiding detection. He does not in Dr. Jekyll, the scientist, dissociate himself from his acts of evil, but it is his goal to be able to dissociate the two sides of human nature and thus, in an ultimate act of hubris, succeed in being BOTH good and evil.  

So that Jekyll’s ultimate sin is not that he commits evil and devises a way of getting away with it, but they hubris of trying to overcome human being’s dual nature, of sinning against fellow humanity and feeling pride about his relationship to humanity.

So, although Jekyll/Hyde, especially to the degree Jekyll’s plan works and Hyde is separated off as though an entirely different person, is an extreme of human nature and his ability to accomplish this through biochemistry is extreme to the point of being pure fantasy, his dilemma is an everyman dilemma.  To the degree that we all have “sinful” desires that we want to exercise without sacrificing our sense of righteousness, we can easily identify with Jekyll/Hyde, can understand the seduction of his quest. Feeing this in ourselves, this simultaneous horror and attraction to Jekyll/Hyde’s pursuit evokes in us the exact parallel of what Jekyll/Hyde himself is struggling with:  the wish to feel pure and good and, simultaneously to satisfy our most impure, most nefarious wishes.

To make of Jekyll/Hyde something more than a spectacle, to make it more a real human dilemma brings it closer to what is the essence of drama: internal conflict. Jekyll/Hyde’s goal of splitting is his fatal flaw even more than his thirst for evil. All humans, it could be argued,will under certain internal emotions and external conditions, wish to do terrible harm to another human or other humans. But the morality play aspect of Jekyll/Hyde argues that in the end this is doomed to failure (as all in the audience know Jekyll/Hyde’s pursuit is doomed to failure). It must fail…or does it?

If we split Jekyll/Hyde into two actors, they would not actually debate each other.   Jekyll’s genius and demise is the separation and this is nevertheless the key ingredient we have to play  with.  They are not at odds with each other.  Jekyll knows he is Hyde and vice versa. Only when Hyde insists on dominating, when the antidote begins to progressively fail, that Jekyll’s failure becomes evident.

It is clear that Hyde desires to be Jekyll as much as Jekyll wishes to be Hyde.  His failure is that he cannot be BOTH, not simply to get away with evil, but to be, simultaneously perfectly good

and perfectly evil.  When he fails, he, as Hyde, kills himself. He does this not to avoid capture, but because, without his “good” side, his evil side is useless to him. He is, in a sense, the opposite of the “modern” psychopath.  Evil alone is NOT enough for Jekyll/Hyde.  He refers to his research (to Ganyon) as “transcendental medicine.” His goal is overcome being human, and much like Dr. Frankenstein, this is his fundamental sin against nature.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are not antagonists.  Jekyll is not trying to control Hyde nor Hyde trying to control Jekyll. The doctor, Jekyll, is experimenting with the nature of being human. His interest, however, is not scientific, a la Dr. Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein, Jekyll wants to do something “transcendental.” And like Frankenstein, his hubris is fated to be his undoing. In playing God, he is doomed to horror and tragedy. But rather than create life, his goal is to split the fundamental struggle within each person between good and evil into separate beings. He aims to externalize the evil aspect of his own nature so that he can be alternatively, if not simultaneously, good and evil. That this splitting allows him the perfect “escape” by returning to his “good” self, is a secondary benefit that this will allow the evil being to utterly escape detection because he can so easily transform himself back to the good person.

What makes Jekyll/Hyde so alluring as a subject that it is indelibly etched on nearly everyone’s memory, virtually a part of the collective consciousness of past and present generations, is the lust perhaps all feel do what is forbidden, what our own conscience knows is wrong.

It is not clear what separating the two good and evil parts of himself will do. It is implied by one the characters — Dr. Ganyon — that he turned away from Jekyll years ago out of concern both for his “science,” but also from extreme distaste with Jekyll’s character. So we do have a bit of the psychopath who has already cut himself off from caring about the evil he does. This would mean that he is not strictly speaking trying to avoid guilt

The challenge in working with the Jekyll/Hyde story is to avoid the trite, the overdone. Even parodies of Jekyll/Hyde are so familiar that it’s difficult to use it for satiric, farcical, or sexploitation purposes without being little more than sophomoric crap. It is actually difficult to go far enough over the top to exceed expectations. This is one of those plays that is more likely to be fun for the actors than the audience.

So where is the conflict? The secondary characters — Utterson, Enfield, and Ganyon — all have obvious roles to play.  Enfield does little more than initiate the story with his telling of the incident with the girl.  Utterson is the seeker trying to unravel the mystery of the relationship of Jekyll to Hyde (another challenge since the audience already knows the answer) and Ganyon is the despairing (to the point of death) fellow scientist who cannot abide what Dr. Jekyll is up to.

There is actually no sex in the Robert Louis Stevenson story and, although this element can be added as the nature of what “evil” Hyde is up to, it’s again very difficult to avoid the most obvious of clichés.

So, some alternatives:  A version in which Hyde’s “evil” is only in breaking with convention and Dr. Jekyll and the pursuers of Mr. Hyde are moralistic assholes.  Eh…

Or:  Jekyll’s goal is to demonstrate that all men are evil by being the most upstanding of citizens and showing that, given a situation where there are no consequences to horrific behavior, anyone would be horrible. But this would be more convincing if he were doing it to someone other than himself.

Or:  Breaking the 4th wall.   Everyone must come as Jekyll or Hyde (would any come as Jekyll???)

Or:  The serum NEVER works. Jekyll is simply a master of disguise.

Or:  Hyde, rather than seeking to become Jekyll, seeks to destroy Jekyll.