The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde, continued

Murnau's Nosferatu

Murnau’s Nosferatu

(Continuing to blog the development of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Josh Moyse, opening on Friday, Oct. 24 and running through Saturday, Nov. 1 at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro, VT)

From the multitude of possibilities of where one might take re-telling the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there comes a point when you have to make some choices. We, the actors, have been deeply enmeshed in this process, though ultimately Josh Moyse, the director, is both determining the script and the staging of the piece.

I say “determining the script” because he isn’t writing it from scratch, but is using the text of the original Robert Louis Stevenson novella as the primary source of the dialogue and much of the imagery. This rendition of the tale is quite unlike any of the film versions of Jekyll/Hyde and completely unlike the musical version.  The films introduce characters not found in the novella: a virginal “good girl” whom Dr. Jekyll intends to marry before he goes off the rails and a down and dirty barmaid whom Mr. Hyde abuses. The films needed love themes so necessary for Hollywood, but quite irrelevant to the core of the tale.

By following the Stevenson story and using his archaic-sounding vocabulary and syntax, the tale is necessarily set in the Victorian era. Because that era is so associated in our minds with an exaggerated dichotomy between the moral and immoral, it is fitting for this tale, but the setting is ultimately irrelevant: the “issues” raised by the novella are as relevant today as they were a hundred and thirty years ago.

Though our production uses the novella as a starting point, where we have gone from there is the product of long conversations between the director and cast.  Some characters from the original story have been dropped and some given more prominence. In our version, unexpected interludes, interspersed between sequences of dialogue drawn from the original novella, disrupt the audience’s expectations of a chronological sequence.

We are trying, as I see it, to do a few things: To give the audience a sense of the terror that unrestrained evil evokes, but also a taste of the humor inherent in the over-exaggeration of dichotomized good and evil. Yet what we are going for is not parody of the Robert Louis Stevenson story so much as satirizing the idea that good and evil can always be so easily distinguished.  We are also striving to evoke the sense of claustrophobia and shadow that are essential to a good nightmare.

The core of the story is the tragedy that Dr. Jekyll’s proving the validity of his theories destroys himself. Dr. Jekyll asserts that all people contain within themselves both good and evil, that life involves a continuous struggle to act humanely rather than meanly, cruelly.  But horror is the consequence of trying to enjoy the fruits of both morality and immorality.  Death is the price Dr. Jekyll must pay for toying with the balance between the two, for trying to find ways in which to be both morally superior and to allow himself license to do whatever he wants.

But The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not only about the horror unleashed by toying with human nature, nor is it, at least as we conceive it and portray it, only the condemnation of the dark side of ourselves. It is also a critique of the whole notion of moral superiority.  Jekyll tempts fate not only because his Mr. Hyde alter ego acts immorally, but also because he tries to elevate himself above others in his Dr. Jekyll persona. It thus condemns moralism just as much as immorality.

One does not have to believe in Hindu reincarnation, nor in some kind of “final judgment,” nor even that bad acts create bad karma and thus we must pay in this life for our misdeed, to grasp the psychological truth that we suffer consequences for our actions. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde makes the consequences literal: When Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde cannot transform himself back to his “good” self, he destroys himself. This is psychologically valid:  When we act inhumanly, unless we are such psychopaths that we have rid ourselves of all human emotions, we pay the consequences, whether we are conscious of our guilt or not.

In melodrama, all of this must play out literally: Dr. Jekyll, trapped by his potion in the persona of the evil Mr. Hyde, destroys himself. In real life, we usually pay more subtly. It isn’t that we can’t formulate the potion that will relieve us of our responsibility for our actions, it is our own mind — or soul if you prefer that metaphor — that will not allow us, whether consciously or unconsciously, to escape from our responsibility for our actions.  And this is true whether the action is to moralistically condemn others as our moral inferiors or it is to abuse our fellow human beings.

In this sense, Jekyll and Hyde, for all its dramatic exaggeration of good and evil, makes a simple yet psychologically valid existential point:  We choose our lives by our actions. We can never escape the consequences of those actions, because we know what we’ve done, what we’ve chosen to do.

This a very crucial point to me in this age in which denial of responsibility is so prevalent. Everything wrong in the world is either someone else’s fault, viz. the demonization of “them” and near deification of oneself,, If something clearly is one’s own fault, then it’s our genes or a chemical imbalance, or a lousy childhood, or “stress” or trauma we’ve endured that causes us to act destructively.

Meanwhile, while we contemplate these complex moral, psychological, existential, ethical questions, we should enjoy the roller coaster ride.  When we look at our reflection in our bathroom mirror as though it were one of those shape-contorting mirrors of an amusement park “fun house,” we should remember to laugh heartily at ourselves.

For more on exploring how to portray The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, check out these articles.

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