Before there was Freud, there was Robert Lewis Stevenson. Stevenson is forever associated, for most people, with Walt Disney’s version of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a moral tale of the good triumphing in the face of all sorts of sinister, but ultimately hapless, villains. But Stevenson is also the author of the The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The villainy of Jekyll and Hyde is far more disturbing than pirates, in part because it is a villainy that is part of human nature. Dr. Jekyll believes that he can free himself from his painfully divided nature: His wish to be the most upstanding and moral of men and, simultaneously, not only to conceive of immoral behavior in his mind without guilt, but also to be able to act out these desires without fear of their consequences. If he can devise a potion that will separate the high-minded, socially lauded aspects of himself and the low and disreputable parts of himself into separate beings, he can act out his desires and then return to his “proper” self.
Jekyll/Hyde epitomizes the extreme of destructive behavior that would be unleashed if the over-control of the repressed, conscience-stricken personality could be completely dissociated.
Dr. Jekyll’s tragic end (in the Stevenson novella he destroys himself) is inevitable. Relieving his mind of conscience unleashes behavior so heinous that he cannot survive. As Stevenson writes in Jekyll’s “confession” that concludes the novella, Mr. Hyde is far more evil than Jekyll imagined his unrestrained self would be:
“The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn toward the monstrous.”
Preceding Freud’s assertions about the primitiveness of the libido, the underlying life force, by a little more than a decade, Stevenson grasps that human’s more primitive urges are far more primitive than were previously suspected.
One of the most iconic science fiction feature films, Forbidden Planet, captures the same idea brilliantly. Star Trekkers before there was Star Trek venture to a planet where a scientist lives with beautiful (of course!) daughter in a seeming paradise. It turns out the scientist has discovered machines built by a master civilization centuries before. These machines turn ideas into reality. The civilization has used the machines to create wonderful cities, but somehow, the aliens have destroyed themselves and now the professor uses the machines to create a garden of eden for himself and his daughter. But the arrival of the astronauts from Earth disrupts everything. A member of the crew of the spaceship falls in love with the daughter only to be attacked and destroyed by a tiger who materializes out of nowhere. The crew is continually under attack by unstoppable monsters. It ultimately becomes clear that the monsters are the product of the alien machine making real the professor’s unconscious desire to destroy anyone who desires his daughter. This becomes clear when one crew member tempts fate by attaching himself to the machine only to be destroyed himself. He says that the mad scientist, in hooking up his machine to his own mind to fabricate a wonderful world for himself and his daughter “forgot one thin: Monsters from the Id.” By turning his unconscious desire to possess his daughter only for himself, making turning his thoughts from unconscious fantasy to physical reality, he had become a murderer.
Like the mad professor, Dr. Jekyll’s doom is foreordained. Once has allowed his deeper “wickedness” in the form of his Mr. Hyde alter ego to emerge, resulting in a cruel trampling of a young girl and the wanton murder of an aristocratic gentleman, he can no longer return to being the upright citizen he wishes to be seen as.
The Stevenson tale makes Dr. Jekyll’s inability to duplicate the “impurities” in the catalyzing salt in his potion to be the immediate cause of his inability to return to this “positive” self. But, psychologically and philosophically, he is trapped by the choices he has made: By allowing his most evil impulses free reign, he has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed.
There is another line he has crossed which raises crucial philosophical and ethical issues: He has used science to play god. As in the classic gothic novel of horror epitomized by Shelley’s Frankenstein, he has used science in ways that transcend what human’s should allow themselves to do. Once these pathways are opened, there is no turning back.Do we, today, not continue to wonder whether unlocking the power of the atom or the intricacies of the genetic code will not ultimately lead to the destruction of humanity?
In dramatizing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde our task is to bring these conflicts forward in a way that both entertains and stimulates thought. There’s no point in simply retelling the classic tale, let alone trying to duplicate the cinematic, theatrical, and musical version that inevitably shift the focus to the soppy “romantic” story of Dr. Jekyll’s love for the “good girl” and Hyde’s domination and abuse of the “bad girl,” with Hyde’s aberrations ultimately destroying Dr. Jekyll’s engagement to the “sweetheart” of the story.
There are more interesting tales to tell: Is there, for example, as Dr. Jekyll implies, good and bad in all of us? If we were freed of consequence, both of conscience and of reality, would we all become demons, monsters from the id? Once those demons are freed, can the genie be put back into the bottle?
And what of the science that probes where humans perhaps should not tread? Are we better off for knowing the secrets of the atom or the sequencing of our genes? These are questions dealt with by important works of theater from Goethe’s Faust, to Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists (“What is thought cannot be unthought.”), to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Should humans limit themselves to realms that cannot open Pandora’s Box? Can humans limit themselves once they envision a new idea? Are we all doomed to suffer Dr. Jekyll’s fate? Do, as in the title of John Straley’s novel,m the curious eat themselves? Is humanity itself doomed to destroy itself because it cannot resist the power of understanding? Are we all doomed to pay again and again for that first bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge?
There are other important questions here, psychological questions as well as philosophical. Dr. Jekyll clearly makes a choice to become Mr. Hyde. Even after discovering that the effect of the potion is far more than he had imagined, perhaps because the power of his unconscious desires are far more powerful than he imagined, he repeats and repeats the “experiment,” allowing freer and more freer reign to his wildest impulses, including murder.
To put this is in a broader context: We are confronted, in this disturbing world we live in today, with the many faces of evil. Some cloak their violence in fundamentalist fanaticism and terror while others cloak it in patriotic jingoism. Jekyll and Hyde is ultimately a moral tale. Jekyll believes if he can void his consciousness and thus his conscience of the evil he does in his alter ego, he can simultaneously hold his head high as morally superior and do commit whatever acts of cruelty he wishes with impunity. Is this not what those who paint their global violence with patriotic and self-righteous attempt to do.
Jekyll/Hyde ultimately must pay the price of his hubris. Do the world leaders who have brought upon the catastrophic gap between have and have-nots and the self-aggrandizing fundamentalists who seek to erase this gap through terror believe they, too, will never have to answer for their acts? Perhaps. Certainly we need to understand evil better, including the forbidden lusts and unspeakable hatreds that lurks in our own hearts, if we are going to make any sense of the world we inhabit.