Jekyll & Hyde is the latest performance in Homo Promos’ series of lockdown Zoom performances. Author Peter Scott-Presland sets the scene.
January 1886. The ink scarce dry on Her Gracious Majesty’s signature, where she signed into law the notorious Labouchere Amendment.
Fog swirls round the streets of Edinburgh. In the Old Town, the poor are dying of consumption and rickets in the narrow alleys off Cowgate and Grassmarket. Among them the lowly skivvy Jeannie and her brother, young Davy. Davy meets fine gentlemen on Calton Hill, up from the New Town. In that New Town, the Home Secretary is presenting the Royal Society Medal to the universally loved and respected Doctor Henry Jekyll, while in the scullery the butler Poole furiously polishes glasses to keep the devil at bay. Somewhere a demon is howling in exultation. Four of these people will die tonight.
* * *
When Robert Louis Stevenson unleashed his gothic bombshell on the literary world, he set it in London, but it seems clear to me that the backstreets are psychically located in the Athens of the North. John Knox strides through this Calvinistic world of original sin and damnation, where the devil lurks in each of us.
What the sin is, Stevenson never specifies, just as he never specifies what Edward Hyde, Jekyll’s alter ego, looks like. All we know is that he inspires horror. As a result of this, all the sins of the world can be projected into the figures conjured by Stevenson’s laudanum-fuelled imagination.
But consider this. 1886 is also the year of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which introduced “homosexuality” into the English language; also “sadism”, “masochism” and “necrophilia”. It is the era of Jack Saul and the Cleveland Street telegraph boys that Victoria’s grandson was so fond of. We are only eight years from Oscar paying the price at the Old Bailey for ‘feasting with panthers’. Oscar is seduced by the 17-year-old Robbie Ross in 1886. Just behind us is Charles Darwin, still controversial, reminding us of our beastly origins; indeed, Hyde is referred to as an ape. Just ahead lies Sigmund Freud.
Stevenson’s Mysterious Case of… is an all-male world. Everyone has secrets, there are multiple versions of events. The book is riddled with locked doors, closets, cupboards. There is always an element of homosexual panic running as an undercurrent in the book.
Some might argue that the very vagueness of the book is its strength; I prefer to pin it down onstage, because there are many advantages. To a revisionist gay audience, it is obvious that the ‘ugliness;’ of Hyde lies only in others’ perceptions of him, which are largely dictated by Victorian morality. Strip that away, and there is no reason Hyde cannot be beautiful. Maybe in that languorous elegant Yellow Book, Aubrey Beardsley sort of way.
Hyde and Jekyll are two sides of a divided man. Where is man more divided than in the closet? Traditionally, on stage and in film they have been played by the same actor, and the astonishing coup de théâtre of transformation before your very eyes has turned psychodrama into melodrama. But turn Hyde into a separate character, and you can play out the divided self, and all the twists and turns which good people use to escape their so-called lower selves. It becomes a drama of self-oppression, an exploration of how to live in the world which denies you, when all you want to do is good.
This script is intended to be an opera libretto, with composer Peter Murphy slated to do the music. But don’t let the word ‘opera’ put you off. This is as direct, bloody, provocative and exciting as if it was intended for a theatre not an opera house. Writing with music in mind also gives you the inestimable advantage of forcing you to simplify the words to clothe these huge themes and emotions.
So join us in Dr Jekyll’s library this cool May night. Draw close to the fire. Don’t look now, but the conservatory is turning into a jungle, and the feral poor are prowling there, demanding vengeance.
Join Jekyll & Hyde
Tuesday May 11th, 7.30pm – Act One
Tuesday May 18th, 7.30pm – Acts Two and Three
Join Zoom performance:
Meeting ID: 889 0789 9633