Doun The Close And Up The Stair
Sorry for the long absence. I spent much of last week up in Canada, first at Stratford, where I did a table reading of a screenplay I wrote last year (and many thanks to those who made that possible, you know who you are), and then in Toronto where I had meetings with a couple of people and did a bit of research for another screenplay I’m planning to write.
As well, I got a chance to see the inaugural production mounted by a new Toronto theatre company, Theatre 20, a new musical called Bloodless, book, lyrics and music by Joseph Aragon, based on the infamous Burke and Hare murders of 19th century Edinburgh.
The show was enjoyable – many of the performances were excellent, particularly the central quadrangle of Burke, Hare and their wives, played, respectively, by Evan Buliung, Eddie Glen, Trish Lindström and Jan Alexandra Smith. But it suffered from not knowing quite why it existed, or needed to exist.
Perhaps that’s a weird question. The Burke and Hare murders seem to hold a perpetual fascination, after all, having inspired multiple works of art over the years, including at least six feature films, the most recent having been released only a couple of years ago. And one can understand the appeal. The repeal of the Bloody Code in 1815 reduced the number of cadavers available for dissection by medical schools right around the time that medical science and the study of anatomy were taking off. The result was a voracious demand for cadavers that the black market endeavored to fill, first via grave robbing (“resurrection men”) and, later, via murder. Greed, social hypocrisy, grisly murder – the story’s got it all. So it’s not a surprise that we keep returning to it.
But it still needs to say something specific to us, right now. Canadian critics have connected the story to the recent serial killings of Robert Pickton, which would make this a story about how killers can get away with it because they prey on society’s “dispensables” – prostitutes, the homeless, etc. The connection to legitimate medicine could be tied in to modern bioethical questions, from abortion to organ markets. The inability of either Burke or Knox (the surgeon who accepted the bodies, played by David Keeley) to restrain themselves – the one from ostentatiously spending his ill-gotten gains, the other from accepting bodies of less- and less-plausibly innocent provenance – ties the story to greed and bubble economics. But while all of these aspects of the story are touched upon, the play doesn’t really settle on any of these themes and drive it home. It’s not a matter of making actual topical references in the script – those date terribly easily – but of being clear on why you are telling this particular story.
The key to the play, it seems to me, and to its weaknesses in its current incarnation, is the chorus, which ought to be the stand-in for the audience. As such, it needs to go on the same journey we do, and come to the same uncomfortable place that we should be made to come to. But it doesn’t, for two reasons. First, because the whole show is framed as “the trial of Burke and Hare” which is to say, in the present of the play, where the chorus is, the murders are already in the past. Second, and more important, because the chorus doesn’t ever espouse a value scheme that obviously enables the murders, which would implicate us, the audience, in those crimes. Instead, the chorus is outraged by the murders from the beginning, and remains so at the end. It doesn’t have an arc, doesn’t appear to have learned anything. In which case, neither have we. So the chorus numbers drag, and both the quest by prostitute Janet Brown (Carly Street) to find out what happened to her beloved Mary (Kaylee Harwood), an innocent fellow-streetwalker, and the decision the young medical student, Thomas (Jeff Irving) has to make – whether he will blow the lid off Knox’s operation or not – lack the moral urgency they require, because the society within which they are embedded, and against which they have to struggle, isn’t sharply defined enough to provide convincing resistance.
This brings me to the elephant in the theatre: the looming shadow of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Bloodless is written and staged so as to evoke the earlier classic, and while I think comparisons would be inevitable in any case, I think the choice to flaunt the obvious is as much a mistake as it would be to try to dodge it. Because the fact is, for all the obviousness of the comparison, the stories are very different. The anti-hero of Sweeney Todd is an avenging angel of death out to cleanse his society of its gross hypocrisies. He is the audience’s dark surrogate. That’s never going to be true with Burke and Hare – and, indeed, it shouldn’t be. Which is why the chorus in Bloodless needs to fulfill a different function than Sondheim’s does. And once that difference is acknowledged, the experience of the plays would begin to diverge, and the shadow, while still daunting in its length, wouldn’t blanket Joseph Aragon’s play quite so completely as it does now.
What engaged me most strongly was the central quadrangle, and particularly Hare’s wife, Margaret, who has the most complex arc of the piece, going from shrewish bitterness towards her weak husband, to an awakened sense of possibility as the money starts coming in, to a determination to get for herself the man she thinks she needs to secure that possibility (Burke). As it unfolds, the conflict between Margaret and Burke’s girl, Helen, begins to resemble the war between Goneril and Regan over who will get to marry Edmund (with Hare playing the part of the belatedly open-eyed Albany).
As it was, that dynamic was enough to sustain my interest. Embedded within a show that was more focused in its social satire, it could be riveting.