The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Not So Mysterious

Rupert Holmes makes light of the Dickensian darkness

It takes some effort to locate the name “Charles Dickens” on the title page of the Playbill for the new revival of Rupert Holmes’s 1985 musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Roundabout Studio 54). You can find it, however, in footnote-size type, leading the list at the bottom of the page: “Suggested by the unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens.” Even the fake program you’re also given, for the “Music Hall Royale” where, in Holmes’s framing device, the adaptation is supposedly being staged in 1895, omits mention of Dickens. That would have drawn hostile comment in 1895, when the late author was still the most popular and most beloved of British writers. Some of 1895's theater critics might have given the Music Hall Royale’s “chairman,” Mr. William Cartwright (Jim Norton), a very severe dressing down.

Holmes’s whimsy is muddled, though: Victorian music halls rarely presented adaptations of novels, or indeed full-evening works of any kind; they were variety theaters. His Drood confuses music hall with melodrama, which shared its audience but was very different in both substance and structure. Still, neither this nor the issue of Dickens’s credit matters very much: Drood is chiefly an excuse to use the stereotyped posturing that a misinformed modern audience associates with Victorian popular entertainment, purely to provide that audience with an evening’s distraction.

And—unless you actually happen to care about Dickens, or about the theater that he loved and that adored him in return—a fair amount of noisy, largely pointless fun can be gleaned from Drood. Director Scott Ellis makes noise and distraction the show’s principal qualities. (The late Wilford Leach, in 1985, put a tad more mystery into the mix.) Every second number seems to end in a full-company kick line, concluded with a whomping of drums and brass. Few scenes go on for more than three lines without the “chairman” interrupting the action to introduce some cast member who has just entered, and who must naturally break the scene to step forward and take a bow. And, of course, Dickens’s having left the novel unfinished supplies Holmes with the gimmick that has made Drood a popular community-theater piece: The audience gets to vote, amid much raucous campaigning and rabble-rousing in the aisles, on whether Edwin Drood is dead or not and, if so, who killed him.

Cathedral town tuner:  Rivera, Block, and Chase
Joan Marcus
Cathedral town tuner: Rivera, Block, and Chase

Yes, it’s all very amusing if you like its sort of thing. To gauge from surviving evidence, including recorded performances by 1890s music-hall stars who lived on into the 20th century, the Victorians had a better sense of how to bring it off than we do today. Norton, the feisty, white-haired Irish actor who gives by far the evening’s best performance, shows his grasp of the style precisely through his ease and quietness. You attend to him because he carries out each of his tasks—acting, singing, dancing, emceeing—as fully as he can without pushing. That his light-footed steps lack the athleticism of the Broadway gypsies surrounding him, and that his voice occasionally falters at the big blustery climaxes Holmes’s songs demand, ultimately seem more like rebukes to the show’s overall approach than criticisms of Norton’s work.

Broadway’s aggressive, let-me-entertain-you-or-else dance style, conveyed here through standard stuff from choreographer Warren Carlyle’s second drawer, is too insistent for the era Drood means to evoke. Holmes’s largely pleasant but forgettable score—the hit tune filched from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin isn’t the only one that may make you feel you’ve heard it somewhere else—invariably does tend to push too hard, as pop composers will, slamming socko endings onto both ballads and up tunes, a habit that quickly gets wearisome. (Note to aficionados: The score has been rejiggered somewhat from the earlier Broadway versions, bringing one bit of good news—the restoration of one of Holmes’s better songs, “A British Music Hall,” cut, back then, after the show’s initial run outdoors at the Delacorte.)

The oddest aspect of Drood is that its nonstop efforts to jollify and divert often suggest an almost manic repudiation of its source material. Despite The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s many gestures toward melodramatic excess—an opium den, a graveyard at midnight, a detective who inexplicably turns up out of nowhere, an orphaned ingenue with the blatant type-name Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe)—Dickens’s unfinished novel clearly conveys darkness in the morally somber as well as the creepy-sinister showbiz sense.

The scene is an English cathedral town, full of homey Dickensian characters with endearing tics and eccentric names like Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman) and Durdles (Robert Creighton). But Dickens sets against them the story of Edwin (Stephanie J. Block), a brash young orphan boy, half-following and half-resisting the destiny his deceased parents have laid out for him, in constant unspoken conflict with his thoroughly hypocritical villain of an uncle, John Jasper (Will Chase), a music teacher and cathedral choir singer. Jasper, in secret an opium addict, happens to be in love with his nephew’s destined bride, Rosa (the youngsters’ deceased parents arranged the match), and is plotting Edwin’s murder, to take place at Christmas. Not your usual cathedral-town tale of seasonal good cheer.

Dickens had apparently planned to go even further. While regularly serving the Lord in the cathedral’s choir loft, Jasper is not only a clandestine kif junkie, but an idol-worshiper. Evidence in the text and elsewhere has led literary sleuths to conclude that Dickens intended his villain to be a Thug—a member of a violent extremist sect that made ritual sacrifices of travelers to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. Edwin, about to leave on a long journey connected with his inheritance, has been chosen to be his uncle’s sacrificial offering. (Dickens drew some of his details from a best-selling mockumentary novel of the era, Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug.)

In other words, Dickens was engaging in a British Imperial equivalent of contemporary Islamophobia (or, more precisely, Hinduphobia), with one key difference. In his schema, the threat is not alien but from inside; the fanatic killer’s soul resides within the exterior of a pious English churchman, a respected citizen of the stuffiest sort of respectable English town. And Jasper’s undoing, at the climax, was to come at the hands of two daring outsiders—people who apparently share his mixed ethnic heritage but not his moral schizophrenia: the siblings Neville and Helena Landless (Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller). Young and hot-tempered, survivors of step-fatherly abuse, the two kids from Ceylon (as it was then called) share an un-English outspokenness and impulsive tendencies, giving Dickens the chance to lay several false trails. (They don’t share, though, the cartoon-Orientalist behavior that the musical wishes on them, a misprision that Karl and Mueller alleviate by their graceful handling of the exaggeration involved.)

It seems to have been a firm part of Dickens’s plan that Neville was to die during the climactic effort to capture Jasper (who has tried to frame Neville for Edwin’s death), and that Helena was to solve the crime, possibly by hypnotizing Jasper into confessing. (Dickens, who believed he too had “mesmeric” powers, was fascinated by hypnotism; he made Jasper something of a mesmerist, who employs his “animal magnetism” to terrify Rosa, and cause Edwin’s quarrel with Neville.) As to whether Edwin actually ends up dead or not, Dickens may still have been undecided when he himself died: He planted hints that could lead to either conclusion. Rosa, apparently, was to marry a character who doesn’t even appear in the musical.

Edmund Wilson, in his seminal essay “Dickens: The Two Scrooges”—which for me makes a far more entertaining evening than the musical—suggests that much of the novel’s almost morbid emphasis on propriety and alienation might stem from what was going on in Dickens’s own life at the time. He had separated from his wife and was engaged in a prolonged, unhappy, clandestine affair with a young actress named Ellen Lawless Ternan. Englishmen in Victoria’s time didn’t get more famous than Dickens. In his mind, the respectable households that bought his books and subscribed to the magazines he edited, bringing him his enormous wealth, would have dropped him instantly if the affair had become public knowledge. Like Jasper, he was leading a double life; like Neville, he had rages he couldn’t wholly control.

Britain had trouble controlling its Empire, too, and this novel about the un-Christian behavior of Christians rests on a bed of the prosperity that comes from exploiting what today we call Third World countries. (Besides Ceylon and India, Edwin’s inherited property lies in Egypt.) The novel’s truly bizarre opening chapter puts the disparity into a surreal microcosm: It shows Jasper struggling awake from an opium dream that jumbles the image of the cathedral with flashing scimitars and a procession of white elephants; the next chapter shows him, still groggy, pulling on his white robe to join a procession of choristers at evensong.

His grogginess is noted, too: The cathedral’s Dean sends Crisparkle, a minor canon, to inquire if Jasper is all right. Before doing so, Crisparkle watches Jasper through the window of his sitting room to see if Edwin’s there to take care of him. A cathedral, like an empire, has to keep a watchful eye on its servants. The last thing either Dickens or Jasper desires is the superintending gaze of a watchful eye, however well-meant.

But probing this way into Dickens’s probable intentions, conscious or otherwise, only takes one further from the musical. Dickens may have hoped to show, at the end, an England shaken out of its morally smug stability, yet healthily reconfigured, with a newly heightened awareness of its imperial problems. The musical, in that sense, represents the antithesis of his idea. By enabling the audience to decide who committed the murder and who gets to pair off as a couple at the finish, it throws all hope of stability, or meaning, to the winds.

Holmes has displayed the adaptability of democracy in writing bits to fit every possible electoral permutation of the story. He gives one of his starring roles to the woman who supplies Jasper’s opium, a character so peripheral, in the novel’s completed fragment, that the text never even provides her with a name. Holmes calls her Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera), which in the novel is only a rude sobriquet bestowed on her by Deputy (Nicholas Barasch), an impertinent street scamp. At the press performance I attended, and no doubt at many others, the audience’s most eager wish was to see these two mated. Rivera, as game as a grand lady can be, pitched into the nonsense thoroughly, as everyone onstage does —some, like Chase, with an enthusiasm that urgently needs curbing. The surrender to nonsense and randomness, coming just after a real-life election in which sanity and stability seemed to prevail, was at once exhilarating and disheartening. People need foolery and distraction in their lives; Dickens knew that. But he also knew that darkness, some of it within himself, was forcing his comfortable imperial world towards a crisis. That’s equally true for us today, though you won’t find it onstage in Drood.

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