Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "Sin, Souls, and Science"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Saturday, 25 August, 2001:
"Sin, Souls, and Science"

When was it that Renee ("I think, therefore I am") Descartes invented rational scientific thinking? About the same time, this modern scientist concluded that, since it was in the middle of the brain and (apparently) empty, what we now call The Pineal Gland must be where The Soul resides in man. In a world where Senators debate the relative merits of destroying Alzheimer's disease versus destroying the human souls residing in a handful of cells in a petrie-dish, that error sounds quaint --- as quaint as Robert Louis Stevenson's enigmatic little novella "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde"; as quaint as the two duelling musicals based on that same story that stumbled across America toward tepid runs on Broadway. Now that I've seen both, I find both (and the cramped and cryptic story on which they're based) about as empty as ...... well, as The Pineal Gland.

I saw "Jekyll & Hyde" done by Bay State Productions at Foxborough's Orpheum last night, and "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde" back in 1996 at the North Shore Music Theatre. And in each case the casts, designers and directors were fine. It's not Jason Budinoff in the former case or Phillip Wm. McKinley who directed the latter that failed to impress me --- it was Leslie Bricusse and David Levy & Leslie Eberhard, Frank Wildhorn and Phil Hall. No matter how talented and inventive a director or a cast may be, they can't make anything but an embroidered sow's ear out of these books, lyrics, and music. At least in my jaded opinion.

Stevenson's original is curiously sexless. Hyde's major crimes were stomping on a child who got in his way, and breaking his cane while bludgeoning a gentleman to death; whatever other activities Hyde might have engaged in are smothered in such frustrating Victorian circumlocutions as " ...Many details of his life were revealed. All London knew of his cruelty and knew of his perversity..." But of course both plays make an immediate leap from the idea of sin to the idea of sex. In that sense Henry Jekyll is seen less as an impatient scientist racing ahead of any controls --- a younger brother of Doctor Frankenstein --- than as a Victorian libertine in the mold of Dorian Gray.

Each stage story deals, somewhat clumsily in both cases, with a divided personality in a divided society. Levy and Eberhard divided society between effete rich and immoral poor; Bricusse contrasted Jekyll's idealism with the upper-class snobs who refused to fund his researches. In both cases there is an innocent, rich fiancee (in pure white of course) contrasted with a dance-hall whore (in wicked red). In both cases Jekyll visits her place of business before trying out his fatal formula, and in both the lady visits the good doctor's office complaining of Hyde's bites on what always looked like a pristine shoulder. Levy & Eberhard tried to mix a little scarlet with the fiancee's morality and vice-versa to carry out a theme of the mixture of good and evil in everyone; Bricusse painted the upright snobs as hiding their vices behind "Facades", and Hyde's slitting of their throats as an almost justifiable revenge for their insults to Jekyll.

Both shows set the story in the starkly Black And White (and sometimes Yellow) Victorian era, when floor-length petticoats divided the Good from exposed limbs and unadorned corsetry. But that forces the story to contrast physical sex with spiritual love in terms more in tune with Dr. Freud than Dr. Jekyll. Only Bricusse tried to give Jekyll a motivation for his researches --- making him a madhouse doctor whose beloved father has become locked in catatonia. He says that if he can separate the good from the evil in humanity and then eradicate the evil we can abolish wars. But of course that idea is never looked at again once Mister Hyde turns up.

What none of the story's tellings (even Stevenson's) grapple with at all is any real duality in Jekyll's makeup BEFORE his drug splits his personality, releasing a squat, simian, ruthlessly powerful and perverse creature nowhere hinted at in the good Doctor at all. Both books make him impatient, impetuous and socially abrasive, but in all three tellings the enormity of Hyde's sadistic attitude and acts is all out of perspective if you think of him as contained within a Victorian physician. And in point of fact, the "freeing" of his devilish Hyde is never accompanied by a freeing of any of Jekyll's angels: it's evil and perdition from the first drink forward.

The metaphor here implies that any man, confronted with the whims of his uncensored id, will be so addicted to self-gratifications as to face damnation out of hand. There is also a suggestion of the social Darwinists that evolution was a series of steps from anthropoid apes to English aristocrats and any backsliding would thus mean a throwback to the jungle. These are big, ham-handed simplifications of the human condition, and Jekyll's dilemma is a damnation of any scientist's simplistic meddling in social or in psychological moralities. Scientists don't know beans about morality and shouldn't try to learn about it either; let the church do it instead.

Our society is split, dividing again and again between science and religion, and for all I can see science seems to be winning, as things once thought to be explainable only by the church find simpler scientific answers everywhere. In their investigations of the universe Descartes' logicians every day tell us more and more and more about the mind of God, but when they look to churches for guidance about the heart of God there are few serious responses beyond irrationally snippy Thou Shalt Not's. That, I think, is because each faction insists on poaching in the other's territory --- without learning much about that other territory first.

And where, I wonder, does that leave poor Henry Jekyll, M.D. ??? Up to his armpits in salacious sin, split and spitted on Victorian morality, with all the best lines and most of the best songs sung by Eddie Hyde, pervert. Something seems wrong here, doesn't it?


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide