Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Man is Not Truly One, But Truly Two (inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) – Art Nouveau gilt wooden frame; genuine nineteenth-century chemist’s etched-glass measuring beaker; dried rose and rose petals; custom cut mirror strips; rusted tacks; rusted nails; dried leaf; colour print of Victorian conjoined twins skeleton; black paint; red paint; violet glass paint; soot; cobwebs; spray varnish

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” —Bill Vaughn
Well, if you’re reading this, it looks like we’ve survived the end of the world. The Mayan calendar ran out and we’re all still here. Another apocalypse averted. Now we can look forward to the next.
Looking ahead is a New Year’s tradition; so is looking behind. Making future resolutions to try and correct the blunders of the past.
That’s why January is named after the Roman god, Janus—the double-faced, bearded, laurel-browed deity, who had the ability of seeing both backwards and forwards simultaneously. He was the god of beginnings and endings, of foresight and hindsight, who allowed mankind to learn from its prior mistakes so that it wasn’t condemned to relive them.
But, in checking the pages of any ol’ history book, it seems that we’ve been really poor students, always rushing in where angels fear to tread, stumbling, making the same missteps over and over again.
So, class, we will start out the New Year by recalling the hard lesson learnt by one of literature’s ultimate two-faces—
—Dr. Henry Jekyll.
Dr. Frankenstein wanted to resurrect the dead, Dr. Moreau’s mission was to turn beast into man, while Dr. Jekyll? Jekyll’s noble quest was to separate man’s good side from his bad—yes, a noble quest, indeed, and one doomed to failure from the start.
We’re all familiar with the oft-told tale—honorable, moral, upright doctor seeks the division of the dishonorable, immoral, and downright foul aspects of his makeup, in hopes of eradicating them permanently, like a virus. Such a cure! Thus mankind would change its path, amend the errors of its way. Via chemical, almost alchemical, distillation he creates a potion, which brings about a single personification of his every loathsome characteristic, an iniquitous creature that calls itself Mr. Hyde—appropriate name if there ever was one, he the lurker forever in our shadow. Hyde does terrible things, from “harmless” vices of drinking and gambling to the true atrociousness of child beating, all culminating in the ghastly murder of an innocent old man. It is only then that the good doctor sees the error of his way, but by then Hyde has taken over, the dark side is too strong…suicide, total self-annihilation, the only way to end the evil and save the world.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Jekyll’s creator and author of such literary classics as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, claimed that this macabre allegory came to him as a dream, fully formed. His wife recalled the moment well: “In the small hours of one afternoon,” said Mrs. Stevenson, “I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare I woke him. He said angrily, ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey-tale.’ I had awakened him at the first transformation scene ...”
Now all Stevenson had to do was put that “fine bogey-tale” to paper.
Stevenson’s stepson remembered that: “I don't believe that there was ever such a literary feat before as the writing of Dr. Jekyll. I remember the first reading as if it were yesterday. Louis came downstairs in a fever; read nearly half the book aloud; and then, while we were still gasping, he was away again, and busy writing. I doubt if the first draft took so long as three days.”
Stevenson finished the novel, then destroyed it in a fit of pique, and then rewrote it again in only a few days. Scholars and Stevenson biographers allege that the author’s pen was never still during the writing of Dr. Jekyll due to the fact that he was as high as a kite on cocaine at the time. Others say that his drug of choice was ergot, a strange fungus that causes hallucinations and irrational behavior in humans that has been put forward as the main instigator behind the hysterics of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials.
Whatever the facts, whatever the stimulant, Stevenson’s tale was a sensation from the instant it hit the bookstalls in January 1886, with forty-thousand copies sold by June of that same year, and over a quarter of a million copies sold by 1901. It was praised by critics, devoured by the public, and even quoted from in the pulpit and religious papers.
Could a theatrical adaptation be far off?
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, now known simply as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, came to the stage the very next year after the book’s publication, premiering in Boston in 1887, and starring English actor Richard Mansfield. It next went on to tour Britain, where it ran for twenty years.
Since then the adaptations have never ceased.
The first film was a silent one-reeler, produced in America in 1908; the latest a 2009 Canadian television version. The actors who have played the dual roles run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous—John Barrymore, Conrad Veidt, Frederic March (who won an Oscar for his portrayal in 1931), Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, Jack Palance, Christopher Lee, Udo Kier, Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, Anthony Perkins, Anthony Andrews, Michael Caine, and John Malkovich.
The story has been musicalized—a 1973 television movie with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart (he of Oliver! fame), starring Kirk Douglas (yes, singing) and a 1997 Broadway bomb by Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse with Sebastian Bach, front man of the heavy metal band Skid Row, and (horror of horrors!) David Hasselhoff. And it has been parodied—Jerry Lewis’ 1963 screwball comedy, The Nutty Professor (which attempted to have a Broadway run of its own as a musical in 2012, and failed) and the execrable films Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hype (1980), and Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again (1982). The naughty/nice medicine man has also been a character in such dubious film fare as Mad Monster Party (1967), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Van Helsing (2004), and Hotel Transylvania (2012) plus he’s been spoofed by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Scooby-Doo, Sylvester and Tweety, Tom and Jerry, and Phineas and Ferb.
He’s been in blaxploitation, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), where he’s a black man who turns white; he’s been a 1968 Who song “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as well as a 1983 Men at Work tune “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive,” and he’s gone mano y mano with a werewolf in Paul Naschy’s Spanish “el cheapo” cinema frightfest Dr. Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo (1972).
He’s been transmuted into a perennial Halloween costume and a classic Aurora monster model, and he has been said to be part of the inspiration for the infamous Batman villain, Two-Face.
The women have gotten in there as well—The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) with Gloria Talbott; Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) with Martine Beswick; and Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995) with Sean Young. There’s a 1996 novel, too, Jacqueline Hyde, by British young adult book writer, Robert Swindells. And pop/rock singer Pink seems to have taken notes from Jekyll’s lesson on the subject of duality for the stunning video for her 2008 song “Sober,” in which she tries to reconcile herself to the darkness of her hard-drinking, platinum-haired, and fishnet-stockinged party monster of a doppelgänger.
There’s even an eatery, the Jekyll and Hyde Pub, on 7th Avenue South in Greenwich Village, touted as New York’s only haunted Restaurant and Bar, where you can sink your fangs into Frankenstein’s Favorite Create-Your-Own-Monster Burgers, Cannibal Sausages, and The Mummy, a “sirloin bandaged in your choice of cheese.”
We won’t go into The Strange Case of Dr. Jiggle and Mr. Sly, an episode of the Veggie Tales children’s television series, or Jekyll and Heidi, a volume in the famous Goosebumps book set, and the less said about the X-rated sleaze flick Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hung the better.
Most of the above, I guess, show that, just as in poor Dr. Jekyll’s case itself, the bad way outweighs the good.
Maybe he can look back and learn from his mistakes, give it a rest, and not venture into the minefield of contemporary mass media again for quite a while.
But, Dr. Jekyll’s only human, and so are we.
In the end, I wish you a Happy New Year—one free from as many mistakes as possible.
Bonne année!