Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Not necessarily a question of good or evil

 

October seems like the perfect time to write about the story that inspired The Heartless City - The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The title characters (or character, really) from the classic Victorian thriller have become a sort of Halloween staple, spawning numerous movies and even a Broadway musical. 

I saw the musical on Broadway as a teenager (and still love listening to the soundtrack with Linda Eder, who is a goddess, and Anthony Warlow, who probably has my favorite singing voice of any male singer ever) and in a film class I used to teach I had my students analyze the differences between the silent, 1920, John Barrymore film, the iconic, 1931 Frederich March film, and the production-code-restrained-but-fascinating 1941 Spencer Tracy film, so I know a LOT about the story, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I actually read the book. It's not exactly what one would expect (all the violence happens "off-screen" and it isn't revealed that Jekyll and Hyde are one until the end), but it helped me to realize something I should have realized long before: The prevailing idea about the characters is that Mr. Hyde is purely evil and Jekyll is purely good, but I realized Jekyll is not only not purely good.

He's not good at all.


In the song "I Need to Know," from the musical, Jekyll sings, "Give me courage to go where no angel will go," (and once again, if you haven't listened to the Anthony Warlow version, do it - his voice is liquid gold), and I feel this line is a good example of the truth about his character, because he does go where no angel would go, and does what no angel would do. His intention in creating the potion may have been noble, but once he knows what it actually does - that it turns him into a violent, conscienceless psychopath - he voluntarily continues to take the drug.

Because he wants to.

Jekyll may be polite and well-mannered, but as Stephen Sondheim brilliantly states in Into the Woods, "nice is different than good" (an idea I explore in even more depth in The Heartless City's sequel). Jekyll chooses as Jekyll to turn himself into Hyde, because he wants to feel powerful at the expense of other people. He wants to abuse and brutalize others - particularly women - and though he cloaks himself in Hyde to do it, it's Jekyll who makes the decision. It's Jekyll who decides to put his personal desires before other people's lives, and that makes him not only not good but evil - even more so than Hyde.

This realization is part of what inspired The Heartless City. To do what Jekyll did, a person would have to be completely devoid of empathy, and it made me wonder what might have happened if he hadn't kept his drug to himself but shared it with other, equally heartless and unsympathetic people. That idea of figurative heartlessness led to the idea of literal heartlessness - a city of heart-eating monsters - and a protagonist on the opposite end of the spectrum - an emotional empath.

Robert Louis Stevenson created a fantastic story with important questions and iconic characters, which is part of the reason the book has been reimagined as much as it has. It will always continue to be a favorite of mine, especially this time of year, and I can't wait to see how future writers, artists, and composers create something new from the classic tale.

Oh, and here is Anthony Warlow singing  "I Need to Know," because his voice is GORGEOUS:




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