A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 5 - Winter 2012-13

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Reframing the Gothic: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw
reviewed by Anastassiya Andrianova

The Picture of Dorian Gray performed by Michael Abourizk at New York City’s Theatre Row on Thursday, November 15, 2012. Director, Playwright & Set Designer: Darya Gerasimenko.  Graphic/Web/Projection Design: Ilya Gerasimenko. Lighting design: Michael Lounsbery. Stage Manager: Allison Lemel. This one-man adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (first published in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and published a year later as a book, with the Preface added) was part of the 2012 United Solo festival, the world’s largest solo theatre festival, which included 100 productions, 19 states, 14 countries, 51 one-woman shows, and 49 one-man shows, and took place from October 11, 2012 to November 18, 2012.

The Turn of the Screw, a musical based on Henry James’ 1898 novella,performed by the Fordham Alumni Theater at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, Frieda and Roy Furman Stage, on Thursday, August 16, 2012. Created and Written by Michael Kimmel. Music and Lyrics by Drew Gasparini. Stage managed by Ana Mari DeQuesada and assistant directed by James Presson. This free public performance was part of Target Free Thursdays, a series underwritten by Target and curated by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; events feature national and international touring artists as well as local artists from around the New York metropolitan area, including The Juilliard School, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and The Chamber Music Society, among others.

There have been countless stage and film adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s controversial novel, including, for example, the 1976 BBC production directed by John Gorrie with John Gielgud as Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton and the handsome Peter Firth as Dorian Gray; the 1945 Albert Lewin production with a young Angela Lansbury as Sybil Vane; and more recently, Oliver Parker’s 2009 film starring Ben Barnes as Dorian and Colin Firth as Harry.  The novel has also inspired musicals and operatic adaptations in and outside Britain.  And no wonder: the only novel written by Wilde, it is rife with witty dialogue and thus naturally lends itself to dramatization.  In fact, Wilde “re-used” much of this dialogue “in later plays, especially A Woman of No Importance” (Murray 577). 

In view of these and other versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray, to produce something original is a truly gargantuan task.  Darya Gerasimenko’s one-man adaptation performed by Michael Abourizk on November 15, 2012 at the United Solo Theatre Festival is a gripping new work that certainly aspires to originality.  In spite of Gerasimenko’s innovative use of multimedia (visual and audio) and the one-performer approach, however, it is a very traditional take on Wilde’s Victorian morality play.

The set, unchanged throughout the 80-minute performance, consisted of a bench, a coat rack holding a black cape, an armchair, a golden-brown carpet, and a table with several stage props, including books, an ink box, a mirror, a knife, and a black vase with a variety of red roses and white daisies, the latter perhaps meant to evoke Dorian’s “rose-red youth and [his] rose-white boyhood” (Wilde 62).  A large golden frame was prominently displayed to the left (stage right), enclosing a video projection (designed by Ilya Gerasimenko).  At the start of the performance, the picture lit up revealing a ticker tape of aphorisms from the Author’s Preface alongside sketches of Dorian (Abourizk) in reclining and pensive poses, the black-and-white graphics reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Wilde’s plays. 

As the audience discovered upon its unveiling, in his ill-fated picture Dorian sits in blindingly white evening dress, a three-piece suit set off dramatically by the deep burgundy curtains in the background.  In a morality play featuring a Faustian hero who sells his soul to become a work of art, such contrast must be read allegorically—as that between the undying purity of art and the moral corruption and decay of the model.  In Dorian’s case, of course, the difference is all the more shocking since the two are reversed.  The combination of black, white, red, gold, and silver colors in Gerasimenko’s stage and costume design, the dimmed lights, and the few but well chosen props seemed, overall, a propos to a dandy’s boudoir (albeit missing a jewel-encrusted tortoise which J.-K. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes has made essential to such a setting). 

In the opening scene we see Dorian in an elegant black suit; he picks up and studies his face in a silver hand mirror, a prop to which he continually turns to admire his youthful beauty and later on to trace the invisible signs of his degradation.  His smiling narcissism is, however, almost immediately overwhelmed by agitation as he grabs the knife from the table, leaps to the center of the stage, and, gazing bewilderedly into the audience, forcefully cuts the air with it in a single stroke across his body, from top to bottom, foreshadowing the closing scene in which he will destroy the wretched painting with the same gesture.  The haunting, unrelenting cello melody accompanied by a stream of crisp pizzicato eighth notes is heard both in the opening scene and in the dénouement.  Thus this Picture of Dorian Gray is cleverly framed as is Dorian’s picture itself. 

Chekhov’s gun, the metaphor for foreshadowing plot development as well as for economy on stage, is employed in Gerasimenko’s production with regard to both ends.  Chekhov famously argued that every detail should have a purpose and there should be nothing accidental or superfluous.  In a letter to the writer Aleksandr Lazarev-Gruzinsky on 1 November 1889, he wrote: “one should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it” (qtd. in Simons).  “Things on stage should be as complicated and yet as simple as in life,” one of Chekhov’s acquaintances later reported, giving us an alternate iteration of this rule of realist theatre.  “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act” (qtd. in Rayfield 203).  The mirror, the knife, and the cape which Dorian dons when embodying Sybil’s brother James Vane, as well as the ring by which the “dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart” is ultimately recognized (Wilde 214)—all come into play. 

A few minutes into the play, a voiceover is heard: Basil Hallward, the idealistic artist, and Lord Henry, the cynic and suave conversationalist, discuss the portrait while Dorian stands by the table with his hand on a book.  This must be “the yellow book” Lord Henry is said to have given Dorian.  Some have identified this “novel without a plot” with Huysmans’ À rebours (though, as Richard Ellmann points out, the references are “deliberately inaccurate,” and “the mythical book...the pseudo-A Rebours, reads as if it had been plagiarized from Wilde”), an allusion Dorian later evokes when he uncorks a bottle of perfume and relishes its contents à la Des Esseintes and very much in the spirit of Symbolist theatre.  Others see in Dorian Gray a more pronounced influence of Walter Pater’s Renaissance with its irresistible, infectious, and ultimately devastating “new Hedonism,” the book that had “corrupted” Lord Henry when he was a young man (Ellmann 316-7, Murray 582).  The irony is not lost on anyone: despite its author’s insistence that “[t]here is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Wilde’s daring portrayal of homosexuality made Dorian Gray scandalously immoral in the eyes of his contemporaries, who called the novel—whether to criticize or to applaud—“filthy” (W. H. Smith) and “too dangerous” (Frank Harris) (Ellmann 322-3).

“There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr Gray,” Lord Henry says to Dorian in Wilde’s novel.  “All influence is immoral.”  The animated exchange between Dorian and Harry culminates in the famous elocutions that lead to the Faustian pact: “Youth!  Youth!  There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!” (Wilde 61-5).  In Gerasimenko’s version, the internal monologue, adapted from the free indirect discourse of the novel (e.g., “Words!  Mere words!  How terrible they were!”), and Dorian’s, Lord Henry’s, and Basil’s lines were all delivered by the same performer.  This back-and-forth between Dorian and Lord Henry was very effective: by changing seats from one side of the bench to the other, Abourizk seamlessly shifted personalities from the impressionable young man to his urbane tutor.  The latter smoked a cigar which the actor deftly concealed in his vest pocket as he transformed, again, back into Dorian. 

About 35 minutes into the performance, there was a change in the portrait: Dorian’s serenely beautiful lips were slightly distorted, adding the “touch of cruelty” which is the first indication—imagined or real—of the creeping change to Dorian’s previously cloudless visage.  Several more changes occurred as the play unraveled: in the third image, the snarl gave way to a tortuous, sarcastic grimace, and Dorian’s vibrant blond hair faded into a pallid grey; in the fourth, he became practically unrecognizable: leaning in, as though summoning the audience to join him in his sinister feast, his face grotesque and his hands drenched in blood, Dorian now externalized his private monstrosity.  The next two pictures revealed even further degeneracy: his blood-stained hands and the burgundy shade of the background, so incongruent with the original whiteness of Dorian’s suit, engulfed him in a pool of moral corruption and sin—a symbolic frame far more appropriate than the gold surrounding it. 

The picture’s allegorical transformation is difficult to carry out; there is always the risk of making a poignant moment of Gothic horror farcical (as the grotesque tableau in Gorrie’s production).  “There are passions and degrees of passion which are expressed by the most hideous contortions of the face and which throw the whole body into such unnatural positions as to lose all the beautiful contours of its natural state,” Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote in Laocoön.  “The ancient artists either refrained from depicting such emotions of reduced them to a degree where it is possible to show them with a certain measure of beauty” (Lessing, Chapter 2).  One would not recognize the handsome Abourizk in the final portrait.  The doctored pictures (also available on the show’s promotional website) became more and more realistic, as well as more terrifying, the further they deviated from Basil’s beautiful ideal.

The rendition of Lord Henry was impeccable: witty, cruel, and compelling, with an air of cynical sophistication subdued only in the scene where he delivered to the unsuspecting Dorian the news of Sybil Vane’s death.  As Dorian, Abourizk was as convincing, especially when projecting Dorian’s shallowness, his painfully sincere resolution to marry Sybil despite her failure as an actress, and his growing terror upon noticing the alteration of his picture.  But, while Abourizk offered a commendable performance as Dorian and Lord Henry, his Basil and Sybil appeared caricaturish and overacted.  Where one would expect homoerotic overtones or controlled platonic idolization, Basil’s lines came off as melodramatic, neurotic, and even campy.  Basil’s love was thus not fully realized.  The audience laughed when Sybil made her vocal debut—a recording of Abourizk reciting several lines from Shakespeare in broken iambic pentameter.  While she may elicit some sympathy in Wilde’s novel, such ventriloquism in a feigned, albeit warm and childlike, falsetto reduced her to a distant blow-up doll that deflates at Dorian’s slightest change of heart.  Also questionable was the directorial choice to have Dorian stare into the audience while delivering every single soliloquy of which there were several; the level of intensity almost unabated, the technique became predictable. 

The production and its place within the larger solo festival raise some critical questions about adapting novels to the stage and also invite an appraisal of what is gained or lost in the one-performer show as a dramatic genre.  This specific adaptation of Dorian Gray did offer a literalized depiction of the relationship between Wilde and his characters, whom he described, in an oft-quoted letter, as different reflections of himself: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps” (qtd. in Ellmann 319).  It makes sense, then, to associate all three with a single person and a single consciousness: his self-image, social image, and ideal self.  But this interpretation of the play was never made explicit, so we are left to speculate whether, as with many a classical aria, it may have been written with a specific performer in mind, as an opportunity for him to show off his vocal range and thespian poise.

Gerasimenko’s Dorian Gray received a standing ovation much to the credit of the performer and the director who, as meticulous readers and judicious critics, were able to “translate into another manner [and] a new material [their] impression of beautiful things,” to quote from Wilde’s Preface to the novel.  Yet, the use of modern video projection notwithstanding, this is a case of pouring old wine into a new glass, the play’s success ultimately stemming from Wilde’s clever prose, Chekhov’s gun, and well-trained acting.

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw isanother turn-of-the-century work of fiction that continues to inspire New York artists.  Like Dorian Gray, it has been adapted to various genres, including Benjamin Britten’s eponymous 1954 opera as well as numerous ballet, stage, film, and TV renditions.  In March 1999, for example, Primary Stages featured Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of the novella for two actors: Obie winner Rosto Sisto and Tony nominee Enid Graham. 

The modern musical version of The Turn of the Screw by Michael Kimmel (creator, writer) and Drew Gasparini (music, lyrics) offers a fresh new look at James’ haunting tale by channeling Jamesian horror and psychological intensity through catchy tunes reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweenie Todd.  The concert reading of this musical opened at Pope Auditorium at Fordham University (of which Kimmel is an alumnus) on July 28-30, 2012; it was also performed at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, Frieda and Roy Furman Stage on August 16, 2012.  By dressing James’ classic fiction in popular accoutrements, Kimmel and Gasparini, along with several talented singers from the Fordham Alumni Theater, found the perfect combination of sophistication and sing-along-ability.

This puzzling ghost tale has a double frame which distances the reader from the story proper and problematizes the reliability of the narration: an unnamed narrator listens to the reading of a found manuscript (a common Gothic device) written by a now deceased Governess who had been hired to look after two orphans, Miles and Flora, in a secluded house in East Hampton.  In the course of the novella, the Governess starts to suspect that the secret behind the young boy’s dismissal from boarding school is but one of many concealed by the family, and she also starts to fear for the children’s safety as well as her own.  Following a series of strange encounters with the family’s ghostly past, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose takes Flora away to her uncle leaving the Governess alone with Miles who, moments after the apparition of the ghost of Peter Quint (a former employee who was involved with the Governess’ predecessor, the late Miss Jessel), is found dead.  “Despite the assertion by the governess halfway through her narrative that ‘There was no ambiguity in anything’,” one critic notes, “readers find ambiguity throughout this text”; the story is full of Jamesian indirection and narrative gaps (Orr 29).  It is unclear whether the apparitions have objective existence outside the Governess’ psyche, but it is precisely this indeterminacy that heightens the psychodrama making The Turn of the Screw so thrilling to witness on stage.

Kimmel and Gasparini’s concert reading included twelve performers accompanied by cello and piano.  After a Prologue in which several members of the cast discussed what made a ghost story “good,” the play moved through a series of solos, duets, and ensembles (first the Governess, then Flora, Mrs. Grose, Miles, the ghost of Peter Quint, and Miss Jessel), interspersed with spoken dialogue.  All the performers were in present-day dress, and other than music stands, there was no set decoration.  The audience’s attention was therefore focused exclusively on their vocal performance.  When it was their turn to take center-stage, the singers rose from their seats in the back of the stage, placed their sheet music onto the stands, and brought James’ prose to life through Gasparini’s energetic melodies.

The ghost of Peter Quint (Andrew Kober) was truly compelling; he announced his presence with a ghostly whisper, “Beware!,” coupled with dissonant piano (Daniel Lincoln) and cello (Michael Lunapiena).  The first two utterances of “Beware!” were then overpowered by a third, which, in turn, exploded into the revenant’s solo.  “Now you understand,” Quint exclaimed upon sealing off all doors and windows, his voice distorted by heavy reverberation and his laughter ominously echoing.  The sound of the cello, as in Gerasimenko’s production, works wonderfully as an embodiment of fate: the bow moves from one note to the next, as from one inevitable event to the following, while the former still lingers in our minds; the jarring, cacophonous striking of the strings with the back of the bow symbolizes the character’s dreadful anticipation of collapse, powerlessness before great cosmic forces, and inability to make sense of the shattered world.

The role of the Governess could easily turn histrionic; it is particularly challenging given her presence as the narratorial voice coupled with the subtleties of a disintegrating psychological state.  Yet, Meg McCrossen (whose sister Carrie played Mrs. Grose) delivered her lines with just enough vigor and conviction.  Also intriguing was the petite Flora (Leslie Gauthier); she was able to meld a mature prescience of imminent evil with a girlish naïveté while sporting a black mini-dress, matching mud-stained keds, and a pixie cut.  Her brother Miles (Sean Patrick Monahan) was able to capture Kimmel’s darker interpretation of his character, a creepier and more sinister young boy than we find in James.  The final tableau, in which Miles stood alone immersed in menacing green light, was unforgettable.

There is much potential in this new musical.  Perhaps, it might help James’ anthologized novella find its way onto Broadway in time for the centennial of the author’s death in 2016. 

Considered together, the two interesting and well-attended dramatizations of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw indicate that these fin-de-siècle works continue to matter and appeal to present-day audiences, providing opportunities for young, up-and-coming, and more established artists to experiment with form.

Works Cited:
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Print.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoön, or On the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Trans. Edward Allen McCormick. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984. Print.

Orr, Leonard. James’s The Turn of the Screw. Bodmin, Cornwall: Continuum Books, 2009. Print.

Rayfield, Donald. Anton Chekhov: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. Print.

Simons, Jake Wallis. “Chekhov at 150: Brilliance in Brief.” The Guardian (29 Jan. 2010). Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

Wilde, Oscar. The Major Works. Ed. Isobel Murray. Oxford/New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.