Last week the Secret Victorianist caught a show on Broadway – A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Although it’s set in 1907-9, I wanted to write about the play because of how much it owes dramaturgically to nineteenth-century melodrama.
The premise is simple – after his mother’s death, Monty Navarro finds there are only eight members of the D’Ysquith family between him and an earldom and so sets out on a murderous rampage, removing them one by one. Along the way he must also juggle his fiancée and mistress. The story is told retrospectively through a confession written in his prison cell prior to his execution for the one murder he did not commit.
|The Secret Victorianist at A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder|
The staging of the production demonstrates a self-conscious interplay with the conventions of the Victorian theatre. The scenes of Monty’s confession are played out on a stage within the stage – an ornately decorated proscenium arch, similar to those I saw in miniature at Pollock’s Toy Shop. Different locales, such as the frozen lake where one relative meets his demise, are suggested by 2D scenery, a nod to the painted backdrops which conveyed place in plays such as Wilkie Collins’s and Dickens’s The Frozen Deep (1856).
Portraits in Victorian and earlier dress come alive to deliver old-fashioned views on the purity of the bloodline and the prudence of rigidly enforced class distinctions, making Monty’s bloody ascent seem to stand for a new era of improved social mobility.
|The set for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder|
What’s most Victorian about the play, however, is the co-conspiratorial relationship between the audience and the murderer (here more hero than villain). As in so many melodramas, the suspense doesn’t come from doubting what will occur, so much as waiting for actions we’ve already anticipated to happen. Instead, surprise comes from the innovative staging and comedic delivery – it’s like watching a magician at work.
Another layer of audience awareness is added by the use of one actor (on the night I went, Greg Jackson) to play the entire D’Ysquith family. The dramatic play is doubled as the audience enjoys each murderous plot devised by Monty (Jeff Kready), along with each new character assumed by Jackson.
The lack or ‘moral’ resolution may set the play apart from its historical models, but the opportunity to identify with a wrongdoer and revel in his societally disruptive behaviours (undermining marriage, class, inheritance) is distinctly familiar.
If you have the opportunity to watch the musical, I’d take it – it’s a riotously fun production, and an imaginative reworking of some staple dramatic traditions. Find out more here.