Ajax

Adapting on the Shoulders of Giants

“Which would you choose if you could:
pleasure for yourself despite your friends
or a share in their grief?” -Tecmessa

“Yet, I pity the poor wretch, though he’s my enemy. He’s yoked to an evil delusion, but the same fate could be mine. I see clearly: we who live are all phantoms, fleeing shadows.” -Odysseus

Quotes  taken from Herbert Golder and Richard Pevear’s 1999 Ajax translation.

I want to start with a small confession.  You know the cute ice breaker kind.  You can join in the comments below.  Things like “I like rainbow sprinkles,” or “Fried Green Tomatoes” or…

The dead intimidate me.

The longer dead the more intimidating.

Sophocles has been dead a very long time.

Homer has been dead for longer.

Ajax is so dead I’m not sure he’s real.

Now that’s decomposed.

……………………………………………………..

Tyler Riley approached me for this project about seven months ago.  He’s been a long time collaborator, friend, and terrifying judge whose performances I always try to support.  We’ve been coworkers in several (at least five) performances and he always impresses me with his work ethic and dedication.  So when he asked me if I’d be willing to write him a one man show I was both delighted and honored.

Until he told me the subject.

Then I faked the flu.

Tyler, in his senior year of undergraduate, was the title character in Ajax by Sophocles.  Envisioned during the civil war and using a new translation Tyler brought this character to life onstage.  He connected with this character and wanted to push those realizations further.  He then waited until I was intoxicated and took advantage of my pliable nature.
What’s a friend to do?

Shown: A close friend punching me in the gut.

I was worried for a few reasons.  My work on adaptations has been limited to complete (re)imaginings.
“Hey man.  What if Troy was like…  a battle during World War I.  And… like each of the heroes was a fighter pilot.  That’d be like deep right.  The no man’s land and end of warriors…

or…

“I imagine Beowolf set in a office building, where Grendel and his Mother are the vice president and the boss.”
“Oh, I see.  A comedy.  So without the swords and stuff…”
“There will be swords.”

But that’s not what was being asked.  He wanted a story set in the time from a very focused perspective.

I had other reasons to be cautious.  I’m not team Sophocles to be honest… that’s right my heart lies with… Euripides.  I think Oedipus Rex is over rated (though I wouldn’t kick Antigone out of my theatre that’s a drama with some pathos if you know what I’m saying).

My deepest apologies to those who don’t get these jokes… and to the many who get them and don’t think they are funny.

The other element was more of a personal problem.  Tyler, I believe, identified with the character because the two at core were very similar.  Tyler has a sense of honor I admire but also a deeply intuited idea of Justice.  A form of justice that has little patience with the equivocation of idle men.  Justice is not something malleable or should be compromised and what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.

That is… not me.

Behold the face of evil.

 

 

I see the world in arguments: selfish, selfless, helpful, philanthropic, well-done, badly worded and perspectives that tie it all together.  I relate far more to Ajax’s rival than to the man proper.  But a friend wanted something and I stand by my friends.

I started with the source material, Sophocles play and anything else I could get my hands on.  I reread the Iliad, the section in the Odyssey when Ajax refuses to speak with Odysseus and tracked down a few other stories.   I came to a few questions.

How does one write in the voice of a man who does not speak?  Ajax is quite and let’s his actions speak for him… tough for a monologue show.

Which Ajax am I using?  Like all of these heroes Ajax differs on the telling.

Who is Ajax to the others and who is he to himself?

I realized there were two basic descriptions of Ajax.  The first is as this powerhouse, “heads and shoulders above the rest” capable of holding back armies alone.  The other is as this honest but slow leader who cannot outfox or argue the men around him.  He is treated as simple when he is just in fact honest.

So I needed two different languages to describe this man.  I borrowed heavily from the epic poetry tradition to describe the Ajax of action.  Ajax’s poetry is his body, his soul is made manifest through motion.  These are the actions that live beyond time and mind.  So whenever is he engaged in these moments for battle, revenge, or sex he is brought outside himself and the language reflects it.  The play moves into third person.

This allowed me to have an Ajax who was not a very good speaker even in a one person show.  When he is forced to speak to his comrades or fellow generals he cannot muster any of the power inside.  He just knows it is unjust.

I owe so much to Tyler for making me dive into this and we have a reading going up in Times Square December 16th.  We are practicing over Skype (love the internet age) and hope it goes well.
But as I believe in sneak peaks here is the first scene from Tyler Riley’s Ajax

Thank you and until next time,

Lane McLeod Jackson

ACT I

Scene 1

Lights come up on Ajax.  He is dressed in full regalia.  Armor, weapons, etc.  A majestic giant who digs frantically.  He tears entire portions of earth hurling them to the side.  After a moment he reaches the necessary depth. As he does this a song plays in the background.  As the song progresses Ajax hears it and his attention is brought towards the audience.   He begins to transform…

Athena:
(singing)
Just like Atlas standing tall.  Weight of the world on these shoulders.  Keep waring against these soldiers.  Cause honor and glory tower above us all.

Ajax
(interrupting)
Timber!

Beat.  He stands facing the audience.  He is now a warrior.  The audience his enemies.  They outnumber him a hundred to one but he is not afraid.  He grins energized and ready to face the enemy.

AJAX
Crack.  Break.  Twice a ton shatters in his hands as waves of Trojans break upon the tide.  The Achaean ships cradled in their bay, the alter where fire joins water and gore tastes salt.  Hector takes point, the point of his spear strikes, spills blood.  His shield already bent, already tried by the boulder thrown at an earlier encounter.

Ajax knows, left alone, that he must out perform the spear.  The sword.  Even the seven layered shield won’t do.  These tools insufficient to the task, so splinters breaking on his skin a ship mast, his flag, becomes the lance to break the backs of Trojan scum, these rats.

Hector senses danger before he see’s the rig tipped spear.  Priam’s prime’s mind still keen even as the desire to let leash- to bleed these Greeks for his own mistakes.  His people and kin’s crime.
But Ajax still is but one man.  No Hercules, or Theseus, simply a giant among pygmies.  The only god of battle living is self-exiled, the crime arrogance or melancholy.  Achilles, the lion whose pride was diminished by one, Bresis. Claimed by the King of Atreus who dooms his supposed destiny with yearly blunders.  And Hector longs to make this mistake Agamemnon’s last.  So he must pass Ajax, send him to his death.

The Trojans split to several ships.  Spears, swords, shields, and fire.  Burn the Greek vessels over the water that brought them.  But Ajax cries- He leaps or’ the ship closest, and the next, lands three abreast and forces his weapon out.  The men who stand in the way of fate are broken.  Rendered inside out, cast into each other, skulls cracking heads as they meet in bloody embraces.  Helmets turn coat as they fly off their masters red stained hair.  Ajax retracts his mast for a second spring.  The aim nearer this time to Hector whose own divine mind causes him to bend out the way.  Ajax breaks another bakers dozen and this time whips the mast side to side, twice.  Snapping backs of formation minded men whose shields front and center were woefully misplaced.
His newly minted weapon has outlived its use, split and splintered, among the shattered dead.  Time to reload.  This ship smaller than his own will still do the deed and he cannibalizes another mast to save the hull.
Hector has already changed approach, when Ajax leaps to another ship.  The Archers and strong armed spear men keep a living distance from The Greater and let their missiles fly.  More of these find their mark in his flanks and flesh.  But he is no longer just the Eldest son of Telamon.  He is the idol.  The new living god of death who preforms miracles in battle.  He replaces the solemn son of Peleus.  Replaces Achilles.  He is Ajax and Hector is now his too face.  Another spear flies from Hector’s hand causing the Giant to drop his new mast.  Unarmed except for Hector’s own old blade at Ajax’s side, now in hand, and Ajax steps knowing the two will end their rivalry, immediately.
Except- a horn blows and Hector spurns their fate.  The old lion returns.  Achilles, forcing time to move at his pace.  So that all are fated to watch him move.  Beautiful, powerful, sensual, man and woman, unbearded, full of grace.  Except not.  The armor that draws the eye is right.  The technique still belongs to the highest Myrmidon but the man who wears it falls short.  Short of power, of honor, the inherent aura required to take on the mantle of gods.  To be their champion- not their instrument.  Otherwise the role of man is not worth the pain it must entail.
The other who see’s a discrepancy is Hector.  Priam’s prime son prays that whatever spat took place has weakened his foe.  But Ajax knows.  He see’s….
“Don’t,” Ajax says. “Face me.”
But Hector goes for the throat and cuts the false god down.  The Lion’s Pride diminished a second time, Patroclus stolen from Achilles by death.  A fake idol dressed like a doll in gods armor.  Ajax moves to defend the body, the armor, gifted to men by those who demand their allegiance.  Their worship.  The Armor must not be taken by those who would disgrace it.  Ajax lays his shield over the cub as Hector overwhelmed by the Acheans now return his thunderous blows.  The Trojan understands fate has changed its mind and sounds for the retreat.  Ajax lifts the small cub and feels the touch of God.  He hears his fellows thank him, congratulate him.  They say he won the day.  He stopped the fall.  He…(He speaks in another voice)
Ajax.

Ajax looks at the crowd.  They have changed.  They are now the other princes and thinkers.  His fellow Greeks who have left for troy.

AJAX
(Slowly with deliberation)

I am sorry your honors.  I was lost… in my memories. Ajax?  Yes, of course that… is my name.  Well… technically, I’m Ajax Telemon known as Ajax the Greater so I am distinguished from my cousin, Ajax Locrian. I am Prince of Salomis and captain of 12 vessels sent for the return of Helen and her treasure.  Uhhhh…. I stand ready to hear what judgment my fellows have made.

Voice

Why you, Ajax?  Why should you be gifted the honor of these arms?

AJAX
(beat)

Why should I wield Achilles armor?  Is that a question I’m supposed to argue?…  Don’t I give some sort of demonstration?  How am I supposed… Argue my own worth without… diminishing it.

VOICE

Give examples.  What have you done to earn this armor?  Come now you must-

AJAX
(Interrupting)

But you were there!  We were all there.  We’ve been together the entire time.

VOICE

Do you think the armor should be yours?

AJAX

Of course.  I would not stand here if I didn’t think me best.  I am not in charge of this decision.  If I was it would be already on these shoulders.

VOICE

We’re getting impatient.

AJAX

I… what about the time… on the ships.  When I stopped the enemy… well not alone… but I was very… helpful… No! I was important.  That battle- people came up to me and said.  They couldn’t win it without me.  You said that King Agamemnon.  At the ships when I broke our masts to keep them… back.  Or in the duel with Hector.  I injured him.  He didn’t beat me.  I’m…

He struggles

I was under the impression the Armor would be given to the most worthy.

VOICE

Odysseus, is also a brave man.

AJAX
(In a rage)

Yes,  Odysseus can be very brave when he’s picking off distracted men from a distance.

A mistake he understands this

I did not mean to imply.  I just mean to say… he’s an archer… You yourself have said…

Chastised

I deserve the armor.  You know I do.  What can I say?  I’ve never depended on words.  You’ve always wanted my arms.  Let me defend them.

Silence

AJAX

I understand.

...

Horror of Transformation

The Horror Within:

Monstrous Transformations on Stage

Introduction

A man, the innocent victim, looks into the pale orb that defines the night sky and feels his skin shed.  He fights, valiantly, desperately trying to stop the metamorphosis but it’s hopeless.  The audience knows the inevitable destruction and violence that result with this final surrender.   His inner monster awakened and now given corporeal form, he is the Wolf-man. 

DAH DU DUMMMMM

The werewolf is not the only myth that explores the potential of mankind’s inner “beast.”  Monsters tend to reflect what we already fear and human's cruelty knows no bounds. But the process of transformation makes them special.  It differs from monsters who already embody societal taboos, their claws at the ready to commit acts of violence.  Nor are these tragic character arcs; fate forcing our poor luckless protagonists into murder through passion, anger, or a broken soul.  Within horror, these emotional journeys are actual physical processes.  The victim and perpetrator merged into a single person.  A style that has history on film. The spectacle demanded of these kinds of monsters has trouble in a theatrical context.  Live transformations are (at best) problematic when an audience sits only a few feet away.  But theatrical practice is no longer, if it ever was, simple realism or the Broadway musical.

Horror in theatre is not a new genre.  Ghost stories within drama have a long and fruitful life (The Piano Lesson,Ghost Stories) and the old adversary, Satan, is a consistent theatrical ploy (The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Seafarer). Dracula was a Broadway play before it was a Universal movie. Jekyll and Hyde is a gem like example of the genre I wish to explore (so I’ll naturally ignore it).

My initial attempt to merge modern theatrical practices and the theory of what I term horror of transformation (transformative horror for brevity) was a devised Master’s project called the Badb. After this achieved (being generous there) mixed results, I wrote a play titled Gingerbread.  Both attempted transformative horror in a theatrical context.

In order to develop a practice based on literary theory (and genre), I had a few goals.

A). To define “transformative horror” within the context of horror fiction and its own unique tradition as a sub-genre of horror.

B). The process by which this sub-genre can inform and develop a methodology of physical practice and performance.

C).  To expand these tactics from exclusively horror into other genres and theatrical experiences.

The Theoretical Basis:

Understanding the Curse

The horror genre historically is intimately tied with audience response.  It attempts to invoke a feeling of... oh what's the word... right! Horror. The structure, plotting, and characteristic traits of the genre are formed in order to help illustrate and encourage those reactions.  Noell Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror illustrates some useful fundamentals for the genre and how it can differentiate from other related works.  His work extensively influenced my initial thinking.  Carroll in his analysis admits to a primarily narrative goal (that is horror as it exists in novels, movies, etc.) but admits that horror and horrific imagery can exist outside of narrative, an aspect we will draw on later.  Carroll proposes two core features in his definition of horror, the first being the above mentioned intended audience reaction.  That is to say horror is a narrative that causes a specific, horrific, emotional relationship between the art and audience.  Now we say intended audience reaction because we all know bad scary films are the funniest thing on the planet.  However, Carroll seperates this from terror, suspense, or mystery.  Horror does include fear (or at least good horror does) but more importantly…

“Rather threat is compounded with revulsion, nausea, and disgust. And this corresponds as well with the tendency in horror novels and stories to describe monsters in terms of and to associate them with filth, decay, deterioration, slime and so on. The monster in horror fiction, that is, is not only lethal but—and this is of utmost significance—also disgusting… Within the context of the horror narrative, the monsters are identified as impure and unclean. They are putrid or mouldering things, or they hail from oozing places, or they are made of dead or rotting flesh, or chemical waste, or are associated with vermin, disease, or crawling things. They are not only quite dangerous but they also make one’s skin creep. Characters regard them not only with fear but with loathing, with a combination of terror and disgust.”    (22-23)

It is this disgust that marks horror.   We must understand that this force is not merely frightening but also wrong, unearthly, a threat to our very soul.  A power that even vanquished will leave its filth behind.  And as you can imagine this revulsion if often a subjective concept that changes over time.   Taboos change and sometimes quite rightly.  Caroll uses the term impurity to talk about the cultural norms being challenged by the monster.  These "norms" can vary from the hygenic to the sexual (or both if that's wht you're into).

However, the above quotation also illustrates a more objective defining feature: the use of monster within the work.  The monster, according to Carroll, is an unequivocally supernatural being.  It is not human and more importantly not explainable through any naturalistic system.  This monster must live in a world in which such things are hidden, uncommon, or fantastical.  That is to say that it lives in what the reader would consider their own worldThe baddie invades our precious safe spaces.

Also helpful in a build your own monster kind of way Carroll provides a variety of means this unearthly creature can be generated:  Fusion, the merging of the unmergable, fission the splitting of what is unbreakable, magnification, the enhancement of what should be small, and so on.    Our friend the werewolf is his literal textbook example of “horrific fission.” (46).  That is two being forced to share the same space but not at the same time.   If horror is based on “impurity”… which is “a conflict between two or more standing cultural categories” then spatial fission is this conflict confined in a single person.

Conflict, of course, is my favorite word in drama and it is within this conflict that the “horror of transformation” exits.  Here is where we depart for the moment from our good friend Caroll.  The revulsion here is not projected onto an outside force but internalized by the central character.  The key to this monstrous transformation is the acknowledgment that the horrific actions and eventual violence emerges from impulses within the unwitting victim.  It is the resistance then surrender to these impulses that defines the transformation.  Dr. Jekyll drinks the potion, transforms, commits violence, returns, fights the desire, and then drinks again, rinse-lather-repeat. Or our wolf-man struggles, gives into the pain, and becomes a werewolf. These impulses grow and fester until the character has become a physical embodiment of this impulse.  I will refer to these impulses as the hunger of the monster.  This hunger can be varied from actual hunger, rage, lust, or pain.   And it is in the resistance and surrender to this hunger that makes the transformation horrific.   Now under the loose category of “body horror” there is a long tradition of horrific transformations, sometimes even called transformation horror.  Some of these I would categorize as “horror of transformation” others I would not.  The key question is not the mutilation of body but the loss of humanity.

So the horror of transformation has a few defining characteristics.  The first is an empathetic victim.  This is easiest with a character whom the audience has developed a relationship.  Usually  the protagonist but it can be a mentor, love interest, best friend, or comedic relief.  It cannot be the adversary.  An illustration of this difference lies in the year of the wolf (1981) by contrasting An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.  In American Werewolf… David Kessler, a plucky American tourist, fights with everything he has to prevent his transformation.  While across the pond in The Howling, Eddie Quist gleefully makes the transformation terrifying and disgusting his victim.  Both transformation are horrific but only David has the necessary empathy, attempted resistance, and eventual failure that define horror of transformation.

In this way a whole host of horror can be reevaluated.  The Wolf-man and Interview With a Vampire function as horror of transformation but Cycle of the Werewolf and Thirty Days of Night do not despite both being werewolf and vampire novels respectively.   It is also not necessary for the horror of transformation to define the entire work.  In 28 Days Later Frank, the loving father to Hannah, becomes infected and the next few moments involve him fighting the process.   The video game Until Dawn uses the Wendigo and the act of cannibalism as the catalyst.

Forming a Methodology:

Help!  I’m Changing!

Now that we have the defining features it is important to take a moment to stop here and address the key difference from these various source materials and the goal.  Horror, in particular horror of transformation, has a rich life in the cinematic and literary world.  Skin explodes away, faces are forced out of chest cavities, eyes become a dusty yellow.  While the horror of theatre has remained relatively psychological, ghostly.   So what can we do as theatre artists to bring this kind of horror onto our stages?

First the monster in question need not be a werewolf.   There is after all nothing inherently special about the wolf.  It is not more human than any other canine, or boar, or even ape.  Our monster doesn’t even need to be a shapeshifter at all.  Vampires or demonic possession can lend itself to this kind of horror.  In fact it need not be anything in particular. Transformative horror requires the hunger not a particular beast.   As long as we start with a person, define a hunger, and end with a monster we are in business. In my own foray I used a traditionally static monster (a creature usually found outside the transformative horror sub-genre) the witch.

The ugly witch is stirring the protion

Care for some tea?  Fresh cup?

Now a few key points, one ethical the other contextual.   The witch has a complicated and tragic history.  It is impossible to separate the history of “witchcraft” and the history of misogynistic, racial and class oppression.   The plague bringing Nosferatu or the Viking berserkers as inhuman wolf men have moved beyond these original fears into their own cultural standing.  They do afterall glitter now and pine after young women.  But the witch as a horrific figure has not outgrown the backward, sexist, patriarchal nightmares that spawned them.  Entire religions, new age or not, have reclaimed this archetype reacting against this history.  The witch in modern culture can be a celebration of the very femininity that was once literally demonized.  So you know… keep that in mind.

The second element is that magic and those in thrall to it have a long history as corrupting agents.   This concept of corruption is related to transformative horror though not necessarily the same.   While transformative horror depends on the conflict between reason/morality verses the unstoppable hunger, corruption is more cynical.  The usual version of the corruption myth involves either guiding the protagonist into a new world of moral bankruptcy or pulling away the surface hypocrisy under the tired excuse of “power corrupts.”  There is usually an outside force, making reasoned if selfish arguments.  A partial list would include:  The Faustus myth, The Devil’s Advocate, Harold Lauder in The Stand, The Craft, among many many others.  A corruption story is not necessarily separate from a horror of transformation but has other defining characteristics.

A devised piece, The Badb, was my first attempt at staging transformative horror.  A Master’s project, my group was interested in what could form “horrific theatre” in general.  For my personal goals, we needed to fulfill two criteria, first Carroll’s concept of a disgusting dangerous creature and my own that the transformation must be from victim to monster.

The Badb historically is not a monster.  She is an Irish goddess but a goddess of power and death.   If horror is two parts revolting to one part terrifying the descriptions of the Badb suit the formation well…

“Over his head is shrieking

A lean hag, quickly hopping

Over the points of their weapons and shields—

She is the gray-haired Morrigu.

““The red-mouthed Badbs will cry around the house,

For bodies they will be solicitious.”

In these descriptions the goddesses appearance is as important as her dangerous nature.  The age and hideousness of the creature is central to the myth.  The description of aged women with great power and a hideous visage has a modern cultural context, witch.  Our group did not plan to use the goddess/witch connection initially but decided to develop this further.

So while the witch can function as Carroll’s monster it is not enough for transformative horror.  The witch is dangerous true.  And the witch can represent numerous cultural clashes within our society.  A simple list might include:  Female as other, the debilitating effects of age, beauty verses power, sexuality, gender, poverty, and a corruption of motherhood.   But the transformative quality is not inherent in the image of witch.  Nor is any single hunger that must be embraced to trigger the transformation.  This is where the shape shifting nature of the Badb in particular becomes useful.  The Badb, in Irish mythology, is one part of a triple goddess referred to as The Morrigan.  The Morrigan usually takes the form of a crow, beautiful young woman, or crone but as in the case of most oral mythological traditions other alternatives were provided.  We had two actors who wanted to work on these transformations within the myth.   One chose the shift from maiden to crow, the other from mother to crone.  For a variety of scriptural reasons it is the mother/crone change that became our focus in terms of witchcraft.

The Bedb’s transformation from mother to vicious crone set the horrific journey we wished to develop.  The Mother starts as the victim and is drawn inextricably into this hag’s body.  The group needed to identify the hunger that fuels this transformation, in this case maternal love.   Carroll indicates a tactic that forms horror or horrific reactions is magnification.  His meaning was literal (giant ants or tomatoes) mine was emotional.   The emotion itself must be magnified or amplified to the point where it no longer seems human.  A worried mother becomes a paranoid who imprisons her child. A proud mother transforms into a frenzied worshiper.  An innocent kiss eases into a deep desire.  The hunger then for her child physically transforms the innocent mother/victim into the diabolical witch.   We had developed the archetypes for both the victim and the monster.    The attempt to theatricalise this resistance could begin.

And fail.  The final project was a disjointed mess.  My own interest in transformative horror was merged with my peers other horrific goals.  The final project produced a couple of nice pictures and a few key elements from which I could draw.  Two moments in particular when transformative horror was clear.    One was a purely physical development the other based on an emotional shift.

The physical transformation of the maiden was part of a series of atmospheric approaches we took to indicate the maddening of our main character.  The maiden traveled behind a screen that cast her in shadow.  The maiden though having very little dialogue was based around archetypes in particular the innocent child.   This allowed the audience to empathize or connect with her on a limited level.  In other words she had been one of the good guys.   Keeping her in silhouette, behind the screen, the audience was able to focus on two things exclusively:  the outline of her body and the sounds she made.  The shadow exaggerated the excellent physical performance of our actress and this outline contorted in seemingly impossible ways.  This provided the transformation but the vocal pleading and groans of agony gave the audience an impression of an unwilling, sickening, and painful process.  When she emerged: hair covering her face, dragging her heel, the knife in her hand held awkwardly it was unsettling.  Her emergence may have been frightening, no matter what, but her resistance is what made the act disgusting.

cover-14

The second moment was the performance transformation of Mother into Crone at the very end.   This transformation was done in full view of the audience.   Now the Hunger chosen was love, a maternal possessive love.  But we needed a trigger, an overwhelming moment that could be magnified until it reached a horrific conclusion.

We used the discovery of her son’s dead body as the trigger and worked to magnify the grief which served as her emotional anchor.   We started vocally with the sobs.  The resistance was naturally built in as our actress fought to prevent the tears and gasps from escaping.  This perfectly natural response to grief created intense empathy.   These sobs grew in intensity developing shorter duration between each outburst while each individual cry lasted longer.   Once the duration had been magnified, we used a variation in pitch and timbre to indicate rawness.  In other words, her grief had overwhelmed her ability to cry.  Instead of silence these sobs become gradually more disjointed until they resembled screams or wailing.  This then transferred into a more aggressive vocal posture more akin to growling, hissing, and using the hunger for her child propel her.   At the same time the physical actions that define sobbing also become more and more pronounced.  The act of hugging herself for support allowed us to tense the arms and let the fingers develop into claws.  Her eyes widened to blink away the tears and stayed open to unsettle the audience.  She had to steady herself in her grief turning her walk into a bizarre waddle.  Our Mother was able to show the audience how her character could become overwhelmed and surrender to the changes in her body.  This initial empathy and subsequent disgust was a quintessential moment of our horror of transformation.

Though the experiment as a production failed in its ambitions it was just successful enough to illustrate to me the potential power of this kind of horror on the stage.  I tried again from a narrative point of view with my play Gingerbread.  Using the most basic elements of Hansel and Gretel I attempted to build in moments of transformative horror throughout.  Some of these are quick others slow but each can be defined by empathy, hunger, resistance, and surrender.  This process clarified a few more points-

One:  You can have frightening transformation without them being horrific.  The character of Wade, a misogynistic hit man who lives to kill witches, transforms from an Atticus Fitch to a Max Cady.  It does involve a physical process and a magnification of an emotional state but he does not fight the event.  Since his character is not repelled by his own actions or desires we cannot develop the initial empathy.   These are the kind of transformations we see in the action/horror hybrids like Underworld or Twilight.   Or even other body horror work like The Howling.

Two:  The transformation and resistance can be subliminal.  The fight existing under the delusion that once the hunger is sated everything will reset.

Conclusion:

We got a dead monster

            So what’s the point?  Why the focus on a particular subgenre of horror in a medium hostile to the goal?  There are a few reasons.

Horror fiction does not and should not have a monopoly on horrific imagery or tropes.  This theatrical vocabulary can be applied on a much wider scale.  Just during the devised work we used not only traditional horror narratives but fairy tales, myths, true crime, photography, Goya’s paintings, and folk remedies.

This vocabulary can also be applied to more traditional theatre practices.  In my previous listing of magic as corruption you may have noticed a rather important omission, Macbeth.   That is because I think the dreaded Scottish play can fall very neatly into the ideas of horror as transformation.  Empathy for Macbeth is developed early on, a hunger (ambition) that grows in intensity, a resistance to the hunger “is this a dagger I see before me,” and a final surrender.   This is where I think for theatrical purposes Carroll can be left behind.  We do not need a supernatural monster if these criteria are met.

These tactics can be utilized in non-supernatural pieces as well.  All the Kings Men could use the same logic as Macbeth.   But by having this particular viewpoint we can use it to enhance or help focus performance, designs, or direction.  The travel from one archetype to another seemingly unwillingly can be powerful.   Our theatres exist in a cultural context and I’m for using as much of that context as possible.  It is that empathy, the connection with the audience which for me is an artistic necessity.  The place of theatre as not only an emotional link between viewer and viewed but a physical one; sharing space as well as story.

And this is the reason why horror of transformation has stayed with me.  Horror as a method of exploring our fears, prejudices, and repulsion is vital.  It can give definition to the indefinable instinctual terror the millennia has gifted us.  Yet, we live in a world where we often turn our kin into these monsters.   We use our fears and fear of others to say this is them and that is evil.  But horror of transformation does not allow that.  It says that if I’d received that werewolf’s claw, vampires’ bite, demonic possession, or cursed hand, if not but for the grace of God, I’d be the monster.