Last night Mary and I went to the last night of the university’s production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Three-quarters of the cast and pit are current or former students of mine, who had been pestering me for the last two weeks about when I was going to attend. I foolishly thought that my students, including the lead actress in the role of Chairwoman Eliza Cartwright, merely wanted me there to boost the audience and to possibly get feedback from a respected professor. I found out that I had never been so right and so wrong at the same time.
But first I must explain some features of the musical. It is a play within a play, something that confused some students in my First Year Seminar class who reviewed last week’s performances. The interior play is a dramatization of Charles Dickens’ last and unfinished novel of the same name, a mystery about the disappearance of a young English gentleman who could’ve been murdered by his jealous uncle (and music teacher!), his fiancée, a rival for the affections of his fiancée, the rival’s protective sister, an Anglican priest, the priest’s assistant, the drunken crypt keeper, or the opium den owner and former prostitute. The exterior play is the production of this mystery by the troops of the Music Hall Royale, a parody of Victorian theater, complete with a famous male impersonator in the title role, a missing actor (he’s drunk) forcing the Chairwoman to assume the role of Mayor as well as narrating the show, and “Going to the Races.” The exterior players interact with the audience before and during the show, with plenty of ribald jokes both planned and improvised.
Because Dickens died before solving the mystery, Rupert Holmes decided to make the musical a “Solve-it-Yourself” production, in the same vein as the movie Clue or the play Shear Madness. First, the cast conducts a mock vote on whether Edwin Drood really died, or if he merely went missing. He always dies, so the actress can rant about how she was screwed over and flounce off the stage. In this production the actress storms back across the stage later, wearing her Victorian street clothes and carrying a very cute (and remarkably well-behaved) 8-month old dachshund. Next, the real identity of a mysterious bearded man is determined by audience vote. As a rag is held over each candidate character, the audience votes by applause. Last night a run-off was required by a tie between two characters, resulting in the unlikely result of Rosa Bud disguised as the old man. The vote for the murderer is conducted by the exterior players who mingle among the audience and tabulate the choices. (Last night it was the drunken cryptkeeper, Durdles.) After these choices are acted out, the Chairwoman announces that a love story must be concluded. So the audience must vote for a female character and a male character to fall in love. Unfortunately, the vote-by-applause for the female character ended in a tie after two run-off elections. So the Chairwoman uses this opportunity to wreak vengeance upon her innocent theory professor. Perhaps I called on her too many times for sightsinging, or made my exams too hard. After all, I am unimaginably evil.
Chairwoman Eliza Cartwright, who in real life appears to be a delightful young woman, announces that a single person will break the tie: me. She makes me stand up and announce my choice. As the first choice, “Helena Landless”, is a current student of mine and the second choice, “Princess Puffer,” is a former student, I naturally said, “This is hard. I’ve had both of them in my classes.” Given the bawdy nature of the whole production, an instant outburst of laughter masked the last three words. So it appeared that I had announced sexual relations with two of my students. And the Vice President of Academic Affairs was in the audience. I’m looking forward to my interim review this year! Thankfully my file is officially closed for the review, though there is always the tenure review in two years. As a typical oblivious professor, I blithely continued on. “I pick Helena, as I will have to face her Monday morning.” Thinking the torture was over, I sat down. But then the vote was taken for the male part of this democratic matchmaking. This vote was quite clear, as the plentiful number of SAE members in the audience cheered on their frat brother, “Neville Landless,” the sibling of Helena. So not only had I said that I had “had” one of my students, I also picked her to be part of an incestuous relationship. Many people made sure to point that out to me after the show was over, including my students, my colleagues, and “Helena’s” mother.
Theater is dangerous business.