I went to see a delightful musical last night: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was full of vinager and peppy to the point of exhausting the audience.
Edwin Drood is the mystery Dickens never finished. He left some delightful questions including the basic issue of whether Drood dies, because Dickens certainly died before telling us.
The show allowed the audience some control over the endings and the result was hilarity all around, but the show had two false notes.
First, at the end it suddenly needed a teaching moment and what had been tolerable farce became morally questionable. We are told by Drood in a final song that being alive is the main thing and being dead the worst thing.
A Victorian audience even in a dance hall would have known to boo that wretched sentiment. The strong men on the Titanic should have rushed the boats and stayed alive? The soldier should run away and refuse to fight? The gentleman should allow any abuse by his neighbor so long as nobody dies?
Many a tortured soul longs for death.
But introducing this “moral lesson” forced me to consider why London was once again glorifying the dance hall and not the people who did the work. There must be stories to be told about the men who gave us the technology that made the who possible. There is a statue to the founder of Sunday Schools, which elevated thousands from the slums, I passed on my way to the theater.
I know some prostitutes have hearts of gold, but aren’t most abused? Weren’t most dance hall denizens not the people that made Britain great? Where are the stories that Dickens liked to tell of those who did right?
It appears the only Victorian we are allowed to cheer are the ones who lived at the margins and would not have produced the culture in which we live.
It is true that to excercise power and to do great things means making mistakes. The great Christian Gladstone was no saint, but like Washington he did (just barely) more good for his culture, and for us, than harm. The same cannot be said for those selling cheap gin and naughty music.
We now glory in their works, but what did they do? In their time, weren’t they sad and didn’t their denizens die? Weren’t their wages almost always exploitation in this life, death, an hell in the world to come?
Perhaps it is all laziness on the part of writers. It is easier to write a musical about a music hall, than the founder of Sunday Schools.
My fear is that in our entertainment culture, we undertand and lionize entertainers. If they made us laugh or cry, then they were “good.” The engineers, the nurses, the mothers, the leaders, the slum workers are forgotten.
This might be because if you read about them their motivations to build civilization or help the poor were overwhelmingly religious. Any altruistic group, even one started by secularists, will soon by filled with religious volunteers. Does theater simply not want to tell their stories?
Salvation Army ladies are negative characters, opium dealing whores (last night!) sympathetic, but I know who I would have wanted to meet in 1895 if I were in trouble.
A reminder that prudish reactions to dance halls misses some good seems like reminding a smoker that there are some pleasures to tobacco. We are in little danger of Victorian prudery.
So my night out was tainted by a celebration of cowardice . . . certainly an authentic value found in Victorian gin joints and by the worry that we tell the wrong storie.
Can somebody do better?