A Gentleman’s Guide to Gothic Theatre

Dark humor is uniquely honed in Robert L. Freedman’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a Broadway musical whose satire drips as thick and as freely as the blood spilled by Monty Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst. The musical numbers alongside the comedic, and quintessentially gothic, narrative structure of the plot develop the performance as a work of gothic theatre that consistently breaks the fourth wall. The self-awareness that comes with breaking the fourth wall develops duplicity onstage through song reprises as well as repeating roles, therefore further invoking the gothic element of the uncanny. Overall, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’s emphasis of the uncanny through dark humor and murder establish the overall gothic theatricality of the performance in such a way that is denies romanticism.

Author Hannah Simpson writes that laughter in gothic literature stems from a figure indulging in an action that is innately human, yet “does so incorrectly” (Simpson 2). Although this definition of humor is applicable to certain scenarios, it fails to effectively define dark humor as it is presented in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder[1]. Black comedy’s history in theatre is most widely developed from Samuel Beckett’s plays, his style of comedy “exploits our narrow sense of human laughter both to render certain figures more unsettling and to question the boundaries of our definition of the human” (Simpson 3). Beckett’s characters were written to unnerve and create more questions than they answered which contrasts Monty Navarro in A Gentleman’s Guide. The dark comedy Monty creates is the result of irony or timing reminiscent of slapstick. When “Lord Reverend Ezekial unfreezes” after Monty pushes him to his death, the audience laughs because the Lord Reverend’s pool of blood is growing to the tempo of the musical underscore (1.4.27). The irony Lord Adalbert singing an entire musical number about “dying prematurely” then dying before his final note is laughable, but not because it pushes the boundaries of what it means to be human (2.5.102). The dark comedy in A Gentleman’s Guide is a result of comedic timing and deep set irony; they rarely teach a lesson about the human condition, but rather make a spectacle out of characters.

The dark comedy of A Gentleman’s Guide is an effective gothic element on account of its mock of romanticism. Richard Hornby writes “People do not want heroes anymore, onstage or in real life” which in itself denies romantic ideas (Hornby 344). This statement is no better seen than through the excitement Monty shows when he gets an idea for murder. Monty overhears Asquith Jr. telling his secret lover “Chizzlemere is extraordinary out of season and quite private” to which Monty perks up and smiles to the audience after a beat (1.6.29). This moment of black comedy is purely derived from Monty’s devious nature and the ability of the audience to guess what is about to happen. By no means is Monty a hero, he slaughters half of his family purely out of personal gain. Although Hornby argues for the prominence of an socioeconomic struggle at the heart of dark comedy, his assertion that the jokes are “machines of death” have very literal applications in A Gentleman’s Guide (Hornby 345). Monty has the poison in his pocket ready for Asquith Jr. and he sings that “all that remains is proper execution”, a dark pun referencing murdering his cousin and carrying out his plan effectively (1.6.31). This denial of romanticism through lack of a hero creates a wholly gothic performance further developed through Monty’s seven spectacular murders.

The idea of a spectacle in A Gentleman’s Guide is taken further through its “found text” narrative structure which allows breaking the fourth wall to effectively create a gothic setting. Monty Navarro introduces his narrative as “the memoir, and perhaps final confession, of Lord Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst” (1.1.3). The plot advances as Monty reads from his journal which details how he killed family members to inherit the Highhurst Earldom. Rather than have a chronologically structured exposition, Monty reads from his memoir which he forgets in his jail cell upon his release. It is due to his forgetfulness that a guard tells him “I found this journal in your cell and I thought you might need it.” which turns his memoirs into a true “found text” (2.10.123). The moment of panic Monty suffers in the silence after the guard mentions his journal develops an instance of the dark humor that characterizes the show. The fear that the guard read Monty’s confession followed by the knowledge that he did not allows Monty to give a knowing smile to the audience, effectively breaking the fourth wall and establishing the show as a “found text”.

Breaking the fourth wall commonly establishes the gothic genre in A Gentleman’s Guide and facilitates dark humor. The prologue opens the show with a warning from the company telling the audience “if you’re smart, before we start, you’d best depart” as a way to establish the show as not for the “faint of heart” and therefore rather dark (1.Prologue.1). Later on in the performance when Monty is attempting to poison Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith he reprises “Poison in my Pocket” as he tells the audience his reservations about poisoning a meal. In this instance of self-awareness, Monty cites how it “pains me some to ruin someone’s cooking” as the reason he withholds from his scheme (2.5.99). Here, dark humor effectively illustrates the gothic idea of morals since Monty does not seem bothered by killing someone, yet is too mannered to ruin a meal as a guest in Highhurst Castle. Monty’s direct address to the audience establishes a moment of dark comedy in which the gothic idea of morality is toyed with.

The role of the uncanny is the most prominent gothic element in the show and its manifestation through one actor playing nine roles develops an overt theatricality through which dark humor brilliantly shines. The role includes all the D’Ysquiths, save Phoebe, and includes Lord Reverend Ezekial; each character is differentiated through costumes, accents, and mannerisms alone. Todorov’s theory of the uncanny is extremely applicable to the multiple roles this actor plays. Todorov theorizes the uncanny “shocks, amazes, and terrifies”, and that its presence is explained to the audience member (Lem 229). Each of the D’Ysquiths in this role are killed by Monty, directly or indirectly, and because they are all D’Ysquiths and play the same small role, they are easily interchangeable with each other. The audience accepts the same actor playing nine roles on account of the familial relationship between his characters, and the source of the shock and amazement experienced with this instance of the uncanny is a result of the exceptional talent the actor possesses. The funeral procession of Lord Asquith sings that “it really is a shame how they start to feel the same” in regards to the D’Ysquith deaths, so many have died that they are “utterly exhausted keeping track” (2.1.76).

In order to effectively differentiate between these uncanny characters, the actor has to portray them in an over the top manner which furthers the gothic theatricality of the musical, the most prominent way is through breaking the fourth wall. Henry D’Ysquith is Monty’s homosexual cousin who keeps bees as a hobby and is in line for the earldom. Monty learns that “it would take a hundred bees to kill [Henry] now” and Henry “looks to the audience for a moment. Music sting” (1.9.46). In this instance not only is Henry directly acknowledging the audience, but the music is foreshadowing his death – there is almost a look of regret on Henry’s face. This choice in musicality serves to create an instance of dark comedy wherein the audience laughs at the foreshadowed demise of Henry. The actor breaks the fourth wall to differentiate Henry D’Ysquith from the other eight roles by developing him through an ironic death. The overall comedic timing and ironic music cues develop theatricality in the performance.

Besides the similarities between the nine roles, there is an uncanny parallel between Monty and Chauncey D’Ysquith. Like Monty, Chauncey was rejected by the D’Ysquith family and is in the jail at the same time as Monty. Although Chauncey works there as a janitor, the pair inhabit the same space at the same time. Chauncey tells Monty “I ain’t got none of the advantages of being a D’Ysquith, but I ain’t got none of their troubles, neither” which is why he survives the play, he was never in Monty’s way (2.8.112). The uncanny parallel drawn here is beyond their familial connection, although Chauncey is one of the nine roles played by a single actor, it extends to their circumstance and goals. After Monty is set free and assumes the earldom, Chauncey appears onstage and sings to the audience the last line of the show, “I am standing here with poison in me pocket!” an obvious reprisal of Monty’s murderous song (2.10.124). Both characters were isolated from the D’Ysquiths and now both characters demonstrate their murderous intentions of inheriting the earldom. Chauncey reprises Monty’s song in a way that not only breaks the fourth wall and creates a comedic moment, but also in such a way that further establishes the gothic uncanny.

Monty’s two love interests, Phoebe and Sibella, take the gothic element of the uncanny further as they are portrayed as doubles. Sibella represents “desire, passion” while Phoebe is “noble and pious”, their similarity is best noted in the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You” (2.2a.85). Phoebe is behind the door on stage left and Sibella on stage right, Monty stands in the middle attempting to keep the pair apart. Sibella expresses her concern of being discovered for “imagine the scandal” then expresses concern for Phoebe putting her “reputation severely in question” (2.2a.83). Both women struggle with the same scandal on account of the same man, and Phoebe recognizes this. Throughout the scene Monty is returning each woman’s items to their proper room, a feat which goes awry fairly easily. Monty’s confusion with the personal effects further illustrate the uncanny doubling of the two women. Additionally, Monty once more breaks the fourth wall to exclaim “Isn’t this madness?” about the situation in a comedic moment (2.2a.85). This scene also illustrates the denial of the romantic in A Gentleman’s Guide by having two simultaneous love interests for Monty. Monty weds Phoebe but in the final scene “Monty stands there with Phoebe and Sibella on either side of him” unable to pick one over the other (2.10.122). This challenges the romantic idea that true love conquers all since Monty has two loves that conquered very little. Although this moment isn’t one of black comedy, the blocking adds to the overall theatricality of the performance and reminds the audience that Monty is narrating his story from a jail cell some time in the future, the “found text” narration is still strong.

The musical structure of the solos Sibella and Phoebe sing are both waltzes played in opposite keys, their gothic doubling is further expressed through an analysis of arguably the most essential part of a musical: the music. Sibella’s song, “Poor Monty” is expressed in an upbeat waltz played in a major key which conveys  happiness and hope for Monty’s future (1.7c.36). On the other hand, Phoebe’s song “Inside Out” is also in ¾ time and conveys a slower, introspective message played in a minor key (1.9a.48). The structure and purpose of both of these solos are mirrors of each other; they’re both sung to Monty about the future he might have with each of them. At the end of the show, both women come together to sing “That Horrible Woman” in an attempt to blame the murders on each other and rescue Monty from jail (2.9.114). This song is another waltz in a minor key, although the key shift down conveys the sadness and fear of Monty in prison, it’s also indicative of Phoebe’s marital triumph over Sibella. The waltz tempo effectively combines both women while demonstrating their musical similarity and depicting them as gothic doubles.

The overwhelming extravagance of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder develop a unique Victorian Gothic in the Broadway musical. The epistolary “found text” narrative structure framing the grandiose musical performance enables the audience to watch the spectacle before them. Paired with the usage of black comedy, the show begins to develop an ironic form of gothic theatre. Therefore, what categorizes A Gentleman’s Guide as gothic is the liberal usage of uncanny doubles seen between all the major characters, the denial of romanticism, specifically through dark humor, and the fourth wall breaks that serve to create comedic moments. Most importantly, what makes A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder gothic above everything else is the nefarious murders that Monty Navarro, Ninth Earl of Highhurst commits for personal gain. Monty is truly not the hero we deserved, but he is the gothic character we got.

 

Works Cited

Freedman, Travis. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. New York, 2008

Hannah Simpson. “‘Strange Laughter’: Post-Gothic Questions of Laughter and the Human in Samuel Beckett’s Work.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 40, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1–19. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmodelite.40.4.01.

Hornby, Richard. “Shavian Dark Comedy.” The Hudson Review, vol. 39, no. 2, 1986, pp. 298–301. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3856828.

Lem, Stanislaw, and Robert Abernathy. “Todorov’s Fantastic Theory of Literature.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 1, no. 4, 1974, pp. 227–237. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4238877.

 

 

[1] A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will henceforth be referred to as A Gentleman’s Guide

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