Dramaturgical Study Guide: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
By Dante Flores
“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”
So reads a closing passage from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Over the past 122 years, Stevenson’s thriller about a good-natured doctor periodically transforming into a violent criminal has held its place as a staple in English-language culture, even becoming a turn of phrase—how often do we talk about ourselves as though we are a “Jekyll-and-Hyde” of our own? How often do we talk about our brains and our bodies as entirely separate beings altogether?
But even upon release, Stevenson’s novella was no stranger to popularity. Within six months, Jekyll and Hyde sold 40,000 copies in the United Kingdom, and an estimated 250,000 in the United States. Only a year following its publication, a stage adaptation by Thomas Sullivan debuted in Boston, starring Richard Mansfield as both Jekyll and Hyde. Since then, there have been countless adaptations for the stage, film, and television, including this one, written by American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher.
Hatcher’s career spans decades, and comprises works such as Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the screenplay for Mr. Holmes. He currently lives and works in Minneapolis.
But what could account for the novel’s popularity in the first place? To answer this question, let’s jump back in time to Victorian England: high society is obsessed with good manners, with maintaining a “stiff upper lip.” Indeed, in any public setting, one must always be the very picture of gentility, observing all the proper behaviors and speaking in all proper tones. And not only must one observe proper behaviors; they must in fact think the proper thoughts, and feel the proper feelings (which is to say: only the agreeable ones.) Is this not restrictive? Is this not the perfect environment to breed temptation? Jekyll and Hyde must have touched on something known primordially to Victorian readers. To be sure, Hyde is violent. He is evil. But he is also impulsive, and instinctual. Are we not the same?
Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, was fascinated by the idea that one person could constitute two people, so much so that Jekyll and Hyde wasn’t even his first story on the matter. In his younger years, Stevenson (in tandem with W. E. Henley) wrote the play Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life, based on the life of William Brodie, a Scottish gentlemen and house burglar. By day, Brodie was a respected cabinetmaker, a job which included the installation and maintenance of locks and other security systems in Edinburgh’s wealthier homes. By night, Brodie robbed the homes and sold the loot to support his gambling habits and his two mistresses (neither of whom knew each other.) Eventually, one of Brodie’s raids failed and he was hanged for it. Indeed, Stevenson’s world was one which not only encouraged, but even necessitated a double life.
But what does this mean for us? Let’s visit a convention of Hatcher’s script. In this production, Jekyll and Hyde are not both played by one actor. Rather, one actor plays mild-mannered Henry Jekyll, and the cruel, impulsive Hyde is played by four other actors. All of them, despite the range of faces, shapes, and voices, are facets of Jekyll, never completely mutable or even opposite. Hatcher himself has always “taken issue with the notion of Jekyll being 100% good and Hyde being 100% bad…the positive and negative aspects of the character would begin to shuffle, mix until the imbalance had gone the other way completely.”
So the story goes, Stevenson got the idea for Jekyll and Hyde after witnessing the first transformation in a dream, and wrote the first draft in three feverish days. It was only a few years later that psychology as we know it would be born. Soon, a journey into the “shadow self” would begin. As Stevenson himself said:
Everything is true; only the opposite is true too; one must believe both equally or be damned.