‘The stage is set, the curtain rises… we are ready to begin’: BBC’s Sherlock Special ‘The Abominable Bride’, 19th-Century Theatre and the Gothic

Posted by Sarah A. Winter on January 09, 2016 in Blog, Sarah Winter tagged with , , , , , ,

(Many plot spoilers ‘afoot’)

 

My last blog looked into how Victorian theatre was imagined in the first season of Sky’s Penny Dreadful. After viewing BBC’s Sherlock one-off special episode ‘The Abominable Bride’ (2016), I was very interested in how, like Penny Dreadful, the Victorian theatre world was re-created in contemporary entertainment. Along with the incorporation of theatrical terms and techniques, I was also struck by how intricately the writers and production team deployed the Gothic. Instead of solely providing the dark setting and narrative, the mode’s germane connections to psychological exploration, and affecting the relative audience, were effectively interweaved throughout the narrative. The ways in which the dark story was imbued with Gothic tropes, and how Victorian theatre played a central role in the plot (particularly by using theatrical facets for drawing together different strands of the story), all demonstrate that the Gothic aspects provided more than atmospheric effect, and that the allusions to the Victorian theatre had deeper significance than giving the episode a Victorian ‘feel’.

 

Fig. 1: Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes in their Victorian context, and costumed with well-known assets associated with the original stories, such as the iconic deerstalker hat, which was mostly imprinted into the public consciousness by the texts’ illustrator, Sidney Paget. The legacy left by the sketches is commented upon in the episode, when Dr. Watson grumbles to Mrs Hudson that the illustrator’s impact is ‘out of control’, as he had to grow a moustache to be recognized as one of the stories’ characters (one of many direct intertextual comments upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s works and afterlife).

Fig. 1: Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes in their Victorian context, and costumed with well-known assets associated with the original stories, such as the iconic deerstalker hat, which was mostly imprinted into the public consciousness by the texts’ illustrator, Sidney Paget. The legacy left by the sketches is commented upon in the episode, when Dr. Watson grumbles to Mrs Hudson that the illustrator’s impact is ‘out of control’, as he had to grow a moustache to be recognized as one of the stories’ characters (one of many direct intertextual comments upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s works and afterlife).

As dedicated fan bases and continuing demand show, Sherlock has assembled a huge following. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s successful modernization of the famous sleuth is resultant of a combination of factors, including the original and witty writing with complex plots, and the outstanding performances from the actors, particularly by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Martin Freeman (John). After all this success, it was only natural for there to be some tentativeness over composing the one-off episode, which was felt from both sides of the screen, as the transportation of Sherlock back to his original world gave a sense of anxiety to Cumberbatch and some of the fans.[i] The opening of the much-anticipated episode suggests a linear ‘alternative reality’, as the first moments show flashbacks across the past three series, with a recap of when we last saw Sherlock at the end of the third season, being bundled onto a plane and set for exile for murdering the arch-villain Charles Augustus Magnussen – only to be then instantaneously called back, as Moriarty has seemingly returned from the dead and infiltrated every TV screen in the country. Leaving us suspended on this cliff-hanger yet again, a clock on the screen rolls back to the late 1800s, with the line ‘Alternatively’ written across. We are hereafter immersed into a scenic portrayal of late nineteenth-century London, and shortly witness John and Sherlock’s (or rather, Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes’s) ‘first’ meeting, which is quoted from almost verbatim from the first series.[ii]

However, instead of being a one-off special displaced back into the nineteenth century, the writers came up with a more exciting approach than an alternative reality sequence, as it soon becomes apparent that our guessing and expectations as to how the writers would deploy the older setting were played upon. The more familiar modernized narrative, which had been acknowledged at the start, is weaved  back in to the special around two thirds of the way through, as the Victorian backdrop is revealed to be a dream Sherlock is experiencing in a drug-induced sleep on the plane. At first, the ‘it was all just a dream’ plot seems the most clichéd trick in the book; but the unravelling of exchanges between the modern and Victorian settings uncovers a deeper significance to the plot mechanism. The Victorian location is not solely brought in as homage to the original milieu of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, but also as a vessel which takes us deep into the sleuth’s ‘mind palace’. Haunted by the vision of Moriarty shooting himself through the mouth on the rooftop (in the last episode of series two), and the possibility he has returned, he throws himself into a heavy, drugged-out sleep to access the deepest vaults of his mind. His unconscious depths link him back to a nineteenth-century unsolved case ‘lodged in [his] hard-drive’, concerning ‘The Abominable Bride’ Emelia Ricoletti, who apparently committed suicide using the same method as Moriarty, then came back from the dead (hence the subconscious association) to terrify and murder chauvinistic men. This connection builds the foundations of the Victorian dream, as Sherlock’s present is transmuted into the Victorian milieu, setting the scene for allowing the workings of his mind to figure out the case, which parallels his own darkest fear – his genuine terror of his nemesis, which is played out through the Victorian lens in a grand finale at Reichenbach Falls, before both are submerged into the watery depths. Presumably, the depths Sherlock knew he had to go to, when he reflects that he ‘shall have to go deep’ to solve the case. As dreams and psychological exploration are an integral part of the Gothic mode, Sherlock’s unconscious state and confronting repressed fears, framed by a gruesome and supposedly supernatural Victorian murder case, reveals multilayered experimenting with the mode. In a style resembling the tendencies in Gothic works to manipulatively impose an idea or impression upon the audience, such as presenting a counterfeit document as authentic, the writers deliberately played with our perception (and hoped acceptance) of the alternative reality suggestion, by inverting and transforming it into something else.[iii]

 

Fig. 2: Sherlock interrupts Inspector Lestrade’s narrative on Ricoletti’s suicide. The switching and merging between the re-enacted supernatural case, and the cosy setting in 221B Baker Street, symbolizes the Victorian hobby of telling ghost stories around a fireplace, particularly at Christmas time.

Fig. 2: Sherlock interrupts Inspector Lestrade’s narrative on Ricoletti’s suicide. The switching and merging between the re-enacted supernatural case, and the cosy setting in 221B Baker Street, symbolizes the Victorian hobby of telling ghost stories around a fireplace, particularly at Christmas time.

On a more atmospheric level, the Gothic gives the episode an eerie and dark ambience, through the story of ‘The Abominable Bride’. References to Victorian sensation fiction – which of course shares interconnections with Gothic literature – are embodied in the creepy visions of the bride, particularly when she wanders a moonlit garden maze shrouded in fog. The attached manor house’s Gothic Revival architecture heightens the imposing and eerie scene further, and references to horror film techniques are also used, such as the bride’s spectral, fleeting passing across an opening in the maze. The gory, bodily Gothic is also incorporated, when the bride’s publicized suicide on a balcony shows her shooting herself through the head, with blood splattering the windows’ netting behind – and we later see the gruesome wound (which Moriarty replicates). Yet the public suicide, and ghostly sights of the bride, are all fabricated by elaborate stage trickery, which brings us to the Victorian theatre.

Numerous references to dramatic forms and theatre technology exhibit that the writers were clearly drawn to the theatrical culture of the nineteenth century. I particularly found the couple of references to melodrama interesting, as the genre is my main area of research. Firstly, in a conversation between Mycroft and Sherlock about the (Victorian) Moriarty’s plunge from Reichenbach Falls, and the detective’s concern that he may still be alive as no corpse was recovered, Mycroft sardonically comments on the possibility of his return as ‘pure reason toppled by sheer melodrama – your life in a nutshell’. Then in the reconstruction of the scene at the Falls, in the episode’s coup de théâtre, Sherlock cuttingly greets Moriarty with, ‘the setting’s a shade melodramatic, don’t you think?’ Both connote associations of melodrama as overly excessive and superficial. These pejorative perceptions of melodrama fit the episode’s context, as the genre was predominantly viewed as hackneyed in the later part of the nineteenth century. Such opinions though neglected the more nuanced mechanics in melodramas, and that powerful effect sometimes simply necessitated excess. Yet nonetheless, these references to melodrama specifically (as no other delineated genres are mentioned) shows an awareness that it was the most popular dramatic form in the nineteenth century. Moreover, against the Falls, the genre also acutely resonates with the plot. When Moriarty warns Sherlock that they are ‘always together’, the dialogue echoes melodrama’s dichotomy of the hero and villain – which is also tapped into in his reply to Sherlock about the setting being a ‘shade’ melodramatic: ‘For you and me? Not at all’.

A very specific reference to the theatre is its role in Sherlock’s climactic solving of the case. Some of the bride’s spectral movement is revealed to have all been orchestrated by the stage trick ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, a hugely popular theatre technology from the nineteenth century, which consisted of manipulating lighting and positioning a pane of glass to reflect real objects, used to conjure up spectral illusions in Victorian shows.[iv] However, the technique is sadly rather oversimplified in the episode, and the mechanics are glossed over too quickly – plus, the necessary light source needed to reflect the image is not made clear. It is still interesting though to see how the technology was used in the plot, and that the suicide was also a staged trick: Emelia Ricoletti held two guns as she randomly targeted male passer-bys from a balcony, and after placing one in her mouth, she kept the other out of sight and fired the ground with it, with blood sprayed by a hidden accomplice to give the illusion she had shot herself. A corpse with a similar resemblance to Emelia was initially placed in the morgue, in order for her to ‘return’ from the dead to shoot her husband in a public space, which ignited the sensational reportage of a vengeful ghostly bride, before the body was replaced with her real corpse. In a Radcliffean approach, then, theatre technologies and techniques for illusion are used in the plot to rationalize the seemingly supernatural. Moreover, the case bears a cogent link to Sherlock’s own faked death, when, at the end of series two, he says to a distraught John before letting himself fall from the edge, ‘it’s a trick – just a magic trick’.[v] Hence, there is a prominent emphasis on illusion reaching over from Sherlock’s jump, Moriarty’s apparent return from the dead, and the bride. By connecting Victorian stage technologies with modern-day media, the sheer power of illusion is impressed on the viewers – like the characters, we are drawn into the impression that Moriarty had returned by his televised mocking message, ‘did you miss me?’ But his presence on the screen does not necessarily mean he is alive, a conclusion Sherlock admits he had to ‘prove’ to himself through the drug-infused vision, to try to exorcize his deepest fear from his mind.

It is also interesting how Sherlock, when he uncovers an assemblage of suffragettes in a chapel’s vault, who orchestrated the events, summarizes the method: ‘Excellent. Superlative theatre. I applaud the spectacle’. His overview of how the murders were carried out are imbued with dramaturgical description, such as Ricoletti’s faked death requiring an audience to witness the apparent suicide, to set the scene for her rise from the grave to murder her husband outside his favourite opium den, which Sherlock deems the ‘perfect stage, for a perfect drama’. The technique of sensationalizing the murder to attract attention connects to salacious murder reportage in the nineteenth century, which we get a vague impression of early in the episode, when a street trader selling copies of The Strand asks Watson for more ‘proper murder’ stories. By drawing on theatrical terms, and including theatre technologies as crucial parts in the crime case, the writers articulated an important aspect of nineteenth-century life in London, as murder stories were sensationalized on multiple platforms. In newspapers, theatres’ crime plays, and even in the streets when patterers sold broadsides through shouting out latest news, and in penny theatres or ‘gaffs’, which held illicit performances in makeshift venues such as unused shops. This vibrant theatrical culture in London’s streets is alluded to in Sherlock’s initial perspective of the case’s ‘suicide as street theatre’.[vi] Therefore, rather than weaving in theatre terms to merely give the episode a more authentic Victorian air, the allusions feed into the sphere of different mediums which disseminated murder stories.

In a rather concise form, the above outlines the one-off Sherlock special’s Gothic content, and that the attention to Victorian theatre underpinned the plot’s rich interplay between the contemporary and nineteenth-century worlds. In answer to Moriarty’s question to Sherlock in the chapel’s vaults, then, ‘is this […] Gothic enough?’, it’s fair to say that the episode didn’t fall too short.

 

Notes:

[i] See, for example, The Guardian’s article, ‘Benedict Cumberbatch: I thought at first Victorian Sherlock had lost the plot’ <http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/nov/25/benedict-cumberbatch-victorian-sherlock-abominable-bride> [Accessed: 08/01/2016]

[ii] ‘The Abominable Bride’, Sherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (Hartswood Films/BBC Wales, 2016) [BBC iplayer].

[iii] Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) set the trend in the Gothic mode of both manipulating and terrifying the reader, by presenting the narrative as a real historical account. Yet there are clues in the episode which hint that the events are part of a dream, such as when Mycroft says to Sherlock of a ‘virus in the data’ – these anachronisms suggest Sherlock’s consciousness is starting to rupture through his dream state.

[iv] The technology was devised by John Henry Pepper and Henry Dircks in 1858, and first performed in 1862 (the sobriquet ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ became embedded in the popular lexicon, despite Pepper’s efforts for Dircks to be more acknowledged). For more information on the history and mechanics of the technology, see chapter four in David J. Jones, Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-Cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670-1910 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011).

[v] ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, Sherlock (episode three, series two), created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (Hartswood Films/BBC Wales, 2012) [on DVD].

[vi] For details on penny theatres, see Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2012), p. 150. It needs to be noted, however, that in the episode’s late nineteenth-century context, the murder sensationalism from the early and mid decades had changed into a different type of style, such as the development of ‘New Journalism’ (see Crone, p. 263).

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