Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Theatre of Horrors: Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers, by D.P. Watt (Inkermen Press, 2006)

Pieces for Puppets… is a well-written and engaging collection of six short stories (totaling 89 pages) split into two sections: Past Puppets and Modern Marionettes. Watt is a skilled writer whose precise use of language, attention to rhythm and flow, and capable story structuring weave subtle tapestries of the supernatural where the darker, more sinister world of the popular theatre is never far out of reach.

Past Puppets opens with a quote by the influential Swedish playwright August Strindberg: “The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge. But one consciousness rules them all: the dreamer's; for him there are no secrets, no inconsistencies, no scruples and no laws.” (Although it is unattributed here it is from the prefatory note to Strindberg’s 1901 A Dream Play, produced in 1907.)

It is a most fitting opening quote in many ways, as the first three short stories take place soon after the turn of the century and Watt is a drama lecturer who seems well equipped to tread on the fine line between the theatre space and what is just beyond.

My intention here is not to spoil the surprises, twists, and turns of these six stories but to highlight what I as a fellow theatre practitioner and lover of dark tales from the Victorian and Edwardian eras enjoyed most about them.

The first selection, “Dr Dapertutto’s Saturnalia,” takes place in a “tattered” theatre in post-Revolutionary Russia and is one of two stories that takes its cues (pun intended) from the world of the popular stage. Dr Dapertutto, the self-styled “Direktor, Entertainer, Reveller, Charlatan and Misanthrope” of this theatre of horrors, takes his name from the title of VE Meyerhold’s journal of the theatre, The Journal of Dr Dapertutto. Dapertutto means “open for [or over] all.” Meyerhold was an innovator in the Russian theatre who was tortured and imprisoned because of his opposition to Josef Stalin. He is well known among theatre practitioners because of his work with Biomechanics as a method of training actors (referencing back to an image of manipulated puppets) and his intense dislike of Realism.

The Saturnalia is, of course, the winter solstice feast and it was in the Roman tradition during this time to have masters and slaves switch places, which figures into the story’s ending. As we go along, we meet some interesting characters, most notably a “peculiar projectionist” whose laugh was “like a midnight breeze that awakens fallen leaves.” Watt draws his characters well, in the tradition of Poe, Doyle, and Lovecraft, which made it easy for me to be drawn into the tales. Also in the tradition of such craftsmen we meet an Inspector who stands in opposition to what Dapertutto is unfolding on his stage, although he cannot help but be drawn in to “the gratuities of theatrical indulgence” (the very thing that we in the theatre want from all those who enter our doors) and become an almost willing participant in what Dapertutto has in store for him.

Perhaps most compelling and enlightening of all in this story is when Dapertutto says “There are moments played out for the delectation of the spectators…and others for the pleasure of the players.” Anyone who has spent any time in the theatre understands this line in our deepest, darkest places.

“Room 89” is a classic English tale of the supernatural, complete with an ill-tempered and pompous main character, Dr Alexander Weatherby, and well-rendered descriptions of the Isle of Wight and its environs. Watt shows his dexterity in weaving in local lore and historical fact from the cultural, political, and scientific fields from turn of the century England, laying a detailed background but never letting it get in the way of the story. There are elements of this story that will appeal to those interested in the modern stories of Dan Brown and the mood again recalls the supernatural stories of AC Doyle and HP Lovecraft.

To say any more would be to spoil the fun.

“The Hobby” is a story of barely five pages that takes the idea of people as puppets to its most extreme point and Watt does it with some compelling characters and a heart-wrenching story of loss.

The three stories that comprise Modern Marionettes are prefaced with a quote from Georg Fuchs, a relatively unknown theatre avant-gardist who proposed that all boundaries between audience and actor be removed so that the audience could participate in the process. He is linked historically with Meyerhold (who read Fuchs’ works), a bridge which links the two halves of the books historically as well as thematically. The quote goes thus: “This whole sham world of cardboard, twine, canvas and gilt is ripe for destruction.”

The first story in this section is called “Glorious White Marble Lady” and is the most ambitious of the stories in this collection. It uses the backdrop of the pre-production of a staging of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” to explore the emotional life of a man torn between his troubled life with his wife and children and the mysterious lure of a woman tortured by the memories of the atrocities inflicted on her Serbian relatives by the Croats. Watt explores a great deal in the pages of this story, from the theatrical and psychological implications of Shaw’s Pygmalion (and by extension those of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea) to the captured essences held in such static art forms as photographs and sculpture. He also uses the intriguing device of a third person narrator who shares with us information that he has read in the protagonist’s diary. His ambition pays off as the story flows into a cohesive and satisfying conclusion.

Reminding me of the book El Club Dumas by Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte and the Roman Polanski film version The Ninth Gate, “Of Those Who Follow Emile Bilonche” is a finely constructed tale of the pursuit of occult knowledge figureheads and the madness and destruction that ensues. I particularly enjoyed the brisk pace and compelling Voice inherent in the narrator’s relentless pursuit of the works of this metaphysical grandmaster of secret, “syncretic vision,” a character who brought to mind the likes of Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky.

The final story, “The Comrade,” crafted with a fine Lovecraftian tone, was the most distinct of the stories in terms of its modern feel and pacing. Like “The Hobby” it is a very short tale that leaves much for the reader to ruminate upon in the end.

While working from a long and venerable tradition of Victorian and Edwardian craftsmen of supernatural tales, Watt’s voice and theatrical background make each of his tales distinct and noteworthy in their own right.

The book is nicely illustrated by Amanda Wilson and the photographs and illustrations that adorn the cover and dedication page add much to the feel and themes of the collection, as any wisely chosen graphics should.

All too often in the small press I find a lack of a strong editorial hand in the books that are being produced, as if a small budget and audience means that professional presentation and proper attention to typos, typesetting, and grammatical errors are no longer applicable or worth the worry. I am happy to say that Pieces for Puppets… is well edited and nearly error free, which is a credit to both the author and his publisher, Inkermen Press.

If you love the tales of Poe, Lovecraft, Machen, Doyle, Blackwood, and the like, I highly recommend Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers and other works from the ever-expanding catalogue of The Inkermen Press.

You can find out more about this relatively new and promising small press at http://inkermenpress.tripod.com (their website design is what initially drew me to them) and contact them at inkermen@stri.freeserve.co.uk or befriend them at http://www.myspace.com/inkermenpress

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