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Tabula Rasa

Slayin'em in the Aisles

A History

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995

456 BC

The Greek playwright Aeschylus writes Prometheus Bound, which the text requires to be staged around a huge manikin chained to the ground to represent Prometheus the titan, whose liver and heart are every day devoured by a gigantic vulture and regrow during the night.

1150 - 1175 AD

At some point around here, Le Mystere d'Adam was written in vernacular French by an unknown playwright. A dramatisation of the Book of Genesis, the text states that Abel has a pot of stage blood concealed on his person.

1376 - 1474 AD

The York Play Cycle, one of a number of such cycles performed on the Feast of the Corpus Christi in Britain and the continent. These were massive dramatisations of the Bible; in 1474, from which we have the text extant, forty-eight separate plays were included. The cycle is still occasionally performed today, only most productions tend to substitute the original Crucifixion sequence. The actors are Christ and the four soldiers who first nail him down (commenting on the neatness of the work), and then discover the cross has been badly constructed and Christ's arms and legs are too short. They proceed to dislocate the limbs with ropes, and complete raising the cross.

The whips and the crown of thorns were treated with animal blood so they would bleed. Also employed was a piece of stage machinery called a trebuchet, a turntable that allowed a dummy to be substituted for an actor. The dummy would be loaded with animal blood, and in other sequences, such as the torture and burning of martyrs, animal intestines and other bits to provide for realistic disembowelment, and realistic crackling and smell.

1585 AD

The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd was performed almost continuously for twenty years and was published in ten editions. It contains eight on-stage murders and suicides, a public hanging and a man having his tongue bitten out. How did they do it? By the actor having a severed lamb's tongue in his mouth, how else? Bladder of sheep's blood concealed beneath costumes would be opened by the real weapons used in stage fights. To show just how widespread the taste for such things was, consider the following Elizabethan plays:

Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine from 1587 gives a props list, including pile of severed limbs. His Doctor Faustus, produced some time before 1604 features a sequence where two knights attempt to murder Faustus and decapitate him, only to see him rise up. The exact directions read Enter Faustus with false head.


saw William Shakespeare's notorious Titus Andronicus, where every second stage direction is Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand. There is also this little piece of business;
Hark wretches! How I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whiles that Lavinia 'tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood...
[He cuts their throats]
Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy in 1607 contain such gems as Enter an officer with a bleeding head in his hand; and magnificent and practical use of the motif of the skull, which the antihero Vindice is discovered meditating upon in the first scene, and which he later forces the Duke to kiss. But my favourite bit of business must be in John Webster's 1613 The Duchess of Malfi, when the Duchess, imprisoned in the darkness realises the hand she has been clinging to is one freshly severed.

After this, gruesome spectacle faded from the scene and with it the effects; indeed, it was only in 1730 that the renowned French author Victor Hugo reintroduced on-stage death as a (semi) acceptable convention. The double suicide in Hernani, along with the deliberately non-classical metre and language that marked it as one of the first New French plays, caused a full-scale riot on its premiere.


Matthew 'Monk' Lewis' play The Castle Spectre appears, amidst much assurance that, although by the infamous author, it is a perfectly respectable piece. The following is the direction for the appearance of the Castle Spectre;
The folding-doors close, and the oratory is seen illuminated. In its centre stands a tall female figure, her white and flowing garments spotted with blood; her veil is thrown back and discovers a pale and melancholy countenance; her eyes are lifted upwards, her arms extended toward heaven, and a large wound appears upon her bosum.
All of which indeed sounds quite staid next to George Colman the Younger's Bluebeard in 1798;
The door instantly sinks with a tremendous crash, and the Blue Chamber appears streaked with vivid streams of blood. The figures in the picture over the door change their position, and Abomelique is represented in the action of beheading the beauty he was before supplicating. The picture and devices of love change to subjects of horror and death. The interior apartment (which the sinking of the door discovers) exhibits various tombs in a sepulchral building, in the midst of which ghostly and supernatural forms are seen -- some in motion, some fixed. In the centre is a large skeleton seated on a tomb (with a dart in his hand), and over his head in characters of blood is written
The Punishment Of Curiosity.
After the duel scene the skeleton gets up and stabs Bluebeard through the heart with the dart. The gothic melodrama made great use of the advances in stage engineering, as may perhaps be gathered. Simulation of events as vast and dramatic as possible was the vogue. Two mechanisms that directly concern us are the 'Vampire' Trap and the 'Corsican' Trap, also known as the 'Ghost Glide'. The 'Vampire' was invented for James Planché's 1820 adaption of Polidori's The Vampyr. It involved two spring leaves that parted under pressure and immediately reclosed. Placed in the floor or stage wall, it could give the impression a figure was passing through solid matter. The 'Corsican', made for Dion Boucicault's 1852 adaption of Alexandre Dumas' The Corsican Brothers, involved an ascending track, on which a wheeled cart could be run, rising up out of the stage through a 'bristle' trap -- a trapdoor covered with bristles painted to match the scenery. Once on the stage and in view, the track was covered by a sliding arrangement reminiscent of that of a roll-top desk; towhit, nothing was seen except the ghost rising up through the floor and gliding across the stage.


The first stage adaption of Sweeny Todd. Taken by George Pitt from Thomas Prest's original magazine serial of that year, it featured its own especial trapdoor -- attached to the barber's chair. Sweeny Todd received numerous adaptions, continuing to be staple of the melodramatic stage into the turn of the century. The chair, and certain other elements were, however, present from the first, as pointed out in the Times obituary for the old melodrama actor Tod Slaughter, in 1956.
Over four thousand times as Sweeny Todd he severed jugulars and brought horror to the faces of his audiences as rich, red cochineal spurted from his property razor.


Oscar Metenier's Theatre le Grand Guignol opened in the Montmatre quarter of Paris. The theatre made its mark and spawned its imitators by producing short pieces based entirely around acts of violence and grue performed in full view of the audience. A night at the Grand Guignol was apparently considered a test of sophistication. The following is from a critique of the American tour in 1927.
A noisy, violent sketch of a night in a French Consulate during the Boxer uprising... machine gun firing, shrieks, maniacal laughter are heard with terrible descriptions of torture -- eyes gouged out, breasts torn off, nails plucked from fingers. One even saw one mutilated fellow run in with his hands cut off. Thereafter the play began to be disagreeable.
The popularity of these plays was such that the original theatre lasted until 1964.


and the Edison 'kinetoscope' played the proto-films produced by Thomas Edison's company, in 'peep-show' booths for the paying public. One of these popular new attractions was The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. A royally robed and bound actor was led to the block and her head placed upon it. Edison then stopped recording, substituted a dummy and when it started again the executioner let fly. The head falls and rolls; the consternation of the original audience was reportedly dramatic of itself.


In the same year as the well known Trip to the Moon by George Méliès, the English experimentor G.A. Smith produced Mary Jane's Mishap, a genuine film using double exposures to create uncanny effects. Mary Jane, a maid, is attempting to light a fire; in frustration she pours gasoline into the stove, causing an explosion in which she is killed. In the cemetery, her friends gather by her tombstone but flee in terror when her ghostly figure appears.

And here, my friends, we enter the technicolour and well-charted territory of modern special effects. Which, as everybody knows, are a blatant and tasteless exploitation of pain and suffering that can appeal only to violence freaks and could only happen in our soulless modern era. Let's get back to good old-fashioned entertainment!


[47] The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, ed. Jack Sullivan.

* The Mystery and Horrible Murders of Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Peter Haining, Frederick Muller, England, 1979.

* English Melodrama, Michael R. Booth, Herbert Jenkins, London, 1965.

* History of the Theatre, Oscar G. Brockett, Allyn and Bacon, 6th ed. 1991 (1968).

* A Mirror to Life, A History of Western Theatre, Grose/Kenworthy, Holt/Rinehart, 1988.


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