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Deconstructing the Satire of “Irma Vep”

Like dissecting a laboratory specimen in a science lab, analyzing humor can be an insightful experience, but at the same time can have a devastating effect on the subject under analysis: soaking humor in formaldehyde and putting it under the knife tends to extinguish its life. With that disclaimer, dear theater-goer, continue at your risk.

Charles Ludlam’s satiric spoof The Mystery of Irma Vep, the current show on stage at the Peninsula Players Theatre, casts a broad net over the cinematic and literary subjects of its ridicule. The humor of the production is evoked not only by slapstick funny business, men parading in women’s clothing, and unexpected absurd situations, but through the audience’s ability to get it, to understand the punch-line of the play’s jokes.

A serialized 19th-century penny-dreadful novel and four classic black and white films from the 1930s and 40s are the main subjects of Ludlam’s satire. In addition, he briefly zings works of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Omar Khayyam, and even Matthew’s gospel.

The plot of the play involves the second marriage of ancient Egypt expert Lord Edgar Hillcrest to his second wife Lady Enid Hillcrest, a former actress. They live on their estate Mandacrest and are served by the housekeeper Jane Twisden and the groundskeeper Nicodemus Underwood. Tension is created by the ethereal presence of the late first Lady Hillcrest, Irma Vep, whose painted portrait keeps watch over the comedic melodrama. The action of the show includes the appearance of a werewolf, a vampire, and as the consequence of a visit to an Egyptian pyramid, an evil mummy brought to life. The resolution tests the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief as they enjoy the zany humor, amplified by the fact that all of the roles are played by two male actors with the help of a backstage crew that expedites lightning fast costume changes.

Fans of old movies will recognize the plot borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, during which a second wife battles the presence of the late first wife who continues to be championed by a harsh housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The production standards of early films – gauzy close-ups of the leading lady, heightened emotional responses, clumsy dialog, and primitive special effects – all lend themselves to satire.

The 1939 film Wuthering Heights based on Emily Brontë’s nineteenth-century novel provides both a Gothic setting and a tragic story of unrequited love as a target of parody. The film Americanized the English moors as well as the action, an invitation to satire. The ill-fated love of the central couple has comic overtones when it is transposed to the eccentric staff in Ludlam’s play.

Much of the delight in Irma Vep comes from intentional misapplication of traditional elements of horror. The vampire in the play takes on the archetype created by James Malcolm Rymer in the cheaply printed sensationalized (hence “penny dreadful”) serialized story of Varney the Vampire published from 1845-47. When the fit of vampirism comes over him, Varney has fangs and leaves neck puncture marks as he sucks the blood from his lovely long-haired voluptuous victims. Poor Lady Enid falls comic victim to this fate in the play.

The werewolf in Irma Vep draws heavily on the 1941 film The Wolfman with Lon Chaney, Jr., portraying the werewolf, and Bela Legosi, the previous werewolf who bites Chaney’s character, thus passing along the disorder. The primitive special effects of the makeup and cinematography of the time – Chaney’s character grows fur on his legs from pasted yak hair in a series of jerky takes – is parodied by the play’s werewolf who inelegantly takes a leak on a piece of furniture in the library-drawing room of Mandacrest.

The mummy in Irma Vep seems a direct descendent of Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Imotep in the 1932 film The Mummy. A mummy in his pyramid-tomb is accidentally brought to life as a young archeologist who reads a magical incantation from a scroll – with disastrous results. The mummy, of course, is scary with the decaying wrapped linen and other aspects of the mummification, but in the play, the fear becomes laughter.

In addition, some of the play’s humor results from brief out-of-context literary allusions. Those members of the audience who paid attention in their high school English classes will recognize the parody of Macbeth in “Sleep is dead. She hath murdered sleep;” of Hamlet in “From his fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring;” and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in “Damned spirits all, that in cross-ways floods have burial.” The “rapping, as if someone gently tapping” from Poe’s “Raven” and Oscar Wilde’s “Each man kills the thing he loves” from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” should sound familiar. Those who remember the ‘60s will recall Omar Khayyam’s “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, a book of verse and thou beside me” from The Rubaiyat.

“Sufficient unto the night [day] are the horrors [evil] thereof” may be found in Matthew 6: 34, and sufficient unto the audience will be the amusement thereof in the Player’s production of The Mystery of Irma Vep which runs through August 17. If you worry this explication of the satire in the play may kill the potential humor of the show for you, take a note from your high school playbook: leave your homework in your locker and enjoy whatever the evening might bring!