Sandman Mystery Theatre 53-56. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea) and Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Two things before we commence: the change in the dramatic credits signals a further distancing of originator Matt Wagner from the series that he originated. Henceforth, and for a short time, Wagner’s role will be to suggest themes – such as the world of nightly radio drama, and the fierce criticism it inspired – and to provide basic, rough plots. Steven Seagle, who has dialogued each play since The Vamp, ten plays back, now takes over plotting each story.
In the foyer of the letter column in the Final Act, Wagner’s further withdrawal is ascribed to his other commitments, especially the second part of his creator-owned Mage trilogy (as an aside, nearly twenty years on, there is still no sign of Wagner producing Mage 3, which leaves me fearing that the story will never be completed).
The other point is that reading The Crone in its individual issues is a very different experience to reading the graphic novels. What I’ve reviewed so far have been complete performances, page after page, without interruption or distraction, and I’ll always prefer that, but to have to fall back on the original comic, even without the monthly wait between cliffhanger and resolution, gives the story an entirely different feel.
It is more broken down, a thing of interruptions and distractions. Each Act exists as an artefact in itself, a new cover, a new entrance to be made at each stage. Adverts interrupt the flow, breaking down each Act into smaller chunks: four pages, then ads, four pages, then ads, six pages,ads, three pages.
And cliffhangers become real cliffhangers, the story poised in the arc of a leap, even if it takes literally seconds to close and put down an issue, pick up and open another. Even in those few seconds, the story is suspended, and an echo of those post-issue thoughts, the inevitable urge to outguess the creators, is triggered.
The play itself is set against the background of a nightly Radio soap opera, appropriately titled ‘The Coming of Night’ and, yes indeed, sponsored by a Soap Flakes company. The cast are, as may be expected, vastly different from their characters, and there are rivalries, hatreds and all sorts of other undercurrents at work.
And that’s before the programme finds itself subjected to a wave of murders, firstly of several successive leading men, but growing to include executives and the Producer. These murders are all committed by a dumpy, elderly woman using a sharpened hairpin, drawn from the bun and the back of her head, plunged through the victim’s neck to sever the carotid artery and then wiped fastidiously clean in the pages of a classic book which is then left by the victim.
As usual, Burke and the Sandman are rivals in seeking a solution to the latest series of Manhattan murders. But there’s an extraordinary scene in the Third Act where Burke arrives in his office to find the Sandman searching it. Astonishingly, Burke doesn’t make trouble, and it’s not just that he doesn’t want another gassing. He makes his dislike of the Sandman and his methods very plain, but for the first time he seems prepared to accept the Vigilante as an ally, as Larry Belmont has already done.
So Burke shares information, critical information as it turns out, that will lead the Sandman to the villain. And the Sandman promptly gasses him back to loathing: not the smartest of moves and one that the creators, when challenged, suggested was evidence of just how Wesley Dodds was disturbed by events in this play of greater import.
However, Burke’s willingness, however temporary, to deal with his personal demon is the first sign that our resident monster may be capable of change, may have been deeply affected by Gina’s murder in The Blackhawk. His encounter with the Sandman is immediately preceded by an encounter with an old friend/colleague, Detective Weaver, transferred back to Manhattan after a spell in the suburbs.
Weaver represents an older time, when Burke had had a personal life – a social life, even – and he wants to pick it up. After all, there’s Doris, his wife’s sister, who’s free again…
Burke runs away from both these suggestions, straight to his meeting with Sandman. But when Weaver repeats his offer in the Final Act, the case still unsolved, some of the fire seems to leave Burke. Let the case solve itself: he leaves with his colleague.
It’s not long after that the Sandman, with the aid of Wesley Dodds, solves the case. Throughout The Crone, he is his usually single-minded self, caught up in his obsession, expecting Dian to be his eager sidekick, with the same preoccupation, and to an unforgivable extent, turning his head away from what really fills her mind.
It’s a painful progression. An elderly academic, Dr Estelle Beauvedere, is set up as the potential killer. She’s the same size and age and her fervent, indeed ironclad belief that culture exists only in books and is incapable of being transmitted in any other form makes her into an inflexible opponent of other media, especially radio.
Indeed, the good Doctor inveighs against Radio’s jack-booted invasion of the home and its destructive effect on true culture in terms that, very shortly thereafter, would be universally applied to Hitler’s armies (the Declaration of War by Great Britain is announced in the background of the first scene of the play).
Wesley isn’t impressed in the slightest by Dr Beauvedere, but at least in the beginning Dian is, very much so. As is Dian’s old college friend, Nancy Fullbright, a bookshop owner and a junior Beauvedere in her opinions. Wesley’s dissection of the Doctor’s opinion, and his slightly patronising attitude to Nancy, also demonstrate how far he is from what is the central issue of this story.
Again, the crime, though entertaining of itself, is merely a backcloth for what is truly important. The good Doctor – too elderly, too frail – is not the killer, but once Wesley takes over sponsoring ‘The Coming of Night’ and threatens to sack the entire cast unless someone ‘fesses up, it draws out the true culprit, young Frank Bowman. Frank’s the perpetually hopeful but overlooked understudy to the leading man. Frank Bowman is also a stage name. For Francis Beauvedere.
I can’t resist a comparison between Bowman and his opposite number, Linda Rivers, understudy to the leading lady. The eager, unassuming Frank spends the entire play trying to get ahead but philosophically accepting his being passed over time after time. Linda, on the other hand, is a real, slimy shitbag, a poisonous toad willing to lie, slander and malign anyone in her way to get ahead. Nasty piece of work that she is, it’s her compliant counterpart who’s really killing people to get ahead.
I’ve spent more time on the plot than I’d intended, because the true heart of this play is the next stage of the ever-evolving relationship between Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds. And that little bombshell dropped at the end of Return of the Scarlet Ghost.
Because, though Dian has clearly recovered physically from her injuries, her thoughts now revolve around the life growing inside her. Aside from the medical staff, only Wesley knows of her condition. Her father remains unaware, and Dian intends that to be the case until she decides otherwise.
But what of the future? Dian is by no means thrilled by her pregnancy. She had expected to be so, when the time came, looked forward to it, but that was going to be a planned pregnancy,at a time of her choosing, and that’s not what she’s got.
Everything around her fills her with fear. She doesn’t feel ready. She’s only now beginning to wake up to herself, and her abilities, a process doomed to end if she takes on responsibility for another life, utterly dependent upon her. War is coming, War is here in Europe, her thoughts turn to Annabel and Roddy in England, who have just had a baby son. (There is a continuity issue here: Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten was not even pregnant in Sandman Midnight Theatre, a few months ago, and besides, Roddy was out east with his plantations). But most of all there is Wesley.
It’s not just his dedication to, or rather obsession with his second self, and the risks and danger attendant on that profession. It’s not his love, which is constant, vital and open. It’s certainly not fear that he won’t accept his responsibilities, because he’s as reassuring on that score as anyone could wish.
But he can’t be as reassuring as Dian wants, needs. For Miss Belmont knows, from conversations offstage with Mr. Dodds, that his youth in the Orient, his long years of exposure to Eastern thoughts and philosophies, have given him a set of iron convictions by which he lives.
Because Wesley Dodds has rejected marriage, rejected it as a concept, as a necessity for himself. Though he’s prepared, in every way, to make Dian his wife in every other possible respect, that final step is one that he cannot and will not take: he will not offer her the name and the certificate of marriage.
And Dian is equally the product of her own life, thoughts and convictions. To her, in all the ways that matter, she must have marriage. It’s an impossible impasse.
Stepping outside the story for a moment, I have sympathy with both positions. When the time came, I wanted to be married, but it made no difference: I was as committed without the ring as with. And I didn’t live in an age where marriage was expected. A good friend of mine was with his partner for over twenty years without marrying (though they’ve since gone and done it!). I see both viewpoints, even as I am closer to Dian’s views. And, frankly,Wesley’s behaviour pushes me into her camp.
Because, whilst Wesley does take the pregnancy seriously, and does want to do all the right things, he can only do that when he stops to listen to Dian. And that is only at intervals from what is clearly more important: the Crone.
Too many times, when Dian needs to be at the forefront of his thoughts, Wesley is not only absorbed in the murders, but assumes that this is his lover’s primary concern as well.
Though it is never specifically stated, Seagle and Davis impart the sense that it is this, more than anything, that persuades Dian to seek a termination. And, to be honest, I’m not at all happy with Wesley’s response: he doesn’t want it to take place, but then it’s Dian’s body and Dian’s decision, and it has to be all her choice. Pilate-like, he washes his hands of all responsibility. He’s got more important things to do.
(Needless to say, Dian comes around, rededicates herself to him and his cause, wholeheartedly, which I can’t help but think is very loaded-dice).
No, as at other times in this season, Wesley Dodds does not come out of this with his image enhanced.
The Final Act (and note how much more often I’ve referred to individual Acts in this review than when I have been dealing with a collected play) ends with Dian on her way to her termination, a comfortable and above all discreet journey to a respectable and confidential place where such things are done. It’s a contrast, violently so, to the parallel experience of ‘The Coming of Night’ actress Patricia Honeywell, pregnant by her married Producer and delivered by dodgy, uncaring associates to a back street abortionist from where she emerges in a very different state to how we know Dian Belmont will fare. All courtesy of Wesley’s very discreet doctor, Charles McNider. You know, his future Justice Society comrade, Dr Mid-Nite.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Cannon.
Break a leg.