Theatre Nights: The Hero


Sandman Mystery Theatre 69-70. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
It’s been a strange time in Manhattan.
A month has passed since the end of The Goblin. Christmas has passed and we are coming up on New Year, the advent of the Forties.
Russia has invaded Finland and O’Grady’s buying a paper to read about it. Burke doesn’t think about it, but O’Grady upbraids him: people not thinking about things is why the world is as it is. Burke’s definitely mellowing, because he hasn’t got an acid retort.
In fact, he’s been seeing Doris regularly this past month and is starting to have certain ideas.
Larry Belmont has been recuperating in hospital, and is about to be sent home with a nurse. Dian’s been visiting him every day in the Hospital. She’s also been visiting Wesley’s house every day, but only to work in her office. She hasn’t been staying at night, an act of contrition over the guilt she feels for his heart attack.
Dian’s intent on resolving all the loose ends in her life before the new decade starts. She’s finished her novel, she tells the publisher Richard Manten introduced her to that it’s good and he’ll want to publish it. The only loose end she hasn’t been able to work out is Wesley. Wesley hasn’t been to see Larry yet. Wesley hasn’t found the words, nor the courage.
Strangest of all though is Wesley himself. The thought of being confronted by Larry has him paralysed, but more than that, though he continues to dream, Wesley has not put on the gasmask.
And now there’s another killer, a man dressed as a soldier of the Great War (with Sandman-esque gasmask). He is actually such a soldier, a man abandoned, believed dead, now returned and taking bloody vengeance on those who betrayed him. Burke and O’Grady pull the case.
But where normally Wesley would be on the trail, he’s got other things on his mind: a letter from Poland, delivered by hand through the auspices of Janos Prohaska (told you he wasn’t dead). It’s a plea for help from Gerald Dodds: Wesley’s brother.
In view of our knowledge of the imminent demise of this series, the left field appearance of a hitherto unmentioned and even unsuggested brother smacks of contrivance. Which it is. But it has to be allowed that it is wholly within Wesley Dodds’ character as we have known him throughout this season not to talk about his family.
Gerald fills in the background for us in his appeal for Wesley’s help: he is trapped in the Warsaw ghetto thanks to having been fingered as half-Jewish, and has no other recourse.
The brothers haven’t seen each since Paris, 1918, a visit organised with their father. Gerald – who is presumably older than Wesley – received a public violent slap across the face for paying more attention to Parisian women than his father’s commentary. Both brothers were upset about Edward Dodds flaunting his new mistress in front of them so soon after their mother’s death, but it was Gerald who took action by seducing her and making sure they were discovered.
Gerald was sent away, and disowned. No doubt Wesley’s sending away, to school in the Far East, followed shortly. The two have had no contact since. Gerald has lived his own life seemingly without any resentment at losing his ‘inheritance’. He has no claim on Wesley, save only that if the roles were reversed, he would come to his brother’s assistance.
Wesley’s resentful of the intrusion, inclined immediately to be dismissive of Gerald, but already family sympathy – combined with the restlessness he currently feels about his life in New York – prompts him towards what would be required to simply abandon his life to fly off.
The beginning of that process is contacting Hubert Klein in the Medical Examiner’s office. Klein’s concerned about the latest killer and assumes that’s what the Sandman is on to him about, but before they can progress, he is knocked out from behind.
This is what it takes to get Wesley into his gasmask, racing off to the precinct with Dian. Unfortunately, it’s icy, there’s a commotion near the precinct where the soldier is being pursued, and the car skids on the ice when Dian brakes suddenly, but it knocks down a pedestrian. It’s Burke.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the Soldier wielding a grenade, the Crimson Avenger trying to shoot him and the Hourman, trying to bring him in alive. Three superheroes, each in costume, in each other’s faces until Dian, in her ‘Sandy’ mask tips the balance in Sandman’s favour.
That’s the climax to the First Act: the next decade is clearly going to be very different.
The mis-matched trio do follow the soldier, without getting anywhere or ever reconciling: the Avenger even protests being hauled out of the blast zone of a grenade by Hourman’s speed! But their presence, the knowledge that there are others who can be left to protect the city, helps speed Wesley’s decision. The case goes unresolved, at least in the pages of the second and final Act, as Wesley begins to lay down the threads of his New York life.
Judge Schaffer reappears in time to offer a convenient plane to the Polish Resistance. Wesley promotes his secretary to Business Manager: she is, after all, his only employee.
Dian gets a call from her publisher: she is right, her novel is good and he does want to publish it: a contract is in the post.
Burke survives the accident, bruised but otherwise unhurt. It’s enough to affect his temper into kicking off before Doris, but despite her exposure to his darker side, she accepts his proposal and agrees to marry him.
The Sandman visits Burke in his office to announce his disappearance. He leaves files with Burke to assist him on previous cases. Burke is never going to reconcile himself to the age of heroes that is fast overtaking New York, but he accepts the truce, and the Sandman departs, unaware that behind his back, Burke calls him Dodds.
Wesley even manages to visit Larry, on his return home, to apologise and to assure (without once mentioning the M word) that Dian is and always will be the centre of his heart and that he will protect her for the rest of his life. It satisfies Larry, at least until the end of the Act, though we may presume a change of heart in view of what follows.
And lastly there is Dian. Wesley wants her with him, but she still cannot bridge that last gap without more. At the airfield, he takes her aside, gives her a ring that belonged to his mother, takes her as his wife in the heart (though not in any legal or religious sense). That is enough for Dian, enough for her to agree to join him in the plane, which takes off and flies away from New York.
And it’s done. The case is never solved. Whether the Hourman or the Crimson Avenger brings in the soldier, who he is, what lies behind his rampage, we will never know, for that story is completed in the issues 71 and 72 of Sandman Mystery Theatre that can be found only in Lucien’s Library in the Dreaming, in the section devoted to books their author imagined but never wrote. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it was never part of the story. Like so many plays, the murders were a backdrop to what mattered.
Some of it is a little unconvincing: it’s stretching credibility that Wesley Dodd’s business empire is run solely by himself and one secretary, no other employees and the times are not conducive to a female CEO. Equally, the sudden revelation that Burke knows who the Sandman is comes equally out of left field, and is based on no evidence in this or any previous Act. It’s neat but the deduction is pretty mystical.
But it’s a wrap-up. It’s about ending things in as stable a manner as possible, and sometimes strict plausibility has to be sacrificed when all you have is 24 pages. The Mystery Theatre would never open again. Burke and Doris, O’Grady on the edge of his promotion, Larry Belmont’s medical condition, Hubert Klein, Judge Schaffer, none of these would be seen again, their lives interrupted.
The lights fall, save for spotlights trained on the leading man and the leading lady, that follow them as they turn and disappear into the wings. The cast remain, frozen, in darkness, until the audience, silent and shuffling, have left the Theatre. Behind them, a commissionaire in besplendent uniform closes and bars the door. As the final members of the audience walk down the steps, the lights within go out. We do not know if the actors ever return to their dressing rooms, removing one final time the greasepaint, wigs and costumes that have sustained their repertoire for this season of plays.
The Mystery Theatre stands dark and deserted. Only ghosts perform there now.

Theatre Nights: The Goblin


Sandman Mystery Theatre 65-68. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Goblin is a superb play, both sublime and tragic. It is sublime due to its deft interweaving of the crime that it tells with the overarching development of Wesley and Dian’s relationship. It puts Dian Belmont front and centre in a way she has never been before, showcasing both her vulnerabilities and the inner strengths that none suspected lay in her in The Tarantula. It starts hares that would have far-reaching consequences on the story as it lay to progress in coming months. It encompassed a whole-hearted declaration of love from Dian that, for once, came from a position of strength and not weakness.
It is tragic because this was the last full play the Mystery Theatre would perform. Falling sales had led to Sandman Mystery Theatre being cancelled with effect from issue 70. Two Acts, a truncated, deliberately unfinished play to deliberately disrupt the carefully developed sequence of almost six years work.
The Goblin is magnificent in itself, and glorious in terms of what it promised to foreshadow. But we would never discover those promises.
The story began in banal circumstances. A baby cries in the night, disturbing the sleep of its parents (in Hays Code approved single beds: an intriguing detail). She, unconcerned, wants to go back to sleep, he, worried, goes to check on their little man.
They are being robbed, of cash and baby, by the ‘Goblin’: a strange, misshapen, grunting, long-armed, long-legged, horribly ugly little man. The Goblin beats his head in with a bottle, then uses it to brain the wife when she comes running.
We have a murder, and we will have Burke and O’Grady on the case, but first we have a dream: Wesley has dropped off briefly, at the Belmont house for a dinner insisted upon by a DA, who’s running late. Larry wants to speak to Wesley about Dian, about how much she sees of him, how often she stays at his house: in short, Larry wants to know about Wesley’s intentions! And Wesley, who has allowed himself to think that this issue is solely between himself and Dian, and is thus settled, has no answer. Larry warns him he’s going to have to come up with one, and soon.
Wesley seeks his usual refuge from such issues in the Sandman. To avoid thinking about it, he plans to spend the night monitoring the Police radio bands.This leads to him catching Burke and O’Grady’s assignment and rushing out to reconnoitre. He’s not alone: the Goblin is also on the rooftops. When he runs, the Sandman pursues, but where the agile little monster ca clear the gap between roof and roof, the Sandman cannot. He falls.
He’s lucky enough to fall into the back of a garbage truck, which breaks his fall, but the Sandman is plainly not right. Some sort of head injury, a concussion at least. He’s not in his right mind for the rest of the play, his cryptic utterances muddled and strange, his actions paranoid and dangerous. He accuses and attacks innocent passers-by, folding them into his pursuit of the missing child. He attacks Humphries at one point, even tries to do the same to Dian. And though he does bring down the villain at the end, it is unknowingly, by coincidence.
In short, he becomes a menace equal to those he pursues. The lot of saving and solving falls solely upon Dian.
I’ve jumped ahead slightly in relating that. It’s easy, on a superficial reading, to attribute the Sandman’s confusion, his madness, upon the injuries he sustains in his fall, but there are deeper issues here.
Larry’s question, his incipient disapproval – reinforced by a coversation with Humphries about a ‘hypothetical’ instance where Etta might be sleeping with a man outside of matrimony in which Humphries is insistent that no father could approve – is what drives Wesley downstairs to his laboratory. But he cannot concentrate until he dons the Sandman’s gas mask and fedora – a pathetic sight as rendered by Davis.
Before that comes two panels that chill me, as Wesley defends himself to himself:
“No matter what we’ve been through of late – I can’t be held responsible for Dian’s happiness or reputation if they come at the cost of my own beliefs.”
And:
“In the end, I know I’ll do what’s logical…” (emphasis in original).
Those words horrify me, frighten me. I can’t recognise love in them, nor humanity. Even reading them now, fifteen years after the event, I crave to know what consequences would have followed from those thoughts. But they are nothing but a ghost trail.
But despite obliterating himself in the Sandman, Wesley Dodds sleeps. And its in his dreams that he hears the vital Police message, compelling him into rushing out, in daylight, without thought of concealment, almost knocking Dian down. What follows for the Sandman is not solely the result of concussion, no indeed.
Dian’s on the spot because she’s moving in. That is, she’s accepted Wesley’s old offer of establishing a writing office at his home, and she’s here to set up. The decision, taken the preeceding night, after Wesley’s ‘talk’ with Larry, is another factor in his concerns.
Etta, Humphries’ daughter, is firmly established in the household, without however relinquishing any of her poliotical beliefs (later in the play, Davis depicts her as having taken to wearing trousers!). Before Dian even starts, Etta’s persuaded her to join her in volunteering, at All God’s Children Orphanage, a private insitution set up by socialite Carmen Bohage (not out of charity but for social kudos).
By accident, this brings Dian into the heart of the Sandman’s case. We already know there is something rotten there, as we’ve seen Mrs Bohage delivering unwanted children to the far less salubrious surroundings of Standard House, a public orphanage as grim as they come, owned/run by the hardened Mr Ricketts.
Etta is impossible, utterly unmaternal, martinet-like, but Dian is a natural with the children, almost too good for Mrs Bohage. The presence of the children, her feelings for them, spurs Dian on to the final step: she insists her father be home early where she will finally unburden herself over the secret of her abortion.
But things get in the way. Dian has already arranged a literary dinner with Richard Manten, the essayist, having reminded him that she is firmly spoken for. In the course of the play, Manten will a) extravagantly praise Dian’s budding novel, b) arrange for an (initially) disappointing interview with his publisher and c) kiss her, though again we will never get to find out where Seagle planned to take this diversion.
However, between her appointment with Manten, and her late arrival home after Mrs Bohage sends her to Standard House – where her eyes are horrifyingly opened – Dian leaves herself no time to talk to her father, a missed opportunity with terrible consequences.
The following day, Dian takes the decision to transfer her services to Standard House. The children there are in greater need of love, but whilst Ricketts accepts Dian, he is insistent that she stay within strict bounds: in his strange, cruel way, Ricketts does care for his inmates, even the malformed and misshapen kept in virtual prison. He refuses to allow them kindness and hope that will last only as long as someone is bothered to do so. It’s a bleak philosophy.
But in Burke and O’Grady’s world, evidence leads them towards Standard House. Ricketts has a (distant) criminal past and the bundles of cash in his desk drawer call attention to him. At  All God’s Children, Etta recognises the birthmark of a recently abandoned baby as being the stolen child, and goes to tell Dian
But Dian has other things on her mind. Only a night after not telling her father when she meant to, the truth bursts out in terrifying manner. An overpaid bill from Sunny Hills, initially sent to Wesley Dodds and re-directed here has been opened by Larry. Larry knows about Sunny Hills, and knows the only reason people go there. Larry wants to be told that what he knows isn’t true, hasn’t happened. And Dian can’t do that.
He rants and raves. Dian cries. He accuses her of whorish behaviour and she defiantly takes the name, if it’s meant to apply to her being a woman and loving a man. He forbids her from ever seeing Wesley again. She refuses his orders. He collapses with a heart attack.
Thankfully, Larry survives. Even more so, his first thought on wakening is to assure his guilt-stricken daughter that it really is not her fault.
This bombshell unexpeectedly brings about the solution. The sick Sandman is drawn to the hospital, only to be sent away by Dian in hatred and fury. She goes to the Precinct to tell whoever needs to know, where she meets Burke. He’s there after the DA’s assistance, and even his gnarled heart – increasingly softened as it is by the eager Doris – is nudged by it.
But he’s still Homicide, and if Dian’s been at Standard House he wants her handwriting to eliminate her from the billhead clue.
Suddenly, everybody converges on Standard House. Dian and Etta, to aid the unspervised children.The Sandman, pursuing the Goblin, driven by a dream of Dream, who tells him he can no longer hide but must wake. Carmen Bohage to dump another child, carrying a note from the cleaner, Clara, the handwriting of which Dian recognises. Burke and O’Grady, pursuing Mrs Bohage after Etta’s tip-off.
And Danny, the Goblin-child, a mute, polio-infected child being used by his mother, Clara, to steal money so that they can afford at last to have a home where she can take care of him. The murders were never meant, the fruit of panic.
The Sandman gasses Clara and Danny. Dian manages to get him to go home, to safety. Burke now seriously wants to know why Miss Belmont is always getting mixed up in his cases.
One last resolution remains. The Sandman is back home, still paranoid and fearful. With words of love, with a fearless determination to resolve what is wrong, Dian persuades Wesley out of his mask, into his real life. No longer oppressed by circumstances, openly and freely Dian declares her love and commitment to her man. And Wesley, going into this with cruel rationality, emerges broken, emotionally cracked, sobbing desperately for the child he lost.
Dian reassures him, cradling him like that infant. Remember that both of this pair lost their mothers when young, that Wesley’s father sent him to the other side of the world to be educated, alone and distant. She promises him, if and when the time comes, they will have their child (that the time never comes, not in that way, is a sorrow only the reader knows).
It’s a powerful story, even despite the careless slip that has Danny the Goblin named Jimmy in the Third Act. It trailed many developments (as well as those I’ve indicated in the narrative, there is Dian’s mention of the hitherto un-referenced murder of her cousin Buck, which Seagle would not have brought up without an intention).
All of it gone, all of it lost. The Goblin was written and drawn unknowing of the closure of the Theatre. Seagle’s next task was to be to turn off the house lights in only two Acts.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance. Before we come to that last play of our season, they will act out two sketches featuring our leading man.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: The City


Sandman Mystery Theatre 61-64. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The departure of Matt Wagner was meant to open up a new era for the Mystery Theatre. Steven T Seagle was full of ideas, not least that the hitherto rigid four-Act format of the series might be varied, suggesting three-Act and five-Act plays would now start to appear. And he delivered a taster of what might be in his first solo effort, The City, by adopting a Rashomon approach that interlaced a series of contemporaneous stories, each seen through the eyes of a different cast member, whose interactions repeat and reflect from differing viewpoints across the four Acts.
The crime of this story is a simple one, solved by the sandman in a single Act. A protection racket enforcer bullies two Italian barbers, father and son, one of whom cuts his throat. As he is the third they have disposed of, they desperately need to dispose of the bodies. They do this by dragging them into an abandoned warehouse and setting light to it, but the fire is put out before the bodies are too badly burned.
Because a witness has seen a man dragging the bodies, the two Prima’s are put into a line-up at the Police Station. The witness picks both out but cannot distinguish between them, until the son confesses, trying to exonerate his father. But the Sandman intervenes that night, forcing the father to confess: the throats were cut by a left-handed person and his son is right handed. Wesley returns home to find Dian in his laboratory: the two go to bed and make love for the first time since the abortion.
That’s Wesley’s day (and narrative). It begins with Dian watching him in bed as he sleeps. She rushes off after breakfast, which Wesley has made himself since Humphries has, reluctantly, asked for personal time off. Burke is at the line-up, though he’s not handling the Prima’s case: his own line-up is next.
But in the second Act we see the day from Dian’s perspective (and narrative). It begins with her thoughts as Wesley sleeps, but she then takes a phone call from a contact who she hopes can advance her literary ambitions. He has seen the latest chapters arrive from the mysterious recluse, Gerald Leavy. But this tme there is a clue as to the elegant Leavy’s wherabouts, the return address of what proves to be a very seedy Staten Island private hotel. Dian heads out to the Island to try to find him.
The hotel is indeed seedy, and the Leavy who lives there is a drunken, illiterate brute obsessed with his money. A less likely writer could hardly be found, and cetainly not someone capable of the work of a true stylist. With the aid of another writer at the hotel, Richard Manten, a socialist essayist, equally sceptical that ‘Leavy’ could possibly be Leavy, Miss Belmont investigates, even to the extent of borrowing Wesley’s old Sandman gas-mask and a spare gas-gun.
The mystery is not difficult to divine once Dian brings the gas gun rather wildly into play. The real Leavy lives in a nearby sanatorium, no longer able to walk due to his opium addiction. The drunken brue of the hotel is merely a front to maintain his privacy. Behind the gas-mask, Dian gets to talk literature for hours. She has only just returned Wesley’s things when he returns from his mission.
The Third Act is devoted to Humphries’ day. Despite the freedom and respect Wesley Dodds presses on him, Leslie Humphries is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, always putting his master’s needs first. But on this occasion he is forced, reluctantly, to ask for a day to deal with personal matters, because these relate to his daughter, Ella.
We have already seen a be-wigged young woman performing for stag films, but being dragged out by a Polish lover who wants her covered. Now Humphries is visited by one of his colleagues who, having cleared up his master’s latest stag film, has taken a clip of the film from which Humphries is horrified to recognise Ella. She is supposed to be in Canada, visiting relatives.
Weak though he is, and in many ways unworldly, Humphries begins a search in the New York porn industry for Ella, determined upon rescuing her from what vile forces have forced her into this life. In the end, he locates her, and brings her back to the mansion, but the true story is very different. Ella is acting willingly, to raise money for the communist cause, of which she is a passionate convert: the Polish man was, indeed, her lover.
Nevertheless, she consents to go back to the Dodds mansion with her worried father, unrepentant of her beliefs yet willing to accept his parental direction to the extent of seeking a more ‘respectable’ course in life. Humphries is, for the moment, content. Ella, on the other hand, is determined to kick against the traces: what she has done is deemed to be whorish, whereas Miss Belmont sleeps openly with Master Dodds. An interesting point.
These three stories surround each other, their common moments building into a more comprehensive whole. The Fourth Act, which is dedicated to Lieutenant Burke, is something of an interloper. Burke’s participation in the stories of the Sandman, Dian and Humphries has been largely peripheral: he has taken a call from Humphries when the latter was trying to report the making of films and promised to pass it on to Vice (and we see in Burke’s Act that he does make a point of pressing the case). But his concern is with an unrelated case, the death of a young man, dropped from the Staten Island funfair big-dipper for failing to pay debts.
It’s our first chance to look under Burke’s skin, to understand something of his sourness, with life and with himself. Burke only has the Law: he sees himself unfit for decent people.
But in between Acts, Weaver has re-introduced him to Doris, a nice looking woman in her late thirties who has always liked Tony Burke. The Lieutenant is beginning to see that there may be a choice for him where before there has not only been no choices, but he has proudly espoused his life as being entirely fit and right for him.
Even the case of the murdered boy is an expression of his nascent need to want to be seen as worthy in Dorus’s eyes. The lad may have been killed outside Manhatten, but he’s a cousin of Doris’s, and that makes him family. With O’Grady in tow, Burke heads off precinct, relying on the custom that allows him to dip into another station’s work.
Burke’s promised a result to Doris, and in pursuit of this, knowing that her family relationship makes her a target to the two killers, he asks her and her sister to pose as targets at Coney Island. Though scared, Doris trusts in Tony to protect them. And Tony Burke is as good as his word: though Weaver takes a flesh wound, Burke corners the killers and, happily, returns fire, killing both without a moment of remorse.
It makes him more of a hero with Doris. Yet Burke takes only satisfaction at having ended the threat of two vicious men, any displays none of the vicious pleasure we would usually expect from his coarseness. He’s becoming concious of the desire to rise above what he’s been. He asks to start seeing Doris, and she happily obliges. A happy ending.
But not for Seagle. The City was the only experiment he would be able to write, and though he got his wish to write a non-four-Act story, it came in circumstances that no-one would have wished. Six months after the end of The City, Sandman Mystery Theatre would ring down its curtain for the last time.
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 Goblin.
Break a leg.