Who Drood It?: Strangers in Fiction

I started rehearsing for a new show this week. Which means, of course, I’m about to think way too much about things. Welcome to the Mystery of Edwin Drood version of my nattering.

I’m three-quarters of the way through the book the musical’s based on, though I think I’ve hit just about all of the chapters on which the scenes in the show are based. I think the first act uses maybe five chapters of the book as the basis for scenes. Which is fine, since Drood the musical is far more about having fun with conventions–of the theatre in general, of musicals in specific, of whodunnits, of Dickens himself. So, really, you grab enough from the source material to build a base on, and go from there.

There are things I miss, of course, though they’re almost all ancillary characters who don’t build the plot so much as they let Dickens have a good time lampooning character types: the self-important Philanthropist, the stern and all-seeing headmistress, that sort of thing.1

The only song I’m kind of torn about from an adaptation point of view is “Perfect Strangers.” It’s a really pretty song, and I love its sentiment, but I find myself thinking about the chapter than inspired it. It goes a bit like this:

Drood and his fiancée, Rosa Bud,2 are constantly quarreling. Which is understandable in context. Their respective parents promised them to one another when they were little children, then both sets of parents managed to sod off to the other side. This is Dickens, after all. Orphans are important.

Anyway, the guardians of each child kept to those promises, so that both young people grew up knowing there was a marriage waiting for them. Rebelliousness was bound to follow. Since both are good-ish young folk, they don’t take their frustrations out on their caregivers, but each other. Because displacement is also an important Dickensian value.

Rosa’s tired of all the quarreling, though. She wants to have a pleasant stroll, so she makes a suggestion: let’s the two of us pretend we don’t know one another. Drood, she says, should imagine and act as if he is affianced to someone else entirely, while Rosa will imagine and pretend to be someone who has just met him.3

Drood agrees, and off they go, both their spirits lifted at this proposition. At which point, Rosa decides the best way to maintain the charade is to ask Drood about his imaginary fiancée.

Oh, dear Rosa, and it was going so well.

Our good master Edwin proceeds to answer each query by describing his imaginary mate, whom he feels is the pinnacle of perfection, as exactly the opposite of Rosa in every single way. Physically, she is tall where Rosa short, with a larger nose to Rosa’s small one. Oh, and she’s interested in every single thing that Rosa objects to. Why, she’s the perfect woman!

To be sure, Rosa doesn’t let it all go. She’s got quite a few things to say about how awkward, unsightly, and socially malformed the poor imaginary girl must be.

There’s a lot of scoffing and taunting involved, which made me giggle repeatedly. It’s sort of a Dickensian version of that rom-com scene where the two eventual lovers are squaring off against each other, trading quips in an effort to get the upper hand. Not that I think there aren’t enough of those scenes, but I found myself kind of tickled to find it from the man known for stories involving strangled prostitutes, child labor abuses, and any number of other sullen social injustices.

It doesn’t paint either Drood or Rosa in an especially lovely light, mind, which is probably the real reason it’s replaced. In the context of the faux-play being presented, the theatre troop is trying to set up its heroes and heroines a little more cleanly. Plus: pretty songs are pretty.

I’m just saying: Dickensian rom-com is kind of awesome subtext for the pretty, mournful love song, no?

1. This pruning, sadly, means that no one on stage gets to go by the name Luke Honeythunder, a name which is made of a ridiculous amount of win for making me wonder if Dickens was predicting 70’s porn, but we can’t have everything, I suppose.[back]
2. Drood spends most of the book referring to Rosa as “Pussy.” Yes, I know that’s not what it meant. It’s still amusing because I am twelve in my brain. If I’m feeling especially childish another time, I’ll quote you the really amazing string of dialogue that makes use of Rosa’s nickname in the book.[back]
3. It may not escape your notice that, in this fantasy scenario, Rosa still attaches Drood with upcoming spousal responsibilities, but makes herself a free agent. Never let it be said that our heroine is without guile.[back]

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