The continuous adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 allegorical shilling shocker, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, can, as Brian Rose suggests, 'serve as a "tracer" of shifts in attitudes' (1996: 1). Analysis of even a small sampling ofjekyll and Hyde adaptations reveals that the films' representations of two passages in Stevenson's novella are especially pertinent to inquiries into shifting constructions of masculinity. The first concerns the secret pleasures that led the doctor to see the duality of his identity long before the invention of Hyde; in recounting his tale, Jekyll explains:
And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures.
The second passage makes Hyde's horrific cruelty into a spectacle by having a woman witness Carew's murder. Stevenson's narrator sets the scene by telling the reader that 'a maid servant living alone ... had gone upstairs to bed'. The narrator continues:
It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box, which stood immediately under the window, and fell into a dream of musing. And as she sat she became aware of an aged and beautiful gentleman ... and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman ... next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.
These moments of revelation that establish JekylTs inherent duality and the necessity of a female witness to establish Hyde's potency, are defining features of the four films I will discuss. These are all films that have been shaped by the picture personalities1 and performances of their stars John Barrymore, Fredric March, Spencer Tracy and John Malkovich. Studying them, I have been struck by the ways in which the productions have mobilised their leading actors' star-images to flesh out narratives that have, over the course of a century, increasingly suppressed the idea that Jekyll's secret pleasures might have something to do with 'a certain impatient gaiety of disposition', and increasingly developed the idea that seeing the effects of Hyde's 'ape-like fury' causes women -figuratively vulnerable because alone at night or literally vulnerable because a servant, daughter or prostitute economically dependent on men - to faint. Moving from narratives that centre on the ethical anguish of Victorian gentlemen to films that focus on the psychic problems of tough guys and new age men, the four films increasingly equate 'true' masculine identity with potential and/or actual violence against women in particular.
While analyses of the films' narrative trajectories have led audiences to discuss Christian, Darwinian and Freudian allegories in the texts, using insights from star studies reminds one that these Jekyll and Hyde productions have consistently invited their audiences to experience performances of masculinity.2 Studying the ways that Barrymore, March, Tracy and Malkovich have portrayed the connection between the doctor and his transgressive self can be deeply troubling, for audiences from various eras have been invited to enjoy permutations on a central, abiding vision of masculinity; namely, that unlicensed sexual activity and violence against 'strangers' is the most conclusive sign of hard masculinity. The actors' performances can also provide a great deal of information about star performances, for in the films I have considered their performances resonate on more than one register. The stars' masterful and disturbing performances not only prove the true manliness of acting, an 'intellectual' and therefore suspect profession, they also demonstrate the true manliness of 'intellectual' Dr Jekyll, a character whose masculinity is confirmed by the flamboyant display of his shared identity and inner struggle with Hyde.
Was this article helpful?