Tomes of Terror: Beyond Grimm — Dramaturg’s notes

Three dramaturg’s notes by Amy Bennett-Zendzian, on three of the segments in Tomes of Terror: Beyond Grimm.

The Boy Who Drew Cats — Dramaturg’s Note

“The Boy Who Drew Cats” is one of a small number of Japanese tales comparatively well known in the West (others include “Momotaro the Peach Boy,” “Urashima the Fisherman,” “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow,” “The Bamboo-Cutter and the Moon-Child,” and “The Crane Wife”). Most of these first appeared in English at the end of the 19th century as part of Hasegawa Takejirō's innovative Japanese Fairy Tale Series, gift books designed for European export. “The Boy Who Drew Cats” was #23 in this series, published in 1898 and translated by Lafcadio Hearn.

According to a Kyoto University rare books exhibition, the folktale source “was known from Tohoku to Chugoku and Shikoku regions under the title ‘Eneko to Nezumi’ (The Picture-Cats and the Rat)… In the original story, the acolyte becomes the abbot of the temple after the incident.” Hearn wasn’t satisfied by that ending, wanting the boy’s artistic genius to be rewarded, so he concluded his version thusly: “Afterward that boy became a very famous artist. Some of the cats which he drew are still shown to travelers in Japan.”

Hearn’s appealing tale features a thrilling climactic scene in which the protagonist overhears, but does not see, an enormous battle—making it ideal for adaptation to the medium of audio drama. Greg Lam’s script follows Hearn’s storyline fairly closely, but weaves in sound at every stage, as well as extending dialogue, enhancing descriptions, deepening character development, and heightening dramatic tension. Lam also adds a generous dollop of humor, especially with the repeated, frustrated refrain of “BOY!” as various adults try and fail to get the boy to do something—anything—besides draw cats. Last but not least, in the tradition of Hearn, Lam adds his own twist to the ending.

The Myling — Dramaturg’s Note

The bone-chilling Scandinavian folklore that inspired “The Myling” reveals that “Hansel and Gretel” is really downright pleasant as fairy tales about child abandonment go. According to author Adrian Cory, stories about Mylingar (also known as Utburden or Ihtiriekko), the vengeful ghosts of unbaptized children, “reflect the real—and often taboo—issue of child abandonment and infanticide” in old Nordic society; this tragic history “remains a source of national angst to this day.” Infants were abandoned due to poverty, deformity, gender, or because the mother hoped to escape the consequences of childbearing out of wedlock. Some tales portrayed mylings exposing their mother’s crime to Christian priests, or during weddings; and there is at least one historical account from 1697 of a woman named Nille Jensdatter being decapitated for infanticide after having been charged with the crime by her child's ghost.

Cory’s adaptation shifts the focus away from the fixation on punishing mothers, but still presents the Myling in its most traditional form: a ghost that jumps on the back of unlucky travelers and demands to be taken to a graveyard for a proper burial, but which grows heavier with every step. In this production, director Tegan Kehoe seeks to balance indulging in the story’s “delicious” creep factor with an awareness of the very real issues of poverty and child abandonment that undergird the story’s psychological force. Far from being relics of history, these issues are all too relevant today—something she and her cast and crew have kept in mind. Kehoe praises the script’s effective use of the medium of audio drama to portray dramatic events that would be difficult to fully stage, as well as Cory’s subtle and rewarding use of foreshadowing and lines with double meanings. So keep an ear out during the show!

A Hare-Raising Tale — Dramaturg’s Note

Author Naomi Hinchen’s source for “A Hare-Raising Tale” is a two-page story called “The Gambler and the Hare,” collected by Kevin Danaher in Folktales from the Irish Countryside. (In fact, the characters Tom, Kate, and Mary are named after contributors to Danaher’s collection.) In his work as a historian and folklorist, Danaher followed in the tradition of Irish Nationalism, a 20th century movement to revive traditional Irish culture in the wake of the destruction wrought by exploitative English colonial practices and historical disasters such as the Great Famine, during which millions died or emigrated. During the famine, the English owned most of the land, and heartless absentee landlords allowed impoverished and starving tenants to be turned out without recourse when they could not pay their debts. Thus the fate that befalls the gambler and his family—the disasters that destroy their holdings and the seizure of their home by creditors—would have been a familiar one in Irish folk memory.

In her audio retelling, Hinchen has fleshed out the bare-bones source material with additional Irish folk legends about hares and their longstanding connection to paganism and the supernatural. In her version, as in the source, Seamus brings about his own downfall due to his arrogant failure to take the hares seriously—they could be said to personify a vengeful Mother Nature, taking matters into her own hands when humans prove themselves unworthy. Director J. Deschene has set this production in the mid- to late 19th century, and details such as costuming emphasize the hare's connections to witches. Deschene names Lara Parker's portrayal of “Angelique” in the cult hit Dark Shadows, an American soap opera with storylines based on classic Gothic novels, as a particular source of inspiration.