Fear of Science
From SOMA magazine - November, 1991
by John H. Harvey
San Francisco has recently been treated to a play which dares to give the audience the horror and melodrama they crave rather than the stultifying naturalism they are too often told they ought to want. Laboratory of Hallucinations by Russell Blackwood, produced on September at 30 Rose Theatre, is a transformation of a 1916 play by Andre de Lorde which forms part of the legendary and seminal Grand Guignol repertoire.
The Grand Guignol was the Parisian theater, operating for about a century until it shut its doors for good in the 1960’s, which formed the conventions of the horror drama, a genre all but lost to the stage, but familiar to all of us from its teeming film progeny.
Why does a contemporary company turn to horror? To expose, possibly exorcise, the fears which attend the uncertainties of modern life, fears which would choke us if they did not find release.
The play begins in the remote house of the cold and sinister Dr. Gorlitz (Terry Lamb), whose mysterious experiments arouse an apprehensive curiosity but which remain a secret even from his wife, Chantal (Alice Greenberg). After a string of ominous hints we are led into the doctor’s laboratory, to witness a series of horrors including the transformation of people into cannibals. The doctor, of course, perishes as a result of his unscrupulous investigations, but the potentially catastrophic results of his work survive to menace the world.
The most remarkable feat of the production was the way it was able to move fairly swiftly between laughter-producing and horror-producing moments in a way that would have seemed impractical to this reviewer if he had not witnessed it himself. The humorous moments were all created by the resonance of the action on stage with the well-known and well-loved clichés of horror fiction, whereas the moments of genuine horror were brought about by the penetration of the audience’s defenses against the unthinkable.
The most memorable bit involved a surgical procedure performed by Dr. Golitz and his assistant Stitch (Liam Sanchez), who has been yanked from a mental hospital in Paris and “cured” of his violent insanity by the first lobotomy in Europe. The ill-assorted couple operates behind an opaque screen while skillful lighting casts their shadows on the backdrop for the spectators’ benefit. The patient dies, Gorlitz proclaims that an autopsy is called for, and when he seizes a saw and begins to penetrate the corpse’s skull to the accompaniment of sickening grating sounds, the audience recoils and groans in an ecstasy of violated sensibilities.
Why do we love horror so? Much as this writer would like to break new ground in this field, Aristotle’s theory remains true: horror’s chief function is catharsis. A gathering of people can collectively experience and survive fears which an isolated individual would find too daunting to deal with. In Laboratory of Hallucinations we are dealing with feelings of powerlessness and victimization, feelings caused by living in a society dominated by an awesomely potent technology. We are a surely priest-ridden as the Aztecs.
Two strands have long been intertwined: sci-fi horror and horror fantasy. In sci-fi horror it is the contrivances of the mad scientist that threaten; in horror fantasy we are confronted with the black arts as manifested in the Mummy’s Curse or the wakeful Vampire. The supernatural does, indeed, enter into Laboratory of Hallucinations , but not among the weapons of the villain. It is the harmless and hapless servant girl, Mizrana (Susan Patterson), who employs a seeing-basin in an attempt to descry hidden knowledge. Magic, whose potency is now believed in by few, cannot for the modern audience, hold the terror which can be aroused by the mysterious powers of Science. It is the scientist who is our culture’s equivalent of the powerful shaman of tribal societies.
The production fed the spectator’s hunger for the exotic: the locale is the romantic isle of Corsica; the time is the early years of this century; the costumes and sets, though not opulent, provided a pleasing sense of the world as we imagine it to have been before our rush into the future stripped away the complex texture of pre-Jazz Age life. In this world, people can still speak of, and become exercised about, good and evil.
By far the weakest element in the show is the vagueness with which the doctor’s experiment is explained. But this is fitting. It is the very vagueness of the public’s understanding of science which produces the chief fear exploited by the play; the fear of the unknown.
It eventually emerges that the principal complex which powers the play is AIDS paranoia, in particular the theory that the disease is a government creation designed to wipe out those designated undesirable. It is unclear whether Blackwood believes this or merely sees it as an important fear and legitimate grist for the mill of horror. It is not important for us to know Blackwood’s intentions or beliefs except insofar as they are revealed in the play. It is, however, important to ask, what is the effect of a production such as this? Does it promote a dangerous know-nothing hatred of the scientific method? Or merely give salubrious airing to a paranoia unavoidable in a society whose most important technical processes are, to the ordinary citizen, incomprehensible.