A Cut Above
To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely suspensions, properly so called. They are only temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism. A certain period elapses, and some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But where, meantime, was the soul?
-- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Premature Burial"
The Victorians' fascination with death -- their spiritualist groups and seances, their widespread fear of being buried alive -- seems quaint to us now, when medicine and technology provide fairly clear markers of the end of brain activity. But have we really come so far? While her doctors and husband believed that poor Terry Schiavo was functionally dead, thousands of Americans -- including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist -- insisted she was fully conscious, trapped in her rigid, comatose body. This is surely a nightmare as ugly as anything Poe could have imagined. Some years ago, a spate of newspaper articles told of patients who had been too lightly anesthetized and awoke in the middle of surgery, paralyzed and unable to alert the surgeon to the terrible pain they were suffering. There may be truth to these fears -- we still don't completely understand comas -- but they are also expressions of something primal, something we experience in those nightmares where we're desperate to escape an engulfing danger but are unable to cry out or move.
Like Poe's prose style, the Victorian attitude toward these terrors has a certain dark gorgeousness, and Buntport Theater captures it brilliantly in A Synopsis of Butchery, an elegant production that manages to be lush and spare at the same time. Buntport's home base is a cavernous warehouse, but for this play, the acting area has been reduced to a lighted box representing an ornate, old-fashioned, steeply raked stage. The story concerns Washington Irving Bishop, a mentalist who was subject to fits of catalepsy during which his body became rigid and his breathing seemed to stop. He collapsed after a strenuous New York performance, and two men -- a doctor and a shoemaker -- promptly performed an autopsy on him. Bishop's mother, Eleanor Fletcher Bishop, was convinced that her son had been cut up while still alive, murdered by the doctor's curiosity about his brain. She wrote a book called A Synopsis of Butchery of the Late Sir Washington Irving Bishop (Kamilimilianalani) a Most Worthy Mason of the Thirty-Second Degree, the Mind Reader, and Philanthropist by Eleanor Fletcher Bishop, His Broken-Hearted Mother, and dedicated her life to the search for justice and the prevention of similar catastrophes in the future. (There is only one certain proof of death, she informs us sternly in the play: putrescence.)
Buntport's production is based on Eleanor Fletcher Bishop's book and other sources. In this version -- and I don't know how much of it is historically accurate -- Eleanor has hired three actors and taken her account of events on the road. The piece is an amalgam of her observations and outbursts; tantalizing historical tidbits, such as the description of the breathing tubes and signaling devices placed in some nineteenth-century coffins; scenes from the trial of the doctor -- not as they actually occurred, but as Eleanor thinks they should have; and re-enactments of the fatal autopsy itself.
Erin Rollman gives a tour de force performance as Eleanor. Sometimes she's squeaky and absurd, sometimes full of matronly dignity, but at every moment she's deeply immersed in the part. She makes Eleanor's arguments, her warnings that any one of us could end up buried alive, so forceful and heartfelt that we almost believe them, as well as the spiritual powers she ascribes to herself and her son -- who was, in fact, a bit of a fraud. It's clear that Eleanor was one of those engulfing, child-devouring mothers, and Rollman fully communicates both her bullying and her hucksterism (at one point, the actors take collection baskets into the audience). But she also reveals the woman's profound sorrow.
Brian Colonna, Erik Edborg and Evan Weissman each play several roles. The script veers from funny to disturbing, and one of this production's most impressive features is the entire cast's control of the tone. The first time the autopsy is mimed, it's cartoonish. But the final, equally stylized re-enactment approaches real horror, as Washington Irving (played by Weissman) rises three times from the slab, crying out, "Mother!"
Last year, Buntport experimented with two forms it had never tried before, realism and horror -- not as splattershock, but as a way of examining the world. While last season's offerings worked well enough, A Synopsis of Butchery seems a large step forward. It retains the sense of play and experimentation we expect of Buntport, but the work is more unified, with a heightened sense of artistic control.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.