by JEFF TABNICK
I’m suspicious of stories.
They serve a need. We need to escape. To have a protagonist to relate to. Someone who fights the assholes that we want to fight. And either he is triumphant and we feel good, or he loses in some beautiful way and we feel meaningful. I seek these stories out. But I don’t trust them.
Get too close to a story as an audience member or an actor and it can swallow you up. It can cause you to falsely define yourself and the world. When I first encountered the Hollywood rumor that Peter Lorre had stolen John Barrymore’s dead body from the mortuary, I thought, wow, here’s Lorre acting like a deranged maniac from one of his movies. Did he get swallowed by the Hollywood stories he was telling?
As I dipped my toe into the sea of research on 1940s cinema, I found countless examples of actors struggling to escape their movie star personas. It’s something we still see in our celebrities today, but the studio system intensified these identity crises. When an actor was on contract, he couldn’t turn down any role the studio offered him. The studio obviously gave the actor the same role over and over because that’s what the public demanded.
Peter Lorre was repeatedly cast as a monster or foreign creep. “It’s always the same. A murderer. A criminal… I am stamped.” But it wasn’t just the roles he played that were problematic to his psyche, it was the material itself.
“I have to return to latrine duty,” Lorre said of Hollywood movies. Peter knew that he was “selling laxatives for the soul” “in this marketplace of lies,” as his good friend Bertolt Brecht put it.
Lorre and Brecht had produced theater together in Berlin. If Hollywood offered escapist entertainment that promoted a world of fantasy, Brecht offered something different. A theater that prohibited escapism. The audience was kept at a distance and the actors were to put their characters on like a mask. This theater embraced poetry and political action. There was no fantastical escape in which to lose yourself. Rather there was a political purpose driving the art.
Brecht too had fled to Hollywood and wanted nothing more than for Lorre to stop making movies and work on plays with him. On the night our play takes place, Jack Warner has offered Peter Lorre a studio contract. And Lorre must choose between a lucrative financial career that will turn him into the monster he fears he’s already become, and a path of beatific artistic purity. He must choose between conventional storytelling that traffics in easy lies and a more self-conscious mode that aims at something higher.
Something Truly Monstrous, now at The Blank, is a story. It uses conventional storytelling techniques. It asks you to escape into Lorre’s car and step into his shoes. It tries to get at truth but it is not the truth. Don’t trust it. It is a story. It lies.
NOW PLAYING: SOMETHING TRULY MONSTROUS at The Blank, now through November 8.
Based on the Hollywood rumor that on the night John Barrymore died, Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart stole his body and went joy riding.