Louise Creechan, a PhD researcher in English Literature, blogs about The Mystery of Edwin Drood: a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel which was funded by the University of Glasgow’s New Initiatives Funding:
Perhaps one the most infamous of unsolved literary mysteries to come out of the Victorian period is the ending of Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). After the publication of three of the twelve planned installments of the novel Dickens died leaving his eponymous protagonist missing – presumed murdered – and few clues as to the solution of the titular ‘mystery’. There have been many attempts to solve the mystery using evidence which ranges from the academic to the anecdotal to the downright bizarre: contemporaries of Dickens, including his son Charles Dickens Jnr and the novel’s cover illustrator Charles Alliston Collins, offered their own solutions based upon remembered conversations, in 1874 a medium from Massachusetts published a completed version of the novel written, he claimed, by the ‘spirit pen of Charles Dickens’, and in 1914 the Dickens Fellowship staged a trial with GK Chesterton acting as judge and George Bernard Shaw as foreman of the jury. More recently, in 2014 the Drood Inquiry engaged with both scholars and the public to try to find a definitive answer.
On 30th April 2015, a team of cross-disciplinary researchers from Glasgow University were awarded New Initiatives funding, and, by 21st November, we solved the mystery. Five times.
It might be a bit of an exaggeration to claim that we found the actual solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but we did find a way to that enabled members of the public to propose their own ending.
In collaboration with a local musical theatre company, Mad Props Theatre, we staged the musical adaptation of the novel. Rupert Holmes’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood won three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score in 1986, but has fallen into relative obscurity as far as musical adaptations go. What is particularly unusual about this musical is that the ending is decided entirely by audience vote which, in our opinion, makes it the perfect medium for active public engagement.
The feedback that the researchers received from the cast and production team was wholly positive. Luke Seawright, who played Durdles, commented that: ‘Having the researchers on hand to explain references or to ask about the novel was extremely helpful. My accent was entirely thanks to the workshopping!’. Ruaridh Mathieson, who played John Jasper, added that the five minute talks on Dickens and the novel that the researchers presented during the mic check helped him get into character and that these facts gave him material that he repeated to the audience during pre-theatre interactions with the audience as he campaigned for the murderer vote.
Sarah-Elizabeth Daly, the founder of Mad Props Theatre and director of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, noted her reservations with working on a historical adaptation: ‘I have a limited knowledge of Dickens, but I’ve loved Drood since finding out about the musical, working with the researchers meant that I could stage one of my favourite shows and that I didn’t have to worry about the time period. Staging a historical show well is always a challenge, but the researchers made the process a lot easier.’
When asked about the audience response to the show, she said that she was ‘genuinely surprised at how involved audiences were. The show encourages audiences to be rowdy and to participate with the mystery, but we were all very surprised when they started joining in with every ‘Drooooooooooooood’ and when we had people return to the show for a different ending.’
The Mystery of Edwin Drood was an excellent, and perhaps unexpected, tool for public engagement and for forging links with community theatre in Glasgow. We are thankful to the University of Glasgow New Initiatives Fund for enabling this collaboration and hope that the success of this project might inspire future links between academia and community theatre.