The shocking new play about the inventor of the electric chair
By Francesca Horsley, NZ Listener
For the Indian Ink Theatre Company’s new play Welcome to the Murder House, it’s all in the execution.
In the windowless rehearsal space at the Westpoint Performing Arts Centre, in Western Springs, Auckland, an actor is enduring a variety of mock executions at the hands of his fellow cast members.
Dressed in grey-and-white-striped prison garb, they cheerfully practise their guillotining, garrotting and hanging, all the while belting out the sardonic lyrics of a band’s offbeat, jazzy songs. The Indian Ink Theatre Company is hard at work honing their latest show Welcome to the Murder House and it’s gruesome, dark, transgressive fun.
The actor being subjected to these methods of capital punishment is playing is playing American dentist Alfred Southwick, the man who invented the electric chair.
In the storyline, it is 1895. Five years have passed since William Kemmler, who had murdered his de facto wife Matilda Ziegler with a hatchet, became the first person to be executed by electrocution. Five death-row prisoners are given a night to celebrate with their own play, telling Kemmler’s story.
The work has been commissioned by the prestigious South Coast Repertory, a professional company in Orange County, south-east of Los Angeles. It is premiering in Wellington’s newly opened Te Auaha New Zealand Institute of Creativity.
It is not the first time Indian Ink’s co-founders, writer Jacob Rajan and director Justin Lewis, have approached this grisly subject matter. The Dentist’s Chair in 2008 told the story of a dentist haunted by the ghost of Kemmler, but the pair felt some aspects missed the mark. The focus now is on Southwick, and Rajan says the convicts regard the inventive dentist as their hero.
“They want us to know that he was human. He wasn’t the evil villain that we see. Within our stories and mythologies, we have ways of distinguishing between heroes and villains, but this reduces our humanity. It is a convenient way of dividing people and judging them, but actually we have the potential to be both.”
Rajan says that classifying people as good and bad “actually gets us into a lot of trouble. I think we are seeing that right now in America – everywhere.”
Lewis adds that Southwick is acting like the classic hero, “fighting against the odds, being determined to overcome at all costs. The deep irony is that the outcome is tragic.”
Welcome to the Murder House is set in the early days of electricity, which was as disruptive as the internet and digital technology would be a century later. “With all the wonderful things that this technology brings,” says Lewis, “there is another part of society left behind. All the jobs that get taken by this new thing can mean if you don’t keep up, people become like our prisoners – the detritus of society.”
The pair’s research unearthed some strange episodes. In 1886, after a series of botched hangings, the New York State governor set up an Electrical Death Commission. Its three members included Southwick, who had urged the establishment of the commission after reading of an inebriated man who was killed instantly after he touched an electric generator, and its brief was to find a more humane form of execution.
“It was tied in with this idea of American progress,“ says Lewis. “They said the garrotte was too Spanish and the guillotine was too French. The wanted a unique, clean, humane modern way – a technologically advanced, American way.”
The South Coast Repertory commission is a huge coup. In 2014, Indian Ink’s American agent contacted the Californian company’s artistic director, who came here and saw three IITC plays in quick succession and commissioned them to write a script.
The creation of Welcome to the Murder House has been a rigorous process with many drafts, notes from the SCR dramaturge, readings in front of an audience, then more notes. And the refining continues: the play’s California opening may not be until the end of next year.
“Suddenly you get your work reflected back and you learn things you wouldn’t otherwise,” says Rajan. “I think in New Zealand people don’t have the patience or the resources to sustain that long development period.”
The play adopts the vaudevillian style of the era, with song and dance, puppets, moustaches, sideburns. A tender romance develops between Southwick and Mary Flynn, one of the so-called sex radicals who were early American feminists. “Sex radicals were very progressive,” Lewis says. “They were not interested in gaining the vote, because they wanted to bring the whole patriarchal system down.”
The production also has the classic Indian Ink ingredients: the “serious laugh” – when mouths are opened to laugh, something serious can be slipped in; the use of masks to create a heightened naturalism Rajan calls ultra-theatre; and the requirement for each actor to play multiple characters – there are 25 in all.
An Indian theme is not central, but Chandra Bose, an Indian scientist and polymath from the same era, has been conscripted as a fictional character.
It’s the first of two works Indian Ink is unveiling this year. Mrs Krishnan’s Party, a sequel of sorts to the company’s first play, Krishnan’s Dairy, will tour the country from early August. Written by Rajan and Lewis, it’s set in the back room of the dairy where Mrs Krishnan (Kalyani Nagarajan) finds her boarder, wannabe DJ James (Justin Rogers), has invited a few friends to help celebrate the Hindu festival of Onam. But when a much bigger crowd – the audience – turns up, she must cope with entertaining the gatecrashers.
This article was first published in the June 2, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.