People's Company member, Aubrey Ayoade (photo, seated left), reflects on his screenplay for the short film, Marie Henderson's Ghost. This was screened as part of a play staged at the Coronet theatre on 8 November. It will also be shown at The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle art exhibition from 9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery, 155 Walworth Road, SW17 1RS.
“Show don’t tell!” This is the Screenwriter’s mantra. How did this mantra come about? Well, I honestly don’t know except to say that every Film School and Screenwriting course that I ever attended applied this most sacred of tenets.
Having decided that any Silent Film narrative, by its very own design, had to be ‘on-the-nose’ in order to convey the story without ambiguity and to enable the unspoken word to be captured in the pacing and movement of its characters, I set about writing “The Ghost of Marie Henderson”. Enter obstacle No.1. “How do you create a silent short within a thematic and character arc that has been established outside of the film, in a different medium (a play), that you’re trying to devise?” The first probing question, indeed decision, was to understand whether this film was to be considered an insert or excerpt of a larger work.
And so, here I am, making a less than educated guess about moving picture’s first departure from the classical stage and how our Marie Henderson (the protagonist of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle) might have responded to such a change with a view to me eventually capturing her character in a skittish, 2-3 minute Silent Movie short script. I can only imagine that it must have been a real eye-opener for the rumbustious Theatre-Owner, Producer, Director and Actor working at the birth of an era that might have rendered her business a thing of the past since this moving picture medium implicitly and explicitly foreshadowed a new age in storytelling.
Yet she would have known that moving pictures had a technological limitation; this was the absence of sound and hence, the conveyance of the audible spoken word. In the spoken word, Marie Henderson could, quite literally, find a voice; solace and power since the stage lent itself forgivingly to speech. She was a shrewd woman by all accounts and I imagine that she would have seen this as a deficiency in this new medium and perhaps would have looked to exploit it. To this end, I knew that the silent short had to demonstrate the ‘push and pull’ of opposites, not necessarily ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’. Hence, metaphors and motifs that would express ‘old values’ versus ‘new values’, ‘Tradition’ versus ‘New Age’, ‘Man’ versus ‘Woman’, ‘Stage’ versus ‘Screen’ would, in turn, create tension so creating conflict which in turn would incite action. Conversely, I imagine Marie Henderson being both upset and insulted by the attention that moving pictures would have achieved; this would not be hubris but frustration that she could not have exploited the commercial opportunity enjoyed by later proprietors of the Coronet.
It was this idea that led me to believe that Marie Henderson’s character arc should have considered a detour or departure from the play’s character arc to explore her darker side which was hinted upon in the play text, for example, her excessive drinking and wanton affairs. Within the silent short I would have offered her a malevolent overture softened by the ridiculous, slapstick, buffoonery of her supporting cast.
Through no fault of their own, Silent Movie productions had to be physical (or so I imagine); dramatic, even melodramatic (it’s a mode of entertainment after all!) since the early moving picture did not lend itself to the subtleties of mood, innuendo, subtext, nuance and characterisation. Hence, the actor had to embody, and so enlighten, the narrative with vigour and gusto by movement and exaggerated displays of emotion. Certainly, the physicality of the actor had to convey thematic truths of the story being spun to their audience as if by spoken word. The supporting cast within the Silent Short would, therefore, be ostensibly made to demonstrate the ‘tour de force’ that Marie Henderson was in opposing their collective actions since no one man was her equal even at their best whilst the level of physicality demonstrated in the action sequences were unbecoming of a woman of that era and stature.
So a segway in my thought brings me to an observation made by the Writer, Director and occasional Auteur/Actor Quentin Tarantino of “Reservoir Dogs”, “Jackie Brown” and “Django Unchained” fame. He postulates that “Moving Pictures” were not created as an evolution of Stage but, indeed, as the antithesis to the Stage/Play acting movement. He suggests that (Victorian) Theatre had become largely the preserve of the wealthy; the well-educated and the gentry who would openly discriminate against the working classes by making Theatre an exclusive retreat to be enjoyed by the select few. Perhaps this departure from ‘Theatre for all’ fostered the wave of working-class Vaudevillians who often parodied their “Thespian” colleagues (the real, serious actors) with crude, vulgar and suitably ‘dumbed-down’ acts that were intentionally cheap, accessible, low-brow yet entertaining. This, I’d suggest, was the proverbial ‘two finger salute’ to the gentry and as such, created the divide or adjunct from Classical Theatre to the Moving Pictures revolution which had, suggests Tarantino, the implicit mandate to be affordable entertainment for the lower classes. Keeping Marie Henderson’s character distant, even suggestively aloof, by making her a ghost in the Silent Short does bring into question whether she would have fully embraced the Vaudevillian movement and whether, indeed, as the play suggests that she was just one of the “common people”.
Our Marie Henderson was seemingly neither Highbrow or Lowbrow, or so I suspect. She seemed to be an Entrepreneur; a Chameleon of sorts, Highbrow in private and yet unashamedly worldly, even brazen, in public where her paying working class audience and suitors lay. What did she really yearn for professionally? To be respected by her male peers, perhaps. What did she yearn for emotionally? I can only assume from John Whelan’s script for “The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle” that she wanted to be adored by her audience and her male suitors.
So here lay my inevitable Silent Movie challenge. The character arc of Marie Henderson (so established in the play, namely ‘The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle’) is portrayed as a tortured heroine sickened with Syphilis. She is dignified, pseudo-gentrified, an assured Theatre owner with a mission to keep the Theatre that she loves.
My mind switches again. Perhaps Marie Henderson was the Mary Pickford of the Stage. Mary Pickford was one of the most influential Silent Movie stars of the early 20th Century. From the 1910s to 1920s she, Douglas Fairbanks Snr. and Charlie Chaplin dominated silent film to the extent that they and a few others set-up their own Production house and Film Studios, the aptly named “United Artists”. Even romance graced our screens in the silent era with the face of the great “Rudolph Valentino.
The portability and affordability of moving pictures and their mass appeal within Europe and the US meant that it was only a matter of time before sound technology would transform this medium to the so said “Talkies’. Whilst Stage endured the breakout of the Silent movie era, it’s my belief that the “Talkies” heralded the slow demise of the well-honed Vaudevillian stage act that was often one dimensional and/or did not have a speaking component. Some Vaudevillians, such as Laurel and Hardy, made the successful transition into the Talking era merging their physical comedy with playful dialogue. Charlie Chaplin, a contemporary and friend of Stan Laurel (who both applied their early trade down at Camberwell Film Studios) finds himself both in the play text and in the silent short since he is not only South London’s greatest artistic export (saying that Van Gogh lived about 20 minutes walk away from Chaplin’s house so you might dispute my claim) but he is, perhaps, the most notable baton bearer of the Silent Film era. Interestingly, Chaplin did make a few “Talkies” that were truly excellent and in the final shot it would have been nice to see the “Young Charlie Chaplin” watch himself in a “Talkie”.
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Past present future
Music and animation
Euan Vincent on Horror
Tiberius Chis on Chaplin
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital