Alice in Shadowland

The main problem with Alice is the darkness. It’s not as if this were a recently concocted and Freudianised 20th century difficulty. A key contemporary of Carroll unhesitatingly treated his ‘Wonderland’ text as if it were a tissue of whimsy concealing a substantial and threatening shadowland. Less than two years after Carroll’s ‘golden afternoon’ spent in a boat with Alice Liddell and her sisters, on the 4th of July 1862, the writer was extending the text transcribed from the original storytelling as part of its preparation for publication. He had supplied a number of his own illustrations but was advised to seek a professional draughtsman. The Punch cartoonist and caricaturist John Tenniel was approached to illustrate the work, which was executed in 1865. Carroll sent the illustrator a photograph not of Alice Liddell but another child, Mary Hilton Badcock. Tenniel refused to work with any model however, and, in Carroll’s words, ‘drew several pictures of “Alice” entirely out of proportion – head decidedly too large and feet decidedly too small.’

Tenniel’s distinctive sense of proportion was not confined to his renderings of the dreamchild. The cartoonist stripped the language of dream of its sunshine and imposed the shifty, shifting, scratchy and shadowy crosshatch that would unsettle nursery-dwellers for the next century and a half. Sloughs of febrile gloom and maniacal despond provide the dark ground upon which Carroll’s’s lighter fancy comes to rest, profiting greatly from the interplay with its shadow, so insistently conjured by the illustrator.

But is the darkness actually there? Without Tenniel would the tales not be delightful blossoms of absurdity no more taxing than the drift of a rowing boat along the upper reaches of the Thames? The short answer is that the tales are bristling with invitations to explore the abyssal depths but these latter are consistently overlooked in favour of jolliness. Tenniel reversed this trend, reacting as though a surface sweetness was to be expected then brusquely swept aside.

Notwithstanding the purportedly ‘factual’ yet debatable view that Carroll’s preoccupation with pre-pubescent girls constituted a perversion, this possibility was not the one so firmly taken up by Tenniel. It is more likely that the illustrator recognised, in the subterranean location and disjointed narratives of Wonderland, a territory that was not just quaintly engaging but psychologically rich and therefore deserving of the imagery of nightdream rather than daydream. Some decades later the Surrealists would come to a similar conclusion.

The invitation to the land of light, child-pleasing enchantment has been declined on a small number of occasions in the course of the history of the adaptation and illustration of ‘Alice’. In 1985 Gavin Millar directed ‘Dreamchild’, a film about Alice Liddell’s relationship with Carroll/Dodgson. The screenplay, by Dennis Potter, focused on the reminiscences and insights of 80 year old Alice Hargreaves, née Liddell, as she travelled to New York in 1932 to attend Carroll’s centenary celebrations. The film moves between Alice’s American experiences of being a celebrity, her recollections of her  intense friendship with the author of the Alice books and hallucinated encounters with the creatures from the stories. The latter are fine examples of cable-control puppeteering, a pre-animatronic technology, constructed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and featuring the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, and the March Hare. The creatures are crabby, shrill and unkempt. Those with teeth have yellowed fangs and those with skin have livid, blotchy skin.

The lack of whimsy in the film is, more importantly, not restricted to those denizens of Wonderland who are ordinarily portrayed as wacky and cuddlesome. As Alice finds her long forgotten or suppressed memories of Carroll returning, the film dares to raise, quite tastefully, the possibility that Carroll was passionately in love with Alice Liddell. Ian Holm’s portrayal of Dodgson/Carroll elicits our sympathy with the author and helps us to be reassured that his inclinations were in some sense  ‘innocent’ and never actually enacted. The film moves beyond this widely held view, however, when it examines the impact on young Alice, as recalled by the octogenarian Mrs Hargreaves, who is seen to be haunted if not permanently marked by the experience of her girlhood exposure to the pressure of an adult’s amorous attentions.


Dash: Gore

A post about ‘Dash Dash Dash’, a series of shows I wrote and directed in 2010


Further to the material on the releasing of liquids in the previous post I am appending here a short technical monograph.
Blood in the performing arts is always the wrong colour. It’s never dark enough. The benchmark for film blood used to be a concoction known as Kensington Gore. (This is a pun: Kensington Gore is the name of a number of connected streets that run around the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, adjacent to Hyde Park on its south side.)

I am indebted to tvtropes and Everything2 for locating an original recipe:
“… this is a name for fake blood, especially the sticky, edible sort in old British horror films. Everything2 gives the recipe as:
• 2 cups of corn syrup (for viscosity and color)
• 1 cup of water (for balancing viscosity)
• 10 table spoons of corn (maize) flour (for making the blood less translucent)
• 10 tea spoons red food coloring (for color)
• 10 drops blue food coloring (for color)
• A few drops concentrated mint (for taste – optional)
The blood is sticky, thick and bright red (crimson in fact). The original Kensington Gore was a specific brand of proprietary stage blood manufactured by retired pharmacist John Tynegate in the ’60s and ’70s. It can be seen in a lot of old horror films, especially the Hammer Horror series.”


While the ingredients above are fairly standard, it’s all in the mix. The old school Gore had a letter box hue that was far too bright and light. The recipe does stress viscosity, however – a crucial but entirely controllable consideration. This is where the corn syrup (treacle is easier to get in the UK) comes in. The value of corn flour is debatable – it can make the mix irreversibly lumpy. Translucency can be countered with careful and cautious administration of food colouring. In film, it should be noted, the blood can be refreshed between takes. In live performance one is looking for an effect that does not dissipate as time passes.

In the Dash Dash Dash array five out of the six shows featured gratuitous bloodshed:
• In the Bosom of Roy: when Angela spits it, possibly consumptively, in Alex’s face, twice.
• The Flutters: when Grace returns from murdering the man who had been cutting to Roy in his place of work it emerges that she has shagged the culprit and then cut his cock off. She carries the detached penis in a neat, penis-sized package and her chest is smeared with blood.
• The Fastness: Dan has returned, thanks to breakthroughs in time travel technology, from Golgotha, where he was able to film the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in colour, using a small camera concealed in his chest cavity. His companions, Ann, Tod and Pat, wearing appropriate surgical scrubs, cut into his upper body to retrieve the device, in the course of which Dan inadvertently emits plumes of blood from, we imagine, severed arteries and other vascular components. His resourceful team members are drenched.
• Gulch: Betty, Hector, Frank and Trudy leave the house and return several times, as if there were assignments that had to be completed. With the exception of Hector, all are bloodstained on their return. When Betty re-enters, her face and arms glisten with dark gore. The high window, its sills snowed up, silently seeps blood that drips to the table below, bathing the pearl-handled pistols.
• Sleet: no blood is shed in Sleet.
• Gush: Roy, beneath a bucket of blood, is dowsed. Gina, searching for biscuits, is copiously blued. Dean, wishing to make cupcakes, is enfloured (not a liquid but producing a pleasing halo effect when backlit). Roy, beaten with sticks, stamped upon and having his testicles bitten off, is yellowed from above. Nina, seeking to restrain the reddened, maddened and yellowed Roy, is, while grappling with him, blackened, also from above.


We have, therefore, five sets of requirements:
• the blood that is spat must be non-toxic and thinnish but not too thin or else, on the face, it goes pink and translucent within a matter of seconds.
• the blood that adheres to the skin must not run from its original site of placement. If it runs it will mottle. It must be particularly sticky and is daubed rather than wiped on.
• the blood that spurts from the body must be thicker than that which is spat but not so thick that it blocks the washing-up liquid bottles from which it is squirted or so thin that it soaks within seconds into the fabric of the scrub leaving a stain that is pale and half-hearted.
• the blood that bleeds from the window passes through pipes then soaks into salt. It needs to be thick but must not clog.
• the blood that drops from the sky, as with the red and the yellow and the black, must, as it falls, form cords in the air, hitting the deck with a splat and splashing the walls as it utterly masks the features of those underneath.

All these bloods can be made on a table with buckets and bowls, stirrers and spoons.