Chicago playwright turns grisly tale into compelling theater

  • Medill News Service
  • January 26, 2006 @ 1:34 PM
The story of William Burke and William Hare, two enterprising alcoholics who, in the 1820s, made a small fortune selling freshly slain cadavers to the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, is an unlikely subject for a musical.

But Chicago playwright Elizabeth Bagby saw something lyrical in their grisly tale. Bagby, a founding member of the Sansculottes Theater Co., dug beyond the infamy to compose a musical that reveals the conflicted -- even tender -- side of the notorious serial killers. "Practical Anatomy," the fruit of Bagby's labor, runs through Feb. 12 at the Storefront Theater in the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 66 E. Randolph St.

But don't think that because "Practical Anatomy" is a musical it plays the murders for irreverent laughs, a la Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd."

"The pitfall of playing a character who many people view as evil is that you're tempted to get up there and start twirling your mustache," said Christopher Prentice, who plays Burke in the production. Rather, Prentice views Burke as a reluctant accomplice to Hare's bloodthirsty greed.

"Burke is a tragic character who keeps trying not to kill," Prentice said. "He's charming and people like to be around him" and, in the end, he is redeemed by the sacrifice he makes to save his wife. "I try to bring those things out so it contrasts with all those horrible things."

The music in "Practical Anatomy" also serves to further this contrast. Incidental music, performed live, is based on Irish and Scottish melodies and gives the production a sense of place. The original songs are not song-and-dance numbers, but rather are meant to help humanize the characters and reveal emotional complexity -- a tall order given the cold-hearted details of Burke and Hare's crimes.

Burke and Hare were two Irishmen who met at a boardinghouse in Edinburgh, Scotland. The pair shared an aversion to hard work and a love for liquor. When another boarder died unexpectedly without paying for his room, Burke and Hare sold his body to science to recoup the debt. Grave robbing was a thriving cottage industry in Great Britain during the early 19th century, thanks to a scarcity of cadavers for use in anatomical studies.

Motivated by the prospect of easy money, Burke and Hare decided to expedite the process rather than wait for death to take its natural course. The pair, aided by their wives, would lure their prey to the boardinghouse, where they would incapacitate them with whiskey. Thus indisposed, they would suffocate the victim and deliver the fresh body, by moonlight, to the residence of surgeon Robert Knox. The going rate was about 10 pounds per body -- all of which Burke and Hare promptly invested in more drink. When caught, the pair confessed to killing at least 16 people over two years.

Dramatic depictions of Burke and Hare are nothing new. Widely regarded as the first modern serial killers, the infamous duo have been invoked to scare British schoolchildren for years. The murders have also been the subject of several B-movies and stage productions, most notably James Bridie's play "The Anatomist."

But while Burke and Hare are most often depicted as "buffoons or monsters," Prentice said that "Practical Anatomy" takes a multidimensional approach to portray the "evil and good in all of us."

"Practical Anatomy" may not be suitable for young viewers -- due to the subject matter and several scenes involving ghosts -- but Prentice says older students especially might enjoy the production as a way to experience how engaging the theatre can be.

"It's not all tights and sloppy shirts," Prentice said. "It's like an action movie, in a lot of respects."