Boss: A Fortean Investigation of Jack the
Ripper is a dramatic exploration of
the culture of madness and paranoia that seized Whitechapel in the autumn of
1888. It is a play for three actors and forty puppets, which are operated by the
actors in full view of the audience. It is a murder mystery and a romantic
horror story, which tells of an imagined investigation of the Ripper Murders by
the American chronicler of the Unexplained, Charles Fort and his assistant, The
Elephant Man, and of the failing relationship of Mary Kelly, the final canonical
Ripper Victim and her lover, an unemployed fish porter named Joseph Barnett. It
uses facts and speculation about these prototypical serial killings to explore
the still modern problems of racial profiling, fear of social terrorism, and the
tendency of news media to fuel the very violence on which it is reporting by
treating the criminal as a popular icon.
Boss has been carefully built on a
skeleton of historical research. Its narrative twines together a plethora of
Victorians who were present in London during the murders (Joseph Merrick, Sir
William Gull, Helena Blavatsky, Lewis Carroll, and many others more
traditionally associated with the Ripper Case) and views them through the eyes
of an investigator who was not present, Charles Fort, who is a famous researcher
of such phenomena as spontaneous combustion, raining fish and frogs, ghosts and
flying saucers. While the play frequently departs from factual veracity, it
rarely strays from historical plausibility, except when intentionally
introducing elements of the Uncanny and Fantastic. Eldritch Theatre’s aim is
to use the Uncanny for a broader artistic purpose than merely to shock or scare
the audience. It seeks to use the Uncanny as artists, playwrights and novelists
used it until the twentieth century: as a technique to portray the irrational,
repressed, and shadowed aspects of individuals.
I began writing Dear Boss during the Washington Sniper murders. The sensationalistic media coverage of these attacks, complete with racial speculations about the killer, fear mongering editorials, and wild proclamations about the imagined mad genius behind the killings struck me as very similar to the coverage of the Whitechapel slayings of 1888, which have been attributed to an unknown murderer we know as Jack the Ripper. As with the Washington Sniper attacks, the Victorian press was quick to report rumour as fact, speculation as investigation, and – most strikingly- providing iconic status to the mysterious killer by framing him as an unstoppable genius, driven by socio-political rage to victimize and kill without warning, as some form of diabolic social critique. Both then and now, terror was spread, newspapers were sold, and the killings continued. It astonished me how little this sort of reporting has changed in the hundred fifteen years since the furor around Jack the Ripper brought serial killing to the public consciousness, and it occurred to me that this observation was a strong entry point into a play about the Whitechapel killings, which was a project that I had been researching for two or three years, as the result of learning that my great, great uncle, Montague Druitt had been unjustly named a suspect in a dubious piece of correspondence known to Ripperologists as the McNaughton Memorandum.
Hm, where was it on again?