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Starring Shakespearian actor John Barrymore, and directed by John S Robertson, this silent movie production was made in 1920 at Paramount's Astoria studios New York and is the fourth of over 120 film versions of Robert Louis Stephenson's macabre novel. It proved a tremendous success at the box office.
The performance at Birmingham City Hall on 31.10.11 had live improvised organ accompaniment by Nigel Ogden, which playing, I thought, was a critical part of the experience of watching the film. In my opinion he showed formidable technique and aptly captured the various emotions without dominating the performance.
The two personalities played by Barrymore, in this most famous of duo roles, have completely opposite levels of morality. The story's impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" coming to mean a person who is vastly different in ethical character from one situation to the next.
It seems one can not over-act in this medium especially if one is depicting such extremes of character. Barrymore had to change from the upright, friendly and amiable manner of Henry Jekyll to the hateful, vile and hideous appearance of Edward Hyde and back again, all without the help of trick photography.
In many film versions of books we get characters and story lines that are unfaithful to the original. And this production is no exception. One example is Gina played by the tempestuous actress Nita Naldi. Neverheless her inclusion is in keeping with the theme as I can understand why Henry is tempered by this sexy dancer.
He wants the best of both worlds. He discovers a drug that enables him to enjoy two different identities; to remain the good doctor Jekyll doing respectable medical research and treating his poor patients but also taking on board the low life of Edward Hyde, enjoying sexual license and giving vent to cruel anger. In the character of Hyde he beats a man to death with a heavy cane.
The genius of Stephenson was to raise up and then cast down the idea that one can stay a good person while going against one's conscience; retaining self-respect while giving expression to one's darker impulses. Henry takes a drug to turn into Hyde. But as the transformations increased in frequency they necessitate even larger doses of the potion in order to reverse themselves. Sometimes he finds that he is turning into Hyde involuntarily in his sleep, even without taking his drug and finds himself ever more helpless and trapped by this situation.
Henry realizes that he is deluding himself that the two opposite characters can stay separate. The tragedy is that Hyde seems to gain control over the whole personality and Henry is filled with revulsion for himself.
You might wonder if Henry displays any of the features of the psychiatric diagnosis of multiple personality disorder . He tries to banish all evil to a split off part of his makeup with a different identity. But he can not maintain a separation of memory between the two identities. The one person with two identities is the basic premise of the film but who Hyde is a mystery in the book, only emerging as a final twist of the story ending.
According to Sigmund Freud, one can repress from awareness socially unacceptable thoughts and desires but they reappear in other ways without one realizing; an example of this being projection. In fact looking back on Victorian Britain, when this story was penned, we might say that hypocrisy was rife and it was a mark of the time that people projected their own dark side on to other social groups such as the low life of the poor.
Likewise in Jungian psychology there is said to be a shadowy aspect of a person that is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. Jung says encountering your shadow is a central part in the process of personal growth. He is certainly right to warn that acknowledgment of the shadow – the grim 'process of washing one's dirty linen in private' – must be a continuous process through one's life. How else can you deal with something without it is seen?
In line with Swedenborgian thought I would plea we need to engage our heads, hearts and hands; our heads in the process of regular self-examination of what we inwardly desire; our hearts in an acceptance of the need to stop doing what goes against conscience, and our hands in trying to do so. If this is what Jungians mean by 'integrating' and 'accepting' one's shadow then I am happy with this.
Jekyll becomes the slave of the autonomous shadow Hyde because he does none of these things. Our struggle is to retain awareness of the shadow, but not identification with it.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
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