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The Worst Play Ever Written (I Hope)

July 31, 2016

I’ve neglected this blog for much too long. Writing, ghostwriting and editing duties have combined to take me away from it for a lot longer than I intended, and I intended to update it only once every two weeks. Just to make up for it, let me brighten your day with the story of Me Vs. What I Sincerely Hope is the Worst Play Ever Written.

I’d read about The Black Crook. It was a lowbrow, big-budget theatrical production and possibly the first modern musical. Written by Charles M. Barras, it made its debut in New York City in 1866. With its heavy emphasis on stage effects and scantily clad chorus girls, it seemed to be a sort of 19th-century version of a summer blockbuster — one of the louder and dumber ones, directed by Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. I believe you can learn a lot about a society by what it uses to entertain the masses, so I was curious about The Black Crook.

I’d love to invent a story about how I found the script — something involving a weird little bookshop that wasn’t there yesterday — but the truth is, I found it in the Washington College library. So here we go:

The setting is Germany. Our hero, Rodolphe, is in love with Amina, but she has been kidnapped by the evil Count Wolfenstein. So Rodolphe turns to the evil sorcerer Hertzog, who sends him off to fetch a hidden treasure. Little does he know that the elderly Hertzog has made a deal with a demon named Zamiel, in which Hertzog’s life will be extended indefinitely in exchange for getting one soul sent to Hell every year. So Hertzog sends Rodolphe on his way, hoping the hero will do something greedy or vengeful enough to get himself damned, and then get himself killed. (What is it with evil wizards making plans where they do maybe one thing and leave everything else to chance?)

But on his journey, Rodolphe saves the life of the Fairy Queen, who immediately gives him a magic ring. He can use this ring to call upon her for aid at any time… and he does. Oh God, does he ever. Usually these things have a time limit or a set number of wishes, but not this one. Every single time he runs into a piddling little obstacle, Rodolphe whips out his ring and out come the Fairy Queen and her minions (by which I mean girls in skimpy fairy costumes) in a burst of stage effects. The fourth or fifth time he did this, I was like "AGAIN?!?"

So Rodolphe gets the treasure and the girl, and everybody lives happily ever after except for Hertzog, who ends the year without having fulfilled his end of that soul bargain. Zamiel signs him up for a refinancing plan which consists of having him dragged bodily into the Fiery Pit of Special Effects. Then the play is over.

I almost forgot about the (for want of a better word) subplot, in which Odious Comic Relief characters Von Puffengruntz and his wife show up, do nothing to advance the story, and then go away again. They’re kind of like the kissing couple in "Manos" the Hands of Fate, only their scenes are longer and more frequent, and they’re annoying to the point of physical pain. Their schtick is that Von Puffengruntz is morbidly obese (I think this was the production team showing off their fat suit) and his wife is extremely whiny. Also, Von Puffengruntz is drunk. Or maybe his wife is drunk. Or both of them are drunk. I’m not reading it again to find out.

If I haven’t made it clear, The Black Crook is something beyond what we normally think of as a bad play. It’s a fifteen-course feast of fail. It blows goats that have never been blown before or since. It’s a trainwreck made of dumpster fires, and it burns with a hard, gemlike flame of pure suck. In a one-to-five-star rating system, The Black Crook would get a black hole.

So why am I telling you about it?

Just in case you need cheering up about the state of modern popular culture.

I mentioned earlier that it was the 19th-century equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. But if you tried to shop around The Black Crook to directors as a big-budget film production today, not only would they slam the door in your face, you’d probably be evicted from Hollywood by court order. Even the worst hacks in the movie industry understand concepts like pacing and tension-building which are completely absent from this play. Michael Bay wouldn’t wipe his ass with the script. Roland Emmerich probably would wipe his ass with it. Even Uwe Boll would look at it and realize that he does have standards after all, and The Black Crook does not meet those standards.

So if ever you start to despair of modern culture, remember — we judge the past more kindly than the present, because only the good stuff survives. The rest gathers dust in odd corners of campus libraries.

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