‘Jekyll and Hyde’ comes to Baker’s

Robert Louis Stevenson is seen in an original print presented by himself to J. Phelps Smith, son of Paul Smith.

“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a book of which the oft-repeated statement is literally true, that its perusal is an unbroken spell.”

That is from one of many first reviews of the famous novella pasted into a scrapbook by the author’s mother, Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, about 130 years ago. Altogether, “Maggie” compiled six such volumes covering her son’s career in media clippings. Three of them, including the only posthumous scrapbook, take up cabinet space in Maggie’s former personal space at Baker’s, better known today as the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage.

Other examples:

“As a literary entity it is strong with a peculiar strength, that condenses, concentrates, gives one an odd sense of repressed energy.”

“The style of this book is a treat to lovers of good English, and nearly every page is marked by some felicity in thought or metaphor.”

“… a very able and instructive book to those who think over the lesson contained therein. It is an allegory based on the two-fold nature of man, a truth taught us by the Apostle Paul, in Romans VII, ‘I find then a law that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.'”

“… the most remarkable contribution to sensational literature that has appeared in years. It is remarkable in its total abstinence from all recognized sensational methods, for its intense realism in handling matters of the farthest and most ungraspable unreality, for the extreme and startling and wholly novel ‘motif’ of the book, for the absolute enthrallment of its clear, graphic circumstantial narration.”

“… this tale, which in conception is worthy of the author of ‘Frankenstein,’ with transformation substituted for creation.”

“‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ on the stage. Those who know the technical difficulties of transforming a novel or a romance into a play, even when all the conditions seem propitious, may well have looked for the failure of any attempt to recast in a satisfactory dramatic form, Mr. Stevenson’s weird story of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ the effort of which depends so much on analysis, introspections and psychological details, which evade personification and outward demonstration … Much credit, therefore, is due to Mr. T.R. Sullivan for his dramatization of the story with Mr. Richard Mansfield in the double part of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Richard Mansfield was one of the big talents of his time, who put in his bid for inclusion in Saranac Lake’s Walk of Fame by spending a summer here shortly before he died. Maybe he never knew that he was the subject of a fake news story that placed him in Saranac Lake, at Baker’s, in the winter of 1887-88. According to Dr. E.L. Trudeau, Stevenson’s physician at the time:

“In the sitting room of the Baker Cottage Stevenson received the visits of many prominent men who journeyed to Saranac Lake to see him, and it was in this room, on a cold winter night, by the light of the wood fire in the big fireplace, while Stevenson sat on a chair placed on top of the table, which had been moved into a corner, that Richard Mansfield delighted the great author with his weird and gruesome impersonation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Someone unknown to history started this myth which even suckered in the likes of Dr. Trudeau until debunked. Its origin seems to be related to the visit of another actor and playwright at Baker’s who really did go there to see RLS. Daniel Bandmann came from Austria and had retired to a ranch he bought in the American West. That’s where he was when he was taken by the Jekyll and Hyde story, which took him on his journey into the Adirondacks to talk with the author about a play version of the thriller. Stevenson’s mother liked him and wrote her sister Jane about him:

“The sensation of the week has been a visit from Bandmann the actor. He is an Austrian and a charming old man, has been thrice round the world, and thinks the Scots are the finest people on the face of the earth. Moreover that opinion was not invented to please us (which it did) as you will find it in his book of travels! I declare that he is the most pious visitor we have had yet, as he was the only one who ever said ‘Amen’ to Louis’ grace.”

Too bad for Bandmann that he came too late, and he got it from the author in person that the privilege had already been disposed of. Though Stevenson never met Mansfield, he liked him, maybe because the great actor-manager, contrary to the American custom of the time, actually paid Stevenson, a foreigner, royalties from his unauthorized stage production.

Mansfield could not have pulled off his four-act dramatization without the competent script provided by Thomas Russell Sullivan. Its success sparked the ongoing succession of plays, musicals and movies on the subject with future stars like Frederic March and Spencer Tracy impersonating literature’s supreme schizoid man.

So if Richard Mansfield never made it to the Hunter’s Home to perform in the light of Baker’s fireplace, the next best thing happened — T.R. Sullivan came. And with him came a strange case of mistaken identity. Stevenson’s wife Fanny was there and lived to tell about it:

“… a telegram had come that morning from Mr. Sullivan announcing his intended arrival. The telegram had been read aloud to the loungers at the post-office, who instantly jumped to the conclusion that our visitor must be the pugilist, John L. Sullivan, who was the recent winner in a great prize fight. In the excitement, nobody thought of sending the telegram to its legitimate destination, but hastened to the station, where they awaited the arrival of Mr. T.R. Sullivan for hours. The unconscious victim of this ludicrous mistake was surprised and embarrassed by the sensation he created, his ‘points’ being audibly discussed as he passed through the crowd.”

From pages from the journal of Thomas Russell Sullivan, March 1888, Sullivan travels to Saranac Lake and:

“… arrived early (at Baker’s) one grey March morning. I was shown into Stevenson’s chamber. He was sitting up in bed, smoking cigarettes as usual, and at work on a page of manuscript. He explained that this was a portion of a story (it proved, afterward, to be “The Wrong Box“) which he was then writing with Lloyd Osbourne. ‘I never write for long at a time,’ he added, ‘and when I stop work, I amuse myself with this,’ pointing to a flageolet which lay on the bed beside him. I told him why I came. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have heard from Bandmann, but have not answered his last letter. What is his play like?’ I described it in detail and he laughed heartily. ‘Mrs. Stevenson liked yours, you know.’ ‘Well then,’ I said, ‘perhaps you would be willing to hear it. Here is the manuscript in my hand.’ ‘Of course I would like to hear it, and the sooner the better.’ I then sat down at the bedside, and read the play from beginning to end at a single sitting which lasted nearly two hours. He listened most attentively, so far as I can recollect, interrupting but once, at the end of the third act, which closes with the transformation scene in Lanyon’s office — much the strongest thing in the whole play … ‘Good!’ said Stevenson. ‘You’ve done precisely what the scene needed for stage effect. It is very strong.’ I went on with the fourth and last act, at the end telling him frankly that I had never in my life more trying than this little reading. ‘Yes,’ he said, laughing. ‘I saw you were very nervous and I should have been so, too, in such circumstance. I might not have liked it, you know. But I do like it, all through. Now let us go to luncheon.'”

On Sept. 12, 1887, Mrs. Fanny Stevenson and the author’s mother had seen Mansfield do his Jekyll and Hyde performance at Madison Square Theatre in New York City. RLS had been too ill to attend.


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