March 26, 2009

The Mechanical: Frankenstein Meets The Turk

The Mechanical, an intriguing play that cross-breeds Frankenstein and the historical automaton known as The Turk, is currently enjoying its premiere run at the Bond Street Theater in Baltimore.

Built around 1790 by inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, The Turk was presented as a thinking, mechanical chess-player. In appearance, a turbaned character in flowing robes sat at a large cabinet, robotically moving the chess pieces to the accompanying sound of grinding gears. Doors back and front revealed the clockwork within and a shelf for storing the chessboard. With doors opened, one could see straight through the machine and out the other side.

The Turk was a sensation. The machine, purchased and exploited by a showman named Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, would tour the capitals of Europe, taking on illustrious opponents.

In France, in the early 1800’s, Napoleon Bonaparte and American ambassador Benjamin Franklin challenged The Turk. The automaton eventually crossed the Atlantic for an American tour. Edgar Allen Poe saw The Turk performing in Richmond, Virginia, and wrote an essay, Maelzel’s Chess Player (1836), attempting to explain the machine’s workings. Though many observers were amazed by the chess-playing automaton, and some believed it to be a marvel of engineering, many others suspected trickery.

The Turk, of course, was a hoax. A human operator sat within the large cabinet and, using rods and magnets, manipulated The Turk like a puppet. A sliding seat allowed the operator to move from one side of the cabinet to the other when the doors were opened, providing unobstructed views all the way through the device. The observed gearworks only went a third of the way in. The combined effect of The Turk’s exotic and outlandish appearance, the trick doors, and the presenter’s showmanship made for an elaborate and persuasive experience.

Mälzel died in 1838 while sailing back to America from a Cuban tour. The Turk fell into the hands of the ship’s captain, to be sold off. The novelty wore thin and the device was eventually relegated to a museum in Philadelphia where it was destroyed by fire in 1854.

The Mechanical, writer-director Michael McGuigan’s play, takes its clue from Mälzel’s seabound demise. In a clever twisting of reality and fiction, the captain of the ship turns out to be Robert Walton, the same man who encountered Victor Frankenstein in the Arctic, and Frankenstein’s Monster is, in fact, the thinking automaton known as The Turk. The questions raised by this concept are expressed in the Bond Street Theatre’s presentation: “Would the creature find joy and satisfaction in out-witting the best minds of the human society that previously rejected him, or rebel against the implied superiority of manufactured, mechanical life?

A production photograph shows the twisted Monster like a character in a Joseph Cornell box. The poster illustration of the boy stepping out of the frame uses a famous trompe-l’oeil painting from 1874 called Escaping Criticism, by Pere Borell del Caso, with gears added.

The Mechanical runs in Baltimore until April 5th. It moves to New York City on April 23rd.

Baltimore’s Bond Street Theatre, with photographs from the play.

New York’s Theater for the New City.

Wiki page for The Turk.


Lolita said...

I love that freaky painting of the child...

Max the drunken severed head said...

This is an intriguing premise. I would LOVE to see the play.

My worst fear: a film version by Stephen Sommers or Joel Schumacher. The automaton will become a death-dealing mechanical soccer player.

Or Tim Burton will direct, and the Monster will become a long-haired, nerdy, misunderstood, death-dealing Romantic goth.

Hey! Like in the book! ;)

Pierre Fournier said...

Here's a review of the play: