The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Synopsis courtesy of Carol Bawer

Charles Dickens, prolific, well-loved British novelist, started writing this, one of his most intriguing novels, late in his career. A story about the disappearance of a wealthy, popular young man, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood was left incomplete when Mr. Dickens died, taking the secret to his grave. What we are left with is an unfinished novel, published in part, leaving all of Dickens' readers to speculate on young Drood's fate.

Rupert Holmes uses his imagination, and borrows that of the audience on a nightly basis, to help round out the story of Drood. Initially "conceived as a springboard for a series of theatrical moments and events, using a literary curiosity as a trampoline," the novelty of the solving of the mystery from your theater seat spread to living rooms where folks enjoyed the play and it's unending possibilities as "an intricate parlor game."

Originally presented as a New York Shakespeare Festival production by Joe Papp, the show premiered at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park on August 21, 1985.


The setting is London's Music Hall Royale, where, we find, the acting troupe is about to embark on the premiere performance of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." We, the audience, get to play the part of THEIR audience, as well as contribute to the outcome of the evening's performance by our voting for certain options that were not addressed in the Dickens play, due to the author's untimely demise. Cast members come out to us in our seats and briefly explain the role we are about to play.

From their places throughout the theater, the cast members launch into the opening number, "THERE YOU ARE," welcoming the audience to their show. From our Master of Ceremonies, the Chairman, we quickly learn that this is going to be an evening of unusual theater, with the conventional boundaries between audience and performers being subdued if not erased. The Chairman invites us to be as "vulgar and uncivilized as legally possible" in order for us to really have a good time, but to pay attention, as clues to the mystery's solution appear at every turn!

In our little town of Cloisterham, we meet choirmaster John Jasper. Respected and calm, he introduces us to his inner world of delusion in the words of "A MAN COULD GO QUITE MAD."

Enter Edwin Drood, nephew of Jasper. We learn that the moustachioed young man is actually being played by Miss Alice Nutting, male impersonator extraordinaire. With Jasper, he discusses his impending marriage to Rosa Bud, his misgivings about the arranged pairing, and their plans for subsequent departure for Egypt. As they share their confidences in song, we learn that Jasper and Drood are more than "TWO KINSMEN," they are friends.

In the "Nun's House," the town's seminary for young ladies,we are introduced to the fair Miss Rosa Bud. She is joined by her music tutor, our Jasper, who presents her with a song he has composed for her birthday. At Jasper's insistance, Rosa sings the love ballad "MOONFALL." As she nervously embarks on an encore, the Landless twins enter, brother and sister orphans from Ceylon, with the Reverand Crisparkle, in whose care the young man has been entrusted. Rosa faints from the words of lusty Jasper's song, and fiery spirit Helena Landless tends to her. Her hot-tempered brother Neville reveals his attraction to Rosa. Rosa and Helena share girl talk, and then the reprise of "MOONFALL QUARTET."

We next meet Princess Puffer, proprietress of this London opium den, and hear her views on the wicked ways of the world in "THE WAGES OF SIN." Much to our surprise, we discover our choirmaster Jasper taking smoke in one of the beds, struggling with his conscience as he dreams of Drood...and Rosa Bud. Speaking the latter's name aloud he visibly strikes a chord in Puffer.

The next day in Cloisterham, Rev. Crisparkle introduces the twins to Drood, who explains his grand scheme to pave a desert highway with stones from the pyramids. He offends Neville with his ignorance and sparks an instant rivalry. The twins attempt to bring Drood around in song with "CEYLON," and Drood responds in defense, joining them in the musical arguement.

Jasper enters with Mayor Sapsea, and, taking advantage of the public confrontation, plants a seed of concern in the Mayor's head. Jasper points out to him that everything is not always what it seems to be as they sing "BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN."

In the depths of the crypts we discover Jasper sneaking around in a crazed state, with both Deputy and Durdles becoming victims in his mad game. In the confusion, he obtains a key to one of the chambers...

In town it is Christmas Eve, and Drood and Rosa share their true feelings for one another in "PERFECT STRANGERS." They call off their wedding plans and vow to be friends forever, but in light of the holiday, decide to keep up the charade a bit longer.

Thunderbolts and rumbling welcome us back to the home of Jasper to celebrate Christmas Eve dinner with our friends. All the character's rivalries surface, and the guests join in the battle of the tongue, revealing motive and meaning as they sing the ominously foreshadowing "NO GOOD CAN COME FROM BAD."

The song and dinner end, and Drood and Neville are drunk, heading out to the see the storm-ravaged river. The others retire for the evening as well, and Jasper offers his topcoat to his nephew to wear out into the blustery night.

Christmas Day finds us without a sign of Drood. The Rev. Crisparkle's assistant Bazzard, a hopeless playwright, finds Jasper's borrowed coat, torn and bloodied. Drood is assumed murdered and the search begins for suspect Neville. Bazzard treats us to a song entitled "NEVER THE LUCK," lamenting his lot in life, but expressing hope.

Neville is captured, then released for lack of evidence: there is still no sign of Drood, dead or alive. Jasper professes his feelings to Rosa, who angrily disagrees with his terminology in "THE NAME OF LOVE." Their passion flares as they continue with "MOONFALL," and emotions rage wildly.

Act II

Act II opens in Cloisterham six months later. Drood has not been found, and we meet up with two interested parties, Princess Puffer, our dope queen, and a suspicious-looking, bearded old stranger named Datchery. They are in town to solve the mystery of Edwin Drood, and they sing of their intent in "SETTLING UP THE SCORE."

The Chairman, Deputy and Durdles have a brief interchange with the newcomers, and remind the audience to think carefully when considering the clues in "OFF TO THE RACES."

In her search for Jasper, Puffer meets up with Rosa and recognizes her. Puffer sings about not giving up one's pursuits in "DON'T QUIT WHILE YOU'RE AHEAD," joined by the whole cast. They all stop suddenly in the second round, and it is revealed that this is as far as Dickens got in his play before dying.

We are then faced with the task of writing the ending on our own.

The first choice to be made is whether Edwin is actually dead or not. We are shown that Alice Nutting, our Drood, in order to fulfill her contract to appear in two acts of the play, has been wearing the disguise of Datchery. But Drood is unanimously voted dead by the cast, and Alice is sent on her way.

But before we begin to address the question of Datchery's identity, Alice tells the cast members off, citing their jealousy as reason for her dismissal. Upon her exit, the Chairman fills us in: Alice was a pill! He continues, giving us our choices for the role of Datchery, as cast members remind us of their culpability. Those who have appeared in scenes with Datchery are ruled out as suspects. We vote for our masked man....or woman, Datchery is chosen by audience applause, and is then invited to make a costume change for the conclusion.

And now, Alice Nutting storms across the stage to make her grand exit, her little dog trailing behind her.

Onto more serious matters: we seek the culprit. Who shall be the murderer tonight? The Chairman runs down the list of possible murderers and their motives for the crime. Audience members vote by "districts" for the killer, and the totals are tallied backstage. The reprise of "SETTLING UP THE SCORE" brings us to the conclusion of The Mystery....of Edwin Drooooood!

Puffer runs into Rosa in the cathedral, calling her by name. In happier times, it seems, Puffer was Rosa's nanny, and explains the situation in "THE GARDEN PATH TO HELL." She continues with "PUFFER'S CONFESSION" and reveals to us the identity of Datchery!

A version of "OUT ON A LIMERICK" follows, sung by the evening's chosen Datchery, either Bazzard, Reverend Crisparkle, Helena, Neville or Rosa, telling their reason to want to find the killer, and accusing Jasper of doing the deed!

Jasper is brought forth and in "JASPER"S CONFESSION" admits to strangling his nephew while in a drugged state. But gravedigger Durdles has news for him. He witnessed the crime and knows the true identity of the killer! It is one of either Bazzard, Reverend Crisparkle, Helena, Neville, Puffer or Rosa. The murderer confesses, then sings his crime in a reprise of one of the show's numbers.

The Chairman then lets us choose a pair of lovers from the cast members still available for such! The two recite lines appropriate to their cause, and then reprise "PERFECT STRANGERS."

We are then alerted to a rumbling from the crypt below. It is Drood! Still alive and ready to tell us not only the truth of that fateful night, but his insights into the wonders of life from his new perspective, as he sings of "THE WRITING ON THE WALL."

Drood is alive and the mystery is solved! The Company takes bow to the reprise of "DON'T QUIT WHILE YOU'RE AHEAD."

back to the top