- Jeremy Lister (Dr. Selden Crow) & Evan Crump (Vigo Jansen) in Stephen Spotswood's play 'The Resurrectionist King.' (Photo by Ian Armstrong)
Some metaphorical grave-digging led Stephen Spotswood to his play about the real thing. The Resurrectionist King unearths from the annals of Washington history the true story of Vigo Jansen, the area's most famous grave-robber, in an era in which bodysnatching was a necessary task for medical research. With four teaching hospitals in the area during the late 1800s, plucky grave-robbers could make big bucks for fresh bodies, especially because the laws hadn't yet caught up to their exploits. None of them were as famous as Vigo Jansen, whom the Washington Post dubbed "The Resurrectionist King."
Spotswood learned about Jansen from a 2005 City Paper story about Washington's sordid history of grave-robbing, by Mike Little. When he read Little's description of Jansen as a drunken grandstander "straight out of Conan Doyle," he knew there was more in Jansen's biography to explore.
"It was a great inspiration for a theater piece. I put it in my back pocket," says Spotswood, who pulled it out for a commission from Active Cultures' "The 19th Century Local Project."
Though most of Jansen's career was spent digging up corpses and shilling them for $25 apiece (about $600 today), his most spectacular stunt was the live show he performed at the Theatre Comique, intended to demonstrate and defend his art. But Jansen showed up drunk, and the actor he hired to play the cadaver kept laughing throughout the show. Audience members who were morbidly curious about the practice were soon disgusted.
"His showmanship was terrible. People might have been fascinated by [grave-robbing], but it was still incredibly taboo ... For the general public, it was truly a horrid practice," says Spotswood. Society wasn't ready to admit to enjoying a show as dark as Jansen's. "He was a little ahead of his time."
Jansen courted Washington Post reporters throughout his life, but he didn't realize that theater critics were of a different breed. They were vicious.
"They reviewed the show, and it was a giant disaster," says Spotswood.
And in that regard, the playwright has certainly been able to empathize with his subject. Three publications have reviewed "The Resurrectionist King" in the past few days, and the verdicts range from mediocre to bad. The Washington Post's Celia Wren wrote that the play "tosses characters and themes into conflicts that often seem contrived, melodramatic and glib," while DC Theatre Scene's Tim Treanor wrote, "As bad as the first act is – and I will not mince words; it is bad – it is outweighed by the merits of the second."
Spotswood wouldn't comment on the reviews, except to say that his script will evolve with changes that he had already planned, independent of the reviews.
"I know that prior to the opening, people were asking Active Cultures why they would commission something so gruesome," says Spotswood. "It has a lot more relevance than just a historical artifact. I wanted to use the scenario to examine issues of what it means to be alive, and how we approach and think about death."
The critics agree on that point, too: They all mention that, while it's an imperfect beginning, The Resurrectionist King, with some editing, will rise again.