Trilby & Svengali Research

Trilby & Svengali is a free adaptation of the 1894 novel, Trilby, about a model turned diva, and Svengali, who mesmerizes her into fame and submission. In this version, which takes place in the new millennium, a group of wealthy young artists obsessed with Trilby voyeuristically examine her in the name of art. They compulsively portray her, drawing, photographing and painting parts of her body as if, through art, they could create the perfect woman. Svengali, a musician with strange powers of persuasion, takes her away and teaches her to sing, emptying her mind of all but his presence. When the group of artists finally hear her sing, Svengali suddenly dies and Trilby loses her voice forever. Though the plot of the original novel provides a strong structure for the play, it is resisted, altered, and interwoven with alternative texts, thus creating a more experimental piece.

This adaptation takes as its starting point the concept of the hysterical performance. Trilby is drawn to Svengali because of the way he can dissolve her physical and emotional pain through hypnosis. Parallels are drawn with the work of Jean-Martin Charcot, who, in his clinic at the Salpêtrière staged performances of hypnotized hysterical divas in the 1880’s and 1890’s, often photographing their symptoms. Trilby seems to submit to Svengali as her doctor-composer, but at the end of the play, she attempts to reverse this controlling gaze. In the same way, Will, the young artist, uses his camera to capture Trilby and her symptoms within its frame. This act of posing and capturing is staged through movement, becoming a dance of unfulfilled desire. In the end, however, Trilby escapes being placed in the fame of representation.

Throughout the play, the male characters’ obsession with Trilby is justified by this intention to “cure” her rather than to voyeuristically take pleasure in her body. The play experiments with ideas about watching and being watched, and the look of the guilty spectator. When the artists discover, for example, that Trilby is a stripper as well as an artist’s model, they feel that she has somehow betrayed their trust and abandon her.

The use of movement is key in this performance, representing and critiquing the way society views women as both hysterical and hyper-sexual. The main themes of neurosis, voyeurism and fetishism are explored through resisting and re-working the original patriarchal text.r-

Some of this was based on the story of Augustine, who was photographed in a state of what was believed to be hysteria. I researched photographs of this woman and then choreographed my actresses to replicate these images while a male character photographed them.

Here are some original images of Augustine. Each is labeled, for example, in the top right hand corner, "Planche XVII Attitudes Passionelles: Menace."

Each image is reminiscent of silent film acting at the time. I wanted to replicate this in my play.


The image on the top is one of a series of slides that were projected on the backdrop, as the man (Kevin Johnson) took photos with his old-fashioned camera. The production photographer, Mike Davies, preferred that the slides were not running when the photo to the left was taken so you can't get the full effect here. They are performing on the opposite sides of a frame they were using as if it were a mirror.