Sometimes in media, one part stands out from the whole and is deserving of its own examination. It might act as a microcosm for what the whole is about, or it might stand in stark contrast to the rest of the whole–‘In a Nutshell’ entries focus on those single parts and hopefully serve as an introduction or ‘way in’ for audiences unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Today’s entry examines Ferdinand Lyle of Showtime’s Victorian Horror masterpiece, Penny Dreadful. We’ll discuss his role among the world of PD, Simon Russell Beale’s magnificent performance, and parallels between Lyle’s character and the works of Victorian Literature icon, Oscar Wilde.
Ferdinand Lyle – A Primer
The world of Penny Dreadful doesn’t waste time establishing its atmosphere: the supernatural is real, and all the camp tropes of Victorian Pulp literature are on full, delicious display. However, the characters within this world are doing their best to make sense of it, and when a vampire covered in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs is discovered, the power team of Sir Malcolm Murray and his ward, Vanessa Ives, must seek answers.
Ferdinand Lyle is a prominent Egyptologist at the British Museum, and so it is to him that they go. Murray is already familiar with Lyle, probably because they’re in each other’s social orbits. Victorian London was very much like high school, with its rigid social castes, where everyone is aware of each other whether they’ve met or not. And so we meet one of the few beams of light amongst the dour, baroque backdrop of the PD universe, Ferdinand Lyle. Closeted, Lyle has a happy yet lavender marriage to a wealthy woman, which is how he’s able to maintain his position. Partly his marriage is for the protection and privilege that wealth provides, but also, he is a tiny bit vain. Just before he meets Murray and Vanessa, we get this delightful little flourish:
Delightful! That smile is so genuine! Having seen all three seasons, I know now that Lyle is indeed a vain man, but also a very complex one. Watching this moment again in .gif form reminded me just how brilliant and layered Simon Russell Beale’s approach to playing him and John Logan’s writing are.
It is tempting to dismiss Lyle upon first glance as the tired trope of outre gay man, who dishes out world-weary life advice and sassy repartee in equal amounts. It would be an understandable response. However, the problem with that response indicates a lack of understanding about where that stereotype came from, and why certain aspects of it are being employed in the show. And for that, we must visit briefly with Oscar Wilde.
A figurative and literal giant (he was 6’4) of Victorian and gay literature, Oscar Wilde was himself, more than anything else. An iconoclast even in his school days, Wilde eschewed manly activities (although he was known to be a proficient boxer), wore his hair long and professed to love all things beautiful and decadent. For many years he was a rock star and spent his time traveling to lecture, write and perform in plays, including writing and starring in the scandalous Salome. During a trial where he was suing his lover’s father for libel, evidence of his gay lifestyle came out and he was jailed for “the crime of sodomy” for 2 years. Men could hang out in men’s clubs, spend all their time together, and even sleep in each other’s beds, but they could not be “out.” Gay men and women camouflaged themselves with loveless marriages (as Lyle does) and ‘acceptable’ behavior. If they were lucky, they were rich enough to keep their lifestyles private and so enjoy a few brief moments of joy behind closed doors; if they weren’t, they worked as rent boys, married beards, or self-destructed at a young age. The numbers of gay teens who commit suicide or otherwise self-destruct today are staggering; I can only imagine what the numbers must have been like in the 19th century.
I love Wilde’s writing. His Dorian Gray is a masterpiece of early atmospheric horror, and his social satires remain cutting even today. I’ve read and studied him, his time period, and his influences (Lord Dunsany! John Ruskin! Walter Pater!) to the moon and back, so I won’t bore you with them. (Sidenote: Please check out Wilde, one of the most underrated depictions of his life, starring the perfectly cast Stephen Frye as Wilde and Jude Law as his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas).
But for all that, it’s not his biting wit that captivates me.
Wilde’s fables and children’s tales, like The Happy Prince or The Selfish Giant, are where the most beautiful layers of his heart are exposed. For all the cruelties Wilde endured in his short life, he maintained a sweet yearning for love and acceptance, and a belief that it did exist. Like many of my favorite comedians, writers, artists, and musicians, Wilde was shaped, changed by the harsh world, but not so changed that he lost his capacity for love and gentleness. He turned the ugly things that happened to him into beauty.
Ferdinand The Hero
So too, does Ferdinand Lyle refuse to let terrible circumstances change him, and represent that tiny center of love and hope for acceptance that was at the heart of Wilde’s work. In the second season, when Beale went from being a guest star to being a principle cast member, Lyle is being blackmailed by the villainous Evelyn Poole. She’s got some photos of him in compromising positions, and she’s forcing him to spy on Vanessa Ives. When Poole reveals her leverage over him, Beale plays it perfectly: for Lyle, the possibility of losing his position, his job, his marriage, and that protection he enjoys (his wife would have to divorce him or be ruined herself), really might be a matter of life and death, and that panic is palpable in Beale’s performance. Sure, there is the danger of being killed by demons or vampires if he continues hanging out with Vanessa and crew, but the slums of Victorian London can be just as if not more lethal for a gay aristocrat. Being murdered by a blood-thirsty monster, one could almost accept; being murdered for being different is an entirely different thing to face. Although Lyle plays along with Poole’s ruse at the risk of his own life, he tells her nothing that would really betray Vanessa.
Best of all, Beale’s performance brought moments of delightful levity in the show, especially during the second season.
Here he is meeting Ethan Chandler, the American hired gun played by Josh Hartnett.
Here he is planning to break into the British Museum with Ethan. Their playful flirting was one of the highlights of the show.
Delightful! I can’t watch that .gif without giggling and cheering up right away.
Beale’s performance is suffused with joy; one reason is that Lyle has found a group of people on the margin of normality, as he is, who accept him and delight in his company. This is a place where Ferdinand can be himself without fear of judgement or retribution, a life-making space for someone who is gay– or Jewish, as he is. During the first season, each of the company isolates themselves to prepare for a coming battle, the outcome of which may be uncertain. Vanessa prays, Malcolm prepares his guns… and Lyle heads to the basement, where he recites prayers, donning his yarmulke and his prayer shawl. In the first season, he does this fearfully while glancing up the stairs, afraid of being found out. In the second season, he prays openly in front of Dr. Frankenstein, again before heading into danger.
Lyle saves Vanessa one last time in the third season when he pays her a visit. Finding her in the depths of a terrible depression, he gives her the name of his mental doctor, who helped him through his own dark night of the soul. Sadly, Lyle leaves for Egypt in the third season. I can’t even write about his goodbye to Vanessa without tearing up. Part of me was deeply saddened over this, and his cheery, yet grounding presence is sorely missed, but upon further reflection I realized that he was getting a happy ending. Imagine that! Given the way the dreary third season went (I wasn’t pleased with some of the story directions, but c’est la vie), I will take what little enjoyments I can get.
So that has been an introduction and discussion of Ferdinand Lyle, one of the many delightful parts that make up the whole of Penny Dreadful. That said, if you love horror, great characters, beautiful sets, and English literature, and you somehow haven’t seen the show yet, then I hope you’ll consider giving it a chance!
Penny Dreadful is on Showtime, and available on blu-ray and DVD.