William & Mary

‘Whitechapel Arias' is a new twist on infamous murders

  • The terror of London
    The terror of London  The dead bodies of five women were found within about a month of each other, a crime committed by a man who called himself Jack the Ripper. The Whitechapel Arias will tell the stories on April 12 and 13, 7 p.m., at Ewell Recital Hall.  
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In 1888, five women met regularly in a London pub. With little recourse other than slaving away in one of the city’s horrific workhouses, they chose instead to work as prostitutes, also referred to at the time as “unfortunates.”

In little more than a month, and within a mile of each other, all were murdered in acts of unspeakable brutality. Their killer, unidentified except for the nickname he reputedly used in a taunting letter to police – Jack the Ripper. Also known as The Leather Apron, he was never brought to justice. The women became footnotes to criminal infamy, their voices buried with them.

Until now.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of previous works on the subject of the Ripper, “The Whitechapel Arias” focuses on the victims, who appear as ghosts. The verse play will be performed on April 12 and 13 at William & Mary’s Ewell Recital Hall. The show, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m.

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The show is a unique collaboration involving four W&M professors: Nancy Schoenberger, who directs the university’s Creative Writing program, penned the play following extensive research into the Ripper’s victims. Elizabeth Wiley of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance is the director. Opera singer Ryan Fletcher, long a presenter of the Department of Music’s opera workshop, is the music director. Mary Eason Fletcher, who teaches in the university’s Applied Music program, serves as music consultant and vocal coach.Nancy Schoenberger

“It evolved from a series of dramatic monologues I wrote years ago,” said Schoenberger, who has gained acclaim for her books on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, John Wayne and John Ford and sisters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radzwill. “I tinkered with them and thought about them and played with them and finally I thought, 'Wait a minute, these are real characters.’”

A unique twist to the show is the addition of music, mostly from that period of the 19th century. The idea was Wiley’s and includes songs most will recognize, like “Cockles and Mussels.” But American Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come No More” also was added once it was learned that Foster’s music was just as popular in England as it was in the United States.Liz Wiley

“Nancy's play gives a glimpse at who these Whitechapel women were," Wiley said. “Then we've added music that evokes the atmosphere and mood of the setting, sprinkling those songs throughout the piece."

 The setting is The Ten Bells Pub, which has been in existence since the mid-18th century. Even today, the names of the victims remain memorialized on a wall. Witnesses saw the final victim, Mary Kelly, inside the pub an hour before she was murdered.

Leaving The Ten Bells, Kelly and a man were seen entering a room in a boarding house, where she was heard singing “A Violet I Plucked from Mother's Grave When a Boy,” the lyrics of which Schoenberger had worked into her verse monologues, even as other songs were added. It is sung by Emily Flack ’20.The Ten Bells Pub

The other female leads are Laynie Zell ’19 (Polly Nichols), Abby Comey ’22 (Elizabeth Stride), Maria Burns ’19 (Anne Chapman) and Sumie Yotsukura ’22 (Catherine Eddows).

“It is wonderful to be part of this production,” said Mary Eason Fletcher. “It’s both creative and commemorative. The writing, plus the talent of the student performers, beautifully illuminate the lives of these women and the time in which they lived.”Mary Eason Fletcher

Ryan Fletcher added while the Opera Workshop normally presents a “standard repertoire of opera,” the story of the Ripper’s victims is hardly out of bounds.

“Opera is all about gore and murder, so it fits right into the theme,” he said. “We thought this would be very interesting because it’s very different from what we've done before. We normally present a performance twice a year, once in fall, once in spring. We thought this world premiere would be our spring performance, and we’re delighted to be involved with Nancy.”Ryan Fletcher

Schoenberger obviously is aware that hers is a grim subject, and she and Wiley have attempted to lighten the mood a bit by including what she describes as “rollicking” songs. Those are interspersed with monologues in which the characters recount their lives.

“We learn what makes them happy; they love to sing, they love to drink, they love the camaraderie with each other,” Schoenberger said. “Those are the types of things that got them through the harsh lives they lived in the Whitechapel section of London in 1888.

“This is a chance for them to say who they were and to give them their due, but in a way it's also a kind of ...  they never had the kind of eulogy one might think. This is a way of putting them to rest.”