John Malkovich is coming to London to play a Bad Guy on the stage.
The play is called ‘The Infernal Comedy' and we are told that it is:
the autobiography of Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger…[who] was imprisoned for murder but became a poet and writer while serving his sentence; critics loved him and intellectuals and politicians eventually got him a pardon, claiming he was an example of 'rehabilitation'.
Already there is concern that it will be too sympathetic a portrayal; that Unterweger will be 'glamorised'.
However, the notion that the Bad Guy should be shown to be a repulsive monster is just one of many literary approaches.
The Bad Guys in Dickens and the early gothic novels were usually caricatures, and this tradition carried on in cinema and in pantomime.
You were not supposed to like them, still less associate yourself with these horrible sorts.
They may well scare you, but they were firmly “The Other”.
Another literary tradition, which one can perhaps associate with Milton’s Lucifer, is to make the Bad Guy attractive: someone you would like.
Here, the Bad Guy as the Charming Figure also has a great tradition, including Conan Doyle’s quite wonderful threesome of Irene Adler, Charles Augustus Milverton, and Professor Moriarty (each of whom would be far preferable company than the earnest Holmes and Watson), and the recent film portrayals of Hannibal Lector by Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins.
This type of perhaps glamorous characterization can be far more unsettling than the Dickensian grotesque: to actually like these characters may well make us uncomfortable about ourselves.
More difficult is for a writer to create a Bad Guy who makes us realise that we are all capable of bad actions; that the Bad Guy is not necessarily somebody else.
In his brilliant Contingency, irony, and solidarity, the late Richard Rorty contended that Nabakov and Orwell were able to put forward characters who could make the reader personally reflect on the nature of cruelty: that, in particular, the figure of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-four could make one empathise with what it would be like to be a torturer.
Torture and cruelty are commonplaces in this world. They probably always will be.
The question of how it can best be understood is perhaps not to ask why other people can be the Bad Guys, either as Dickensian Horrors or as Miltonian Charmers, but to ask how all humans can do deeply bad things.
The villain is not always behind you, or in front of you; it can instead be you.
And that is not a glamorous thought at all.
No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.