It’s ironic that Peter Lorre turned down offers to play Hamlet. He feared career suicide, being typecast as the deranged dark prince. But then in 1931, he played a murdering pedophile otherwise known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf in Fritz Lang’s M. He became Hollywood’s quintessential bad guy. For the rest of his career, he played smugglers, thieves, freaks, and maniacs. Need a lowlife? Then get Peter Lorre.
Such are the ironies of Lorre’s life and the rich theatrical soil that stage director Jay Scheib has to work with. Scheib is a professor of art and music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was recently named the best director in the Big Apple by Time Out New York. He is known for creating new ways of seeing and experiencing drama and integrating multimedia elements, like video, that feel natural, vital, and cool.
And loud. Spoleto organizers will hand out ear plugs to everyone with a ticket to see Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s 20th Century, performed by the well-known cabaret punk band World/Inferno Friendship Society. It has to be loud, Scheib says from his office in Boston, because the music tells the story of “this iconoclastic outsider.”
He wasn’t always that way. And in a way, Lorre never was. Others saw him as the Other. Lorre was born in Hungary, now Slovakia, as Ladislaw Löwenstein. He lived in Vienna for a time, and after the First World War, he went to Berlin and soon was working with Lang, who was beginning to work with talkies, and Bertolt Brecht, whose illusion-bursting model of “epic theater” Scheib revives for Addicted to Bad Ideas.
M launched his international reputation, but it also sealed his fate. When he arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s, all that was left were seedy characters, creepy foreigners, and vile villians. His most famous roles were probably with Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and then again in Casablanca (1942). But titles of other movies suggest the depth of the pigeonholing: The Face Behind the Mask (1941), The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942), and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946).
Even so, maybe he was destined for such roles. In 1933, some friends joked that he’d never played a classic leading role, like Hamlet. In reply, he said he knew all the parts. His friends said prove it. So he did. But it wasn’t the famed “to be or not to be” speech. It was the gravedigger’s part. He stunned his audience, then said, “You sons of bitches, you thought I was going to play Hamlet and make a fool of myself. My part is the gravedigger, and if I had ever played it on the stage, I would have stolen that play.”
“That’s just mythical stuff,” Scheib says, relaying the well-known story. “That’s the kind of misanthropic character who’s perfect for theater.”
And it’s punk, which is how Lorre became fodder for Jack Terricloth, lead singer of the World/Inferno Friendship Society and, Scheib insists, “a Peter Lorre scholar.” The band had already recorded an album dedicated to Lorre by the time Scheib came into the picture. A mutual friend saw their mutual interest and suggested they collaborate to create a live performance based on the record. They even stuck with the same name.
“They are brilliant musicians,” Scheib says. “Punk is the defiance of definition and the defiance of style. In that way, no one does punk better than the Inferno.”
Addicted to Bad Ideas pays homage to Brecht’s epic theater model. He avoided using a narrative thread and instead used a series of episodes, like a revue. To break the illusion of theater, to make audiences hyperaware of theater’s artificiality, Brecht often used film, signs, and other visual devices. If it worked back then using early 20th-century technology, imagine what it will be like now.
Scheib and company have recut a number of Lorre films to mix with a live feed of what’s happening with the band on stage. The plan is to project a mixture of both onto a screen positioned above the stage.
The effect, Scheib says, is cinematic. Perfect for Lorre.
“He was always the guy who played guys who killed people,” Scheib says. “But he was a brilliant artist who worked with Hitchcock, Lang, and the best. He survived two World Wars. We are sympathetic to his life, which was this amazing arc of humanity.”