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Example of a penny dreadful cover

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP just happens to be subtitled as “a penny dreadful.” The phrase “penny dreadful” was unknown to me, until I began learning about the show. My first thought was that it must mean that it was a “pretty dreadful” play (aren’t my jokes hilarious?). Obviously, I knew that wasn’t true, but I still didn’t have the faintest idea of what it did mean- so it was off to Google!

Penny dreadfuls have a long and storied history, and are relics of the Victorian era. Originally sold for (you guessed it), a penny, these short, comic-book style novels captured the imaginations of many of the Victorian era. They were serialized- meaning that a new part of the story came out regularly, and was an extension of the previously published story. They were perfect entertainment for the urban working class, who was becoming more and more literate at the time.

Each of the stories was boldly illustrated with stories that were outrageous and violent. Interestingly enough, one of musical theatre’s favorite villains was created by the penny dreadful genre- Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Cover of a Sweeney Todd penny dreadful

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP is obviously not a penny dreadful in the most specific sense- it’s a play, not an illustrated novella. But, it makes fun of the exact sort of drama seen in penny dreadfuls. A good laugh at some pseudo-creepy antics is always a great form of entertainment, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the show!