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“Lord Byron was the model for so many things that are commonplace in our pop culture today,” says Stephen Gregory Smith. Touted as the first celebrity of the modern era, Byron was a 19th-century media sensation. Attractive and eccentric. Troubled and campy. Bisexual.
“He slept with a lot of people, women and men,” Smith says, adding with a laugh, “basically anyone.” Though his same-sex dalliances were frowned upon at the time, it diminished neither his fame nor his influence. In fact, Byron is said to have inspired the titular character of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
Smith has taken inspiration from Byron for a new musical co-written with his husband, composer Matt Conner. Monsters of the Villa Diodati centers on one summer, in 1816, when Lord Bryon helped spawn popular tales about the undead — simply as a result of challenging the literary guests at his Swiss villa to create compelling new horror stories. Among those conceived there: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, considered the first work of science fiction and John Polidori’s The Vampyre. Unlike the “never beautiful” monsters that epitomized vampire folklore previously, Polidori opted to model his protagonist after Byron — “basically,” as Smith puts it, “a beautiful man who seeks out other young beautiful people to suck the life out of.”
Understandably, there was little love lost between Polidori and Byron after that summer. Or really between Byron and any of his other three guests, including Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Shelley. “These are some of the wittiest people that ever walked the earth and all they do is try to shoot each other down,” Smith says. “When they’re not trying to sleep with each other, they’re trying to insult each other in very smart ways.”
Monsters of the Villa Diodati, which features a largely pop/rock score, is the duo’s second show, after last year’s The Turn of the Screw at Creative Cauldron in Falls Church. Conner and Smith are set to create three more works, one per year, for the small theater company. That’s in addition to Silver Bells, a big, new Christmas musical they’re developing for Signature. Factor in other projects, including acting roles on local stages, and it’s no wonder that any time Conner and Smith are together becomes an opportunity to talk shop — whether at home or at the gym. “A lot of our conversations are artistic,” Conner says. “It’s actually a good thing we’re married. I’ve never spent so much time with another writer.”
Monsters of the Villa Diodati runs to Feb. 21 at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 South Maple Ave. Tickets are $26. Call 703-436-9948 or visit creativecauldron.org.
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