In the fall of 1888, in the Whitechapel area of London, an unidentified assailant murdered and mutilated at least five women. From the first murder to the last, terror gripped the city. Newspapers printed grisly details. Letters were mailed to newspapers and the police, claiming credit for the crimes. These letters were signed “Jack the Ripper” and “From Hell.” As if the devil himself had risen from the shadows cast by gaslight. Illustrations in the papers cast him as a cloaked, hidden figure. No witnesses caught sight of him. In the end, four women were discovered stabbed on the streets. He killed two women in one night. The fifth and final victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was killed in her flat. By the time she was found, the assailant had sliced her beyond recognition. Then…he seemed to stop. Over the years, this man became less human and more supernatural. Whoever the man had been—butcher, baker, candlestick maker—he was now Jack the Ripper. Storytellers with grim and gory imaginations spun theories and tales. Like magic, he transformed from a man into a ghoulish, fantastical figure on par with Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera.
So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me when, during the first read-through of my play Mary Kelly’s Window, which follows the Ripper’s final victim, a very astute critiquer (Hi Quinn!) asked: What does Jack the Ripper mean? In the play, the Ripper is only seen the way we will ever truly know him—as a shadow, a cloaked figure. Faceless. I chose to represent him this way because it felt disingenuous to speculate about his identity. However, the questions of who he is, what he represents, and what he means inevitably arise. In a literary/dramatic framework, he’s going to be, represent, and mean different things to different viewers.
Clearly, Jack the Ripper is functioning as an antagonist. Symbolically, he’s the manifestation of the terror women feel walking down the street alone at night, the reason women lace car keys between their fingers, and the stand-in for societal traps women find themselves in.
But what is Jack the Ripper to me? Why write about this situation? Is he just a grim fascination? I like to think my interests are deeper than just murder porn. I can’t remember when I first heard of Jack the Ripper, and I can’t remember when I first learned all the details…it feels like story I’ve somehow grown up with. It seems like at first, I was a child and there was a boogeyman under my bed—a figure I couldn’t name or understand who lurked in the shadows under my dust ruffles. Then I’m a teenager and realize that going out at night and wandering the streets under the moon is thrilling and dangerous, but I have no sense of the real danger.
Now I’m an adult and somewhere along the line, between fictional dangers and true dangers, I understand there are real consequences to violence. Jack the Ripper is not just a story to me anymore. He was a real man, in a real time, responding to real stressors. The women he killed were breathing beings, struggling against time and circumstances. They were just trying to live in a world that wanted them to die. In writing them (even taking exceptional liberties with historical accuracy), I learned there are real reasons vulnerable people will make themselves more vulnerable, even if it seems insane to those of us watching from the audience—from a safe space. So, what is he to me now? He’s everything any of us struggle against—whether it’s poverty, systemic injustice, internal anger, and lack.
If you’re interested in reading it, you can find a copy at New Play Exchange, or you can just ask me at jenny (at) otherworldsandthis.com