Costume Drama

Advice and insight from a professional poet.


in Archive


I’m a physical therapist who just moved to Boston. I’ve been invited to a Halloween party in which every attendee must dress up as a villain and I’m having a hard time deciding on a costume. Can you help?
— Erin


I love costume parties! I always appreciate a subtle costume, so how about dressing up as the speaker from Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess”?

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said?
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, — good! but thanked
Somehow — I know not how — as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift…

It is clear by the end of the poem that the speaker himself has killed his wife. He’s about to meet the woman who would become his next duchess, whose future life hinges on the whims of this hard-to-please scum bag. I think you should dress up as a 19th-century royal and wear a name tag that reads “Duke Nine-Hundred-Years-Old Name.” I bet this costume would be so intriguing that dozens of people would come up to you and ask about it, so it’s good for meeting new people, too!

But if subtlety’s not your thing, I’d dress up as Cyclops from The Odyssey:

Neither reply nor pity came from him,
but in one stride he clutched at my companions
and caught two in his hands like squirming puppies
to beat their brains out, spattering the floor.
Then he dismembered them and make his meal,
gaping and crunching like a mountain lion —
everything: innards, flesh, and marrow bones.

(translated by Robert Fitzgerald)

That’s definitely a good one. Or — sorry, I know too many ideas can be just as problematic as too few — you could dress up as something specific to your trade, like a pulled rotator cuff.   I’m not totally sure what that would look like, but you could go as something inflamed and gory, or post-op and bandaged. My main suggestion is that you complement your costume by carrying an iPod with miniature speakers blasting that fantastic spoken word poem by Edward Thomas Herrera, “My Pain Keeps Me Regular”:

My pain
My pain
My pain

My pain is better than anyone else’s
My pain is more serious than anyone else’s
My pain is more important than anyone else’s

Compared to my pain
Everyone else’s pain is petty
Everyone else’s pain is meaningless
Everyone else’s pain is a day at the beach a walk in the park a
Piece of fucking cake
It’s my pain
My pain my pain

My pain beating breasts
My pain licking open sores
My pain crying thick red tears of arterial blood
My pain twisting the knife blade around and around and around
My pain representative of all the injustice that has ever happened
Is happening
Or will happen to anyone anywhere anyhow

My pain
My pain
My pain

I blame my lovers
I blame my parents
I blame organized religion
I blame the current administration
I blame the capitalist system of economics

But most importantly
I blame everyone who has ever lived
Because they have all been party to my torment
If not directly
Then indirectly
If you don’t believe me
Just give me a little time
I can find blood on your hands
Somehow somewhere some way

Trust me
My pain
My pain
My pain

Some say I need to get over it transcend
Some say I need to put it all behind me go on with my life
Some say I may require professional help in order to accomplish all this

But what do they know?
They’ve never experienced my pain
My pain is so truly enormously unique
If I don’t dwell on it then just who would?

Personally, I’d go as the scariest villain of them all: a blank computer screen. Boo! • 18 October 2010