Here is my tumble of notes from listening through the adapted The Doll’s House storyline from Audible’s The Sandman radio play. As I wrote last time, this is the Sandman arc I have the most familiarity with, by dint of it being the contents of the first Sandman trade paperback I purchased as a hungry teenager. So: lots of notes.

The original comics use the pronoun “it” for androgynous Desire. This may have been the best choice in 1989, when the concept of non-binary gender identities seemed a little more fantastic, to most readers, than it does today. Wisely, Dirk Maggs’s normally hyper-faithful adaptation draws a line in the (begging your pardon) sand here, quietly substituting “they”, which I felt just as quietly relieved to hear.

I also appreciated the narrator making sure we understood that Desire is not so much non-binary as all-gendered. And that had to have made them a challenge to cast properly! Desire is portrayed here by a transgender actor whose vocal style I’d describe as “feminine-pitched masculine”, and who delivers Desire’s lines with a dangerous, raspy edge. Probably the full inverse from what I’d have assumed, and therefore delightfully—and appropriately—arresting.

Only upon this listen did I get the joke that the sole feature of Desire’s realm is a thousand-foot-tall statue-fortress shaped like Desire’s own glorious body not just because Desire exhibits supreme vanity, but also because it is an apt metaphor for an all-consuming, obsessive attention set upon a single object—human or otherwise—that blanks out the rest of one’s world into a gray fog. Small-d desire’s purest and uncut form, and Desire of the Endless’s stock-in-trade. And definitely the sort of thing I needed to be a little older to fully understand.

Also only upon this listen does it become clear that The Doll’s House sets up Desire as the whole series’s principal antagonist. I have no idea for how long this remains true, and it presents me with an unexpectedly fresh aspect of this series to keep in mind as I continue this listen-through.

I was surprised to see Hippolyta, who becomes a key character later in The Sandman, introduced here as a disillusioned superhero—further proving that the book keeps at least one pale toe in the DC realms for a while yet. But we’re done palling around with the Justice League; Lyta’s world sees her own costumed capers almost as a fetish or sexual identity, something she “came out of the closet” about in college, and which she now begins to feel ready to move on from. I now recognize this take as flirting with Watchmen.

In his portrayal of the title character, James McAvoy crystallizes the inhuman callousness Dream displays when, flush with victory over the rebellious Brute and Glob, he banishes Hector’s ghost in front of his horrified wife. Lyta has every reason to believe that Dream just casually killed her husband. (I mean, he sort of did.) And then he has the gall to claim her unborn baby as a citizen of the Dreaming, with a promise to return for it later! As an oh-by-the-way! It does strengthen Lyta’s vengeful motivation, set to unfold several storylines in the future.

I did find this scene little hard to square with the tenderness and sympathy Dream shows Rose later in The Doll’s House. It’s true that other characters again and again describe Dream’s heartlessness; elsewhere in this production we see the cruelty he shows Queen Nada, as well as his oblivious trampling of Shakespeare’s spirit. But both of those happened centuries before, and we see just as much evidence that he has softened a great deal, since. One imagines that, in the heat of the moment, he showed an edge of his older, far more terrible self.

Or: maybe he just has a thing for younger women. I did revisit the pages of Rose’s near-execution, in the comics, and Dream is embracing her, like a lover. He looks ready to kiss her, not kill her. Rose, both terrified and furious, demands tearfully that he just do whatever he’s going to do. Do you know what? I think he was a split-second away from making a big mistake—and Rose is far luckier at her unexpected rescue than she knows, given what tends to happen to the women whom Dream embraces.

An aside, stemming from that same first visit to the printed Doll’s House in ages: I easily recognize now that little Jed’s dreams, with the clear-line art, the numbered panels, and the boy always waking up with a start at the end, are all in reference to Little Nemo in Slumberland! This doesn’t come across at all in the radio play, and I don’t blame its producers for not trying to force it.

The various scenes of the Corinthian and his colleagues doing their thing are as horrible in content as anything that happened in Dee’s diner, but they’re far shorter, vignettes of no more than a page at a time. Thankfully, this also makes for an easier listen than the events of “24 Hours”.

I read The Doll’s House a few months before I attended my very first large-scale fan gathering, 1992’s PhilCon. I had no idea that the depicted “cereal convention” satirized any kind of real-world events that long-time comic book readers might be familiar with. This made for a slightly more alarming first-time fan-con experience than I might have otherwise had.

After the adaptation revealed its willingness to update Desire’s pronouns to match contemporary tastes, I wondered how it’d handle another outmoded term an upcoming scene held, where one con-goer monologues about his obsession with—to use the book’s language—”preoperative transsexuals”. And lo, he here speaks instead of “congenital eunuchs.” To which his interlocutor, reasonably, says “Huh?”, and he merely repeats himself, offering no further explanation. This works fairly well with the grim humor already present in the framing conversation, honestly.

Having read Lolita and then diving into its popular critique over the summer, seeing young Rose and middle-aged Gilbert go road-tripping and checking into a weird-Americana motel together got my guard up! But, besides Rose having ten years on poor old Dolores, Gilbert entirely deserves the trust she gives him. He is perhaps the best person in the entire epic, every bit the knight-errant he claims to be.

The actor playing Gilbert really sells the character by simply sitting up close to his microphone. His breathing is softly audible for all the dialogues he’s present in. Gilbert is an expansive man, not merely corpulent but possessing a large, embracing spirit—only appropriate, given the nature of his true identity. Hearing his breath softly fill the sound-space conveyed this so succinctly.

“Dream vortex” is a terribly corny name for the story’s macguffin, but I do appreciate it as a concept: it gives a tidy excuse for what would otherwise be an unacceptable level of coincidence in how the A and B and C plots all collide so rapidly. It’s a vortex! It pulls in dreams and sets them to swirling around it! Dreams like the ones we are now reading-or-hearing! Sure, fine, carry on.

I love the head-fake early on where we think we know where the story’s going, and then the title character immediately derails it. If I may paraphrase: Lucien says “Oh dear, we must find out who the vortex is, my lord!” and Dream says “Eh? No, I already know that. In fact, if you look closely, you can see her standing right over there,” and then gestures at the “camera”, since Rose, dreaming, provides our point of view. So good.

It seems strange that Dream would delay taking care of that vortex, an imminent threat to the Dreaming, and go off hunting for a handful of decades-missing dream-creatures instead. But we know he finds the work of killing the vortex necessary-but-distasteful, and also that he immediately knows the vortex’s identity and can reach it whenever he wants. So, on reflection, I think he is simply procrastinating! Solving the missing-dream mystery is more fun and interesting, and he can tell himself that he’s got a pin in the vortex meanwhile. Just gonna improve his mood with a spot of cleaning, first…

This adaptation has quite a lot of fun making Gaiman-as-narrator read aloud descriptions of all of Dream’s costume changes, including the one at the climax of The Doll’s House: garbed in an ultra-black cloak, but leaving his pale chest bare, “as is traditional for an executioner”. I caught that reference.

“What happened?” “You died. Let me help you up.” Such a great line.

Most unexpected cameo: Porpentine! Or her name, anyway, several times, during Barbie’s dreams. A spot of research tells me it’s an archaic form of “porcupine”, but I’ve only known it as the name of the inimitable interactive fiction creator.

Barbie and her dreams take center stage during A Game of You, which won’t start unfurling for another dozen episodes or so. I am not sure I ever made that connection, during my initial out-of-order reading of all the early Sandman stories.

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