It Happened in Key West, Charing Cross Theatre

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By Laura Kressly

In 1930s Key West, German x-ray technician Carl Tanzler harbours an obsession for a local woman dying of Tuberculosis. Claiming to have nine degrees and access to technology that will cure her, he lavishes her with gifts and dubious treatments though the married woman never returns his affections. When she inevitably dies, he pays for the construction a mausoleum for her. Not content with this tribute, two years after her death he steals her remains and lives with them as his wife for seven years before being discovered.

What sort of man is Tanzler? Think about this for a hot second. If he’s not mentally ill or pathological, he believes that this woman’s body is rightfully his, dead or alive. It’s 2018 and though sexism and misogyny is alive and well, educated, cultured people know better than to think this sort of behaviour is excusable, right?

If only. The creators of It Happened in Key West musicalise, romanticise and excuse Tanzer’s behaviour with the sentiment, ‘it’s ok because he was in love with her.’

If you, dear reader, think that about any case of abuse, assault, stalking or any other similar behaviour, motherfucker – you’re wrong. And this narrative has no place on our stages. It’s not cute or funny or sweet. Marketed as a romantic comedy, It Happened in Key West exploits the non-consent and abuse of Elena Milagros Hoyos in life and death.  

There is some slight condemnation of Tanzler’s actions at the beginning of the script, but the narrative of the second half fully sympathises with him. Hoyos’ living sisters, who want to save their sister from this monster, are painted as greedy villains. Female ensemble members are, true to history, portrayed as women who lust after Tanzler as a romantic ideal. That’s it – all of the women in this story are defined by the angel/whore dichotomy. Though some audience members laugh and cry, the violent misogyny is, more than anything else, disgusting.

These are the 30s and we understand this mentality was the mainstream then, but this show takes liberties with history to further support Tanzler that never actually happened. He was let off due the expiry of the Statute of Limitations, not because the judge believed his actions were driven by true love, as is depicted here. There is absolutely no contemporary commentary or framing that condemns his actions included in the script. For fuck’s sake, the man reconstructed Hoyos’ vagina using tubes of paper and slept with the remains in his bed for seven years, but ‘it’s ok because he loved her.’

There’s taking liberties with history for the sake of art, then there’s glorifying appalling, criminal behaviour that exploits women. This musical, and those who think Tanzler can be forgiven, need to get in the goddamn sea.

It Happened in Key West runs through 18 August. 

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