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Theatre / The Bad Seed

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William March's 1954 thriller novel The Bad Seed was adapted into a stage play by Maxwell Anderson later that same year. This version is the one which was subsequently made into a feature film in 1956, and a made-for-TV remake in 1985.

Christine Penmark, a housewife, moves into a new town with her husband Kenneth and daughter Rhoda. Christine has always thought her daughter was very peculiar; while always polite, courteous, and charming in public, there was a cold, apathetic, and calculating quality in her personality that she found very disturbing in a child. As Christine notices the strange, horrible things that happen in the proximity of her daughter, she comes to see that Rhoda is the very definition of an Enfante Terrible.

As with the source novel, this was one of the earliest and more notable examples of a child being portrayed as irredeemably evil, and delves into the issue of nature vs. nurture as Christine discovers the truth of her own origins.

The play was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, losing out to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The original Broadway cast included Nancy Kelly as Christine, Patty McCormack as Nancy, Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup, Evelyn Varden as Monica Breedlove, and Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Daigle; all would reprise their roles in the 1956 film.

It contains examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Almost all of the adults buy Rhoda's act; the children in her school know there's something wrong there and usually avoid her.
  • Affably Evil: Rhoda's always polite and sweet-acting, and only harms people when they have something she wants.
  • The Alcoholic: Hortense Daigle, mother of Claude Daigle (whom Rhoda killed because she wanted his penmanship medal), became addicted to alcohol to dull the pain of losing her only child.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: Rhoda
  • Arc Words: "What'll you give me for a basket of kisses?" "I'll give you a basket of hugs."
  • Asshole Victim: Leroy could be said to have had it coming. Even so...
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Rhoda gets away with everything in the play.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Rhoda, full stop.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Rhoda's a manipulative psychopath, Leroy, who is wise to her evil, is just a bully who acts dumb to get away with what he does, but then we also have Monica who willfully ignores Rhoda's behavior, and the most heroic character, Rhoda's mother Christine, is morally conflicted.
  • Break the Cutie: Rhoda's poor mother!
  • Changeling Fantasy: Since childhood, Christine has had this thought in the back of her mind that she was adopted, though unlike most examples of this trope, the idea fills her with horror. Her parents (mother in the book, father in the movie) profusely deny this, and her friends assure her that this is a common childhood fantasy. Unfortunately for her, the truth is far worse than she could imagine.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Rhoda's tap shoes and the wood wool Leroy uses to sleep on.
    • The special vitamins and sleeping pills Monica gives to Christine
    • Also, Christine mentions her husband keeping an actual gun in the house. She later uses it to shoot herself.
  • Children Are Innocent: Mercilessly averted.
  • Corruption by a Minor: Rhoda and Leroy have a relationship that is disturbingly sexual, although they never touch each other.
  • Creepy Child/Enfant Terrible: Rhoda could have been the Trope Namer for these.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Leroy.
  • Death by Adaptation: Christine's Mother who was alive in the book while her father was dead, get's this.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Rhoda, definitely!
  • Despair Event Horizon: For Christine this is Rhoda's murder of Leroy. She is forced to give up any lingering denial she may have had about Rhoda's evil nature or her, Christine's, inability to control her.
  • Driven to Suicide: Christine shoots herself after trying to murder Rhoda.
  • Enfant Terrible: No Freudian Excuse needed. Rhoda was born evil. Hence the name of the story.
  • Every Proper Lady Should Curtsy: Patty McCormack, who played Rhoda, curtsies to the audience at the end curtain call.
  • Evil Versus Evil: Rhoda and Leroy's confrontations.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Leroy's family is the only reason Monica keeps him on as a caretaker.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In spite of readily admitting he is a mean and uncaring man who likes to get under a little girl's skin just for kicks, Leroy is genuinely disturbed when he realizes that kind of person Rhoda really is. He's a sociopath too, but even he recoils at murder.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Rhoda, a sweet looking eight year old girl, with the dangerous mind of a psychopathic killer.
  • Foil: Leroy, the gardener, is the only adult who can see through Rhoda's perfect child act, and enjoys teasing her to get under her skin.
  • For the Evulz: Leroy's motivation for tormenting Rhoda.
  • Happily Married: Christine and Kenneth, despite Kenneth's job-related absences.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Au Clair de la Lune" will never sound quite the same again...
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Leroy is correct about a number of the characters: Monica is an arrogant know-it-all, Christine's kindness is a bit condescending, and he is is quite right about Rhoda's selfish, coldblooded personality.
  • Karma Houdini: Rhoda gets away with everything she's done in the play.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Monica is described as an "amateur psychologist" but clearly doesn't have any actual expertise in the field. Her advice only serves to distress and upset Christine more and more, but she's totally blind to the fact that Rhoda is a serial killer. The end of the story even makes it clear Rhoda's planning on killing her next. Nicely contrasts her employee Leroy who's a case of Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • Lack of Empathy: When Christine asks Rhoda if she understands the pain Mrs. Daigle must be going through after discovering his medal that she stole from Claude's body, she responds, "I guess." Later, she says, "If Mrs. Daigle wants a son so bad, why doesn't she get one from the orphanage?"
  • Large Ham: Christine expresses her horror at giving birth to Rhoda via a rather overblown gesture of repeatedly punching herself in the uterus. It gets a bit silly.
  • Light Is Not Good: Rhoda, with her blonde hair and spotless white dresses, is a classic example.
  • Love Martyr: A familial example: Christine sacrifices her sanity, integrity, and in the play, her life out of the love she has for her daughter, who when asked if she truly loves her, only replies "You're silly!".
  • Motormouth: Monica Breedlove, Christine's landlady and a prominent figure in the community. A fan of Freudian psychology, she is constantly psycho-analyzing others, diagnosing Leroy as a paranoid schizophrenic, her brother Emory as a closeted homosexual, and herself as having incestuous feelings towards him. Worse, in the movie, she manages to analyze the reason her marriage failed... based solely on her ex-husband's name.
    • In what is meant to be irony, despite her intelligence and insight, she spends so much time talking that she never actually observes what's going on around her, and thus can never apply her knowledge to a real situation. Rhoda has her wrapped around her little finger and she doesn't even realize it.
  • Man on Fire: Leroy's death.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Leroy pretends to be a humble simpleton in front of Monica and other adults, while revealing his true mean nature to children. He believes himself to be Brilliant, but Lazy, but based on his wife's comments and his own actions in the story, this is debatable.
  • Offing the Offspring: Rhoda's mother tries to do this in the play. She also finds out that her own biological mother, a famous serial killer, murdered her entire family, including her other children and almost killed Christine herself.
  • Psychopathic Man Child: Leroy, who torments Rhoda For the Evulz.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The book went into a lot more depth than the play could do, especially concerning the Incomparable Bessie Danker.
    • Leroy's dialogue was more vulgar and both he and Monica made a lot of references to sex that would have been unacceptable to use in a film at that time.
    • Rhoda's school is run by the three Fern sisters: Burgess, Claudia, and Octavia. This is still the case in the adaptations, but only Claudia physically appears in the play to make things simpler and most of the plot points involving her sisters are transferred to her.
  • Schrödinger's Cast: Chistine's father Richard Bravo is alive and well in the play, but had died before Rhoda was born in the book.
  • Serial Killer: By the end of the story, Rhoda has a body count of three: a neighbor who promised her a snowglobe after her death, Claude Daigle, and Leroy. With the exception of the last one, they were all for short-sighted and selfish reasons.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Monica. How often do you hear "penurious" and "larvated" in a conversation?
  • The Shrink: Monica — she probably perceives herself as a Type 3 (Awesome Shrink) , but is pure Type 2 (Well-Meaning But Ineffective) all the way. As what goes along with Type 2s, she does not mean to hurt Christine with her psychobabble and only wants the best for her.
  • Smug Snake / Small Name, Big Ego: Leroy, who as mentioned before overestimates his intelligence.
  • The Sociopath: Rhoda has neither conscience nor empathy and has no issues with killing to get what she wants. Rhoda's personality is encapsulated in this exchange between her and Leroy:
    Leroy: You ask me and I say you don't even feel sorry about what happen to that poor little boy
    Rhoda: Why should I feel sorry? It was Claude Daigle who got drowned, not me.
  • Sound-Only Death: We hear Leroy screaming, pounding on the door, being set loose, and screaming some more, before he dies, but all we see is Christine's reaction. It's still horrible.
    • Christine's suicide is portrayed by a gunshot off-screen.
  • Stepford Smiler: Rhoda, and as she finally catches on, her mother.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Rhoda!
  • Villainous Lineage: Christine discovers that her biological mother was a serial killer and believes that she passed her murderous nature to Rhoda.
  • Worthy Opponent: A few lines of dialogue suggest this between, of all people, Leroy and Rhoda once they both discover that the other is also a sociopath.