(Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam, 1988)


Sultan: Perhaps you would care for a little light entertainment while you wait. I have been composing a short Opera; would you like to hear a song or two?

Baron: No, thank you.

Sultan: Oh, you’ll love it. It’s a Comedy. It’s called The Torturer’s Apprentice. Here’s the Overture.

The SULTAN seats himself at the Torturetron and begins to play. The MUSIC is accompanied by groans and shrieks from inside the strange keyboard instrument. From time to time a SHAKY HAND pushes up the lid of the Torturetron from within and a “CHORISTER” tries to escape. He is beaten back by a guard.

Sultan: Now, the curtain rises on a typical everyday Torture Chamber. Yosrick the young apprentice sings of his joy in his job. (sings) A Torturer’s Apprentice went his merry way to work one day. I bend and stretch and ply my trade Making people all afraid. But things look black, Business is slack, There’s no one on the rack but me. (spoken) There’s something of a recession in his business you see, owing to the spread of various nauseating liberal sentiments. In fact, he has only one victim that day – a beautiful 17 year old girl whom he recognizes in a rack song as his old playmate Griselda.

GRISELDA’S voice comes out of the Torturetron, and is Operatic screaming, sung in perfect pitch but in great pain.

Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is based on an eighteenth-century novel about the same character,  though it follows the novel’s spirit of tall-tale adventure more so than its particular series of events. The frozen horn episode from the novel, for example, is absent from the film. But in its stead is another imaginary musical instrument: the Torturetron. After placing a wager with a Turkish sultan – loss of which will result in his beheading – Munchausen listens reluctantly to the sultan play his new opera on the keyboard instrument, which mixes the moans of its caged and prodded prisoners with harpsichord and other more harmonious sounds. The performance puts the sultan’s barbarism – counterpointed with Munchausen’s civilized gentility – on full display. Yet the Torturetron is more familiarly Western than its exotic portrayal suggests. The resemblance to the cat piano is clear, with humans replacing the unfortunate felines; the instrument also recalls the Orgasmatron from the 1968 film Barbarella. Indeed, the Torturetron exemplifies the coupling of power and abuse that threads through many imaginary instruments, especially of a keyboard variety.
Text: Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Screenplay (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1989), 27-28. Video: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, dir. Terry Gilliam (1988). Thanks to Aram Sinnreich for bringing the Torturetron to our attention.