Stage Door Review

Gaslight

Monday, July 25, 2022

✭✭

by Johnna Wright & Patty Jamieson, directed by Kelli Fox

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 27-October 8, 2022

Bella to Jack: “You and I speak different languages”

The Shaw Festival is currently presenting the world premiere of a new adaptation of the play Gas Light from 1938 that gave us the term “gaslighting”. It’s a testament to the power of Patrick Hamilton’s depiction of how a husband psychologically manipulates his wife that the title of the play should come to represent such an insidious phenomenon, one not merely practiced by one person on another but now by national leaders or a party on the nation they govern.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the verb “gaslight” as: “to trick  or control someone by making them believe that their memories or beliefs about something are wrong, especially by suggesting that they may be mentally ill”. This is exactly the situation in Hamilton’s Gas Light (known in the US as Angel Street). After Mr. and Mrs. Jack Manningham move into an old house on Angel Street in Pimlico, London, Bella notices a change in her husband Jack’s behaviour and he claims to notice a change in Bella’s. Bella feels that Jack is constantly watching, criticizing and correcting her, whereas Jack claims that Bella is constantly forgetting, misplacing or even stealing things.

Both Hamilton’s original play and Wright and Jamieson’s adaptation open when Jack has been gaslighting Bella for several months until she has begun to doubt her sanity. In both plays Jack points out that a portrait in the living room has gone missing again and asks Bella where she has put it this time. Bella claims to know nothing, but then finds it where it had been hidden before and says she did not hide it. Jack pities her and Bella can’t understand what is happening, fearing that she may be going mad as did her own mother. Jack leaves the house in anger leaving Bella alone, a situation she has come to dread.

From this point on, the two versions diverge so much that Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson’s version of Gas Light can really be called a separate creation even though it is so clearly based on the characters and situations of Hamilton’s original.

The most significant difference is that shortly after Jack first leaves the house in the original, a new character enters, a Detective Rough, who informs Bella of the lurid events that took place in the past in the very house where Bella and Jack now live. He tells Bella about an old woman named Alice Barlow, who was the previous tenant in the house and who was murdered for a fabulous set of rubies she owned. The living room was torn up as if the murderer could not find the rubies. He was never found nor were the rubies. Rough had been involved in the original case and had been unhappy that the murder was not solved. The murder so tainted the house that no one wanted to buy it until Jack Manningham came along.

Rough’s interest was piqued in the case by the sale of the house to Manningham and by descriptions of what was going on in the house that he heard from an employee of his who has been dating the Manninghams’ young maid Nancy. When Bella tells Rough about the strange noises she hears from locked attic when Jack is gone and about the gaslight lowering as it would when someone else turns on a light in the house, Rough tells her outright that it is Jack who is making the noises and it is he who has turned on another light in the house. Rough says Jack has been trying to convince Bella not to trust her senses just so she will believe the noises and the dimming are not real but her imagination.

Thus, as was clear in the 2016 Mirvish production in Toronto, in Hamilton, Bella is faced with two men with two fantastic explanations of the truth. According to her husband she is going mad as did her mother. According to a perfect stranger she has married a murderer. In some ways Hamilton makes Rough’s explanation less plausible than Jack’s, and thus puts us in suspense as to which man is right and which explanation Bella will choose.

Wright and Jamieson’s version of the story eliminates Rough and this source of tension entirely. Their point is to turn the play into a feminist tale where Bella solves the mystery herself with no need of an intervening male detective. This is an admirable goal especially since the original play can seem to be almost more about Rough’s quest to find the murderer than about Bella’s psychological torment by Jack.

The problem with Wright and Jamieson’s version is not their goal but how they go about it. For Bella to suspect her husband of treating her poorly and worse, of possibly being the murderer, she needs to have proof that it is he, not she, who has been hiding various objects. She also needs to know the history of the house and its previous tenant.

To do this Wright and Jamieson make the Manninghams’ housekeeper Elizabeth also the housekeeper for Alice Barlow and the one who discovered her body. Wright and Jamieson omit to mention that the house was unsellable because, without Rough, they need someone with a continuous knowledge of the house’s history. Giving Elizabeth Rough’s knowledge of the case causes two difficulties. 

One, she observes Jack’s unfair treatment of Bella and yet offers her mistress such a minimum of sympathy that we begin to wonder whose side she’s on. Two, as someone who also lives in the house, how could she not also heard the strange noises coming from the closed off attic above nor observed the dimming of the gaslights over the course of a year?

Wright and Jamieson attempt to solve part of the problem by making Elizabeth hard of hearing. Yet it is an odd kind of deafness if Elizabeth cannot hear the steps and scraping in the attic that reverberate all through the rooms below, yet can hear people when they speak at an ordinary conservational or even sub-conversational level.

The Elizabeth of Wright and Jamieson always gives the impression of knowing far more than she says, even when she is alone with Bella. Relating her impressions would help the poor women to think she is not going mad. This is especially bizarre since at the end of Wright and Jamieson’s play Elizabeth says she always knew that Jack was a “bad’un”. If that is true, then why do Wright and Jamieson have Elizabeth do so little for Bella until there is an absolute emergency?

One possible answer is that Wright and Jamieson are determined to have Bella solve the mystery herself. Bella may get the story of Alice Barlow and the rubies and the murder from Elizabeth but the authors want Bella to save herself by herself, even though, logically, Elizabeth who has more information should be able to put two and two together long before the mentally strained Bella does.

For that reason, Wright and Jamieson have to invent an implausible reason for Bella to discover Jack’s duplicity on her own. Wright and Jamieson portray Bella as so fearful when Jack leaves her alone at night again that she breaks into his locked desk to find his revolver which he has forbidden her to use. She thereby also finds proof that he has been deceiving her.

The most obvious difficulty with this scenario is that if Bella were well and truly gaslighted and in Jack’s power, as she is said to be, she would hardly disobey Jack to the extent of even searching for an object forbidden her much less of doing violence to something belonging to him like a locked desk. There are numerous other plausible ways that Wright and Jamieson could have had Bella discover Jack’s deception, but the method Wright and Jamieson have chosen is not one of them.

The second difficulty with this scenario is that Bella still does not overcome gaslighting on her own as the authors intend. Rather, she only sees the truth by accident. In searching for the revolver, she was not searching for proof of Jack’s deception.

The question then arises which of the two versions – Hamilton’s Gas Light or Wright and Jamieson’s Gaslight – best presents the evil effects of gaslighting. In Hamilton, Bella has to be convinced by an outsider of what her husband is doing to her. In Wright and Jamieson, Bella accidentally discovers evidence that contradicts what her husband has been saying and doing. But, one wonders, if Bella has been fully gaslighted, would she believe it? One need only watch the 1940 British film of Gaslight, the closest to the source play in time and plot, to see that Diana Wynyard portrays Bella as someone who has completely surrendered her will power to her husband’s noxious influence.

If Bella needs an outsider to convince her of what has happened, it shows how powerful and dangerous gaslighting can be. Wright and Jamieson’s showing the gaslightee able to figure out what has happened after finding a single bit of evidence makes gaslighting appear overcomeable and shifts the onus of recovering from the psychological distress onto the victim. Suggesting a gaslighted person can snap out of a condition induced for months is rather like telling a depressed person to “just get over it” instead of encouraging them to seek outside help.

The flaws in Wright and Jamieson’s version are only exacerbated by the indifferent acting of the two central roles. Julie Lumsden has the difficult role of playing a woman who is in a state of high anxiety for nearly the entire play. Wright and Jamieson do not make her task easier by loading the first act of the play with a long series of incidents of mislaid objects. Bella says she’s feeling better. An object is said to be lost. Jack chides Bella. Bella panics. Jack tells Bella to rest. The repetition of the sequence makes the first act tedious but tests the abilities of the actor playing Bella.

Lumsden’s solution should be to gradate Bella’s reaction to each mislaid object until she makes her great discovery at the end of Act 1. Unfortunately, Lumsden portrays Bella’s response to each incident in exactly the same way, starting out at too high a pitch and remaining there for most of the action. Where Lumsden does succeed is in Act 2, when Bella knows more information about the occurrences in the house than Jack. This allows Bella to toy with Jack and gives Lumsden a chance to demonstrate another side to Bella’s character. Why Bella should backslide occasionally to her old self is unclear, but Lumsden fills Bella’s final confrontation with Jack with all the hatred and scorn we long to hear.

André Morin, making his Shaw Festival debut, is more familiar to Ontario audiences from his appearances at the Stratford Festival in roles as different as Ariel in The Tempest and Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors. Jack Manningham is a very different type of role for Morin and, sad to say, he does not fully rise to its challenges. Morin pronounces all Jack’s expressions of care for his ailing wife with so much feeling that for the first part of the play anyone ignorant of the plot might think Jack actually is worried about Bella. Morin seems unable to inject any of Jack’s solicitude with underlying menace. Jack treats Bella as an infant and should seem, at least to the audience, to enjoy mistreating her thus. Just as Lumsden should gradate her fear of Jack, Morin should gradate Jack’s anger towards Bella. But this does not happen. Only at the conclusion when he is trapped, does Morin show the vicious, unscrupulous side of Jack we should have had glimpses of all along.

Kate Hennig plays the housekeeper Elizabeth, the only woman who knows the full story of the house. Wright and Jamieson manipulate what Elizabeth says and when to such an extent that any actor would have difficulty making a consistent character of someone used as a handy dispenser of information only when it is useful to the plot. Yet, Hennig is able to make Elizabeth into the most fully rounded character of the play. When Elizabeth is artificially taciturn or silent, Hennig makes it appear that Elizabeth is biting her tongue so as not to reveal the wrongs she sees enacted on Bella. When the authors allow Elizabeth free rein in speaking when Jack is away, Hennig gives the feeling that she, too, is oppressed by Jack’s presence and enjoys finally telling Bella about the past.

Wright and Jamieson give the new maid Nancy quite a different role than she has in the original. In Hamilton Nancy flirts with Jack and looks down on Bella, but otherwise is viewed as simply an impudent young person. In Wright and Jamieson, Nancy takes the same actions but not out of sheer impudence. She has a connection with Jack that no one knows about and is proud of the connection. Julia Course plays Nancy as so untrained and insolent that one wonders, as one should, how someone as fastidious as Jack accepted her in the household.

The action plays out on Judith Bowden’s wonderfully detailed realistic set, the kind one was used to seeing in the mysteries and thrillers that played in the Royal George. Gilles Zolty’s music and sound enhance the play’s aura of dread even when the acting does not, as does Kimberly Purtell’s moody lighting.

The one curiosity is why, in a play where gaslit lamps are so important, nobody has bothered to learn how gaslights were lit. Director Kelli Fox has Nancy turn a valve in one light and somehow all the other gaslights go on. In reality, as indicated in the original text, Nancy has to light a match and then light every gas lamp individually. It’s strange that the main symbol of the play so be so misrepresented.

With several key changes Wright and Jamieson’s play could become the feminist version of Gas Light that they clearly want it to be. Nevertheless, if the goal of the Shaw Festival in presenting Gaslight is to show where the term “gaslighting” originated, then it really ought to have staged Hamilton’s play to give the audience the historical source for the idea. Wright and Jamieson’s version gives us a play where the concept is already known. It is much more fascinating and significant that someone in 1938 should have formulated an idea of a sinister mode of psychological abuse that paradoxically has only grown more dangerous and extensive since he first depicted it.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: André Morin as Jack and Julie Lumsden as Bella; Julie Lumsden as Bella, Julia Course as nancy, Kate Hennig as Elizabeth and André Morin as Jack; André Morin as Jack and Julie Lumsden as Bella. © 2022 David Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.