Naturalist playwright Emile Zola writes that true action lies not in the facts of the plot, but in the “inner struggles of the characters” (qtd. in Clark, Barrett Harper. “Preface to Therese Raquin.” European Theories of the Drama. [Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company, 1918], p. 401). While arguable en masse, a truer statement may never have been made about the plotline of Patrick Hamilton’s so-called “Victorian thriller,” for more than just a story, Gaslight is a narrative of the human mind.
Alternately entitled Angel Street, this play is set in Victorian London, an ironic society infamous for its scrupulous exterior, as well as its coarse and uncaring interior (think Oliver Twist). In this antique setting, the upper and middle classes summon their servants with bells; the muffin-man jingles his chimes in the street around tea-time; homes are heated with coals and illuminated with gas lamps. The personality and ideals of this period, particularly the customs of female suppression and gender stereotyping, generate the vital atmosphere for this play actually written after World War I. Here, in the late 1930s, “the language of psychology [is] the idiom of the people,” and there is a general fascination with the “private theater” playing out in the human psyche (Fagin, N. Bryllion. “Freud on the American Stage.” Educational Theatre Journal. Vol. 2, No. 4. Dec., 1950).
The action takes place inside a four-storied house on Angel Street, “a gloomy and unfashionable quarter of London (Angel Street [New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1966], p. 3). There are no eye-like windows, and yet, as the scene of a brutal crime committed a decade and a half ago, there is a whisper of malevolence about the place. For her famous rubies, an old lady’s throat was cut—her killer never found. As the play opens, evening shadows are gathering; it is the “zero-hour . . . before the feeble dawn of gas light and tea” (p. 3). Bells sound from the street; Big Ben strikes five. The Manninghams pass the time quietly in the drawing room. While Jack Manningham naps on the sofa, his wife Bella enjoys a few moments of rare autonomy; although, she tiptoes and sounds as a mouse fearful of waking the cat. Her once lovely face is worn from friendless days, fearsome nights, and months of despotic husband-guardianship. She rarely leaves the house and no one visits—the harsh prescription for a woman “going off her head.”
Hysteria, a term used to describe a variety of emotional troubles, was not an uncommon (though commonly misdiagnosed) “women’s disease” of this period. Vivienne, wife of famed author T.S. Eliot, was consigned to an English madhouse; Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a chilling semi-autobiography about this grossly misconceived “disease” and the idiotic notions of rehabilitation (“The Yellow Wallpaper”); and most significantly to this particular play, Bella Manningham’s own mother died insane. It is possible, then, that Bella is just another hysterical Victorian housewife, doomed to follow her mother down the same strange path. In such a setting and under such circumstances, it might be relatively easy for a husband to prove his wife belongs in a sanitarium.
“What are you doing, Bella?” from the first uttered syllable, Jack Manningham introduces himself as tyrannical husband (4). He hardly allows her an action or a thought without special direction or consent, but this obsessive awareness is not to be mistaken for lover’s envy, or zealous concern; instead, it is part of a ruthless experiment to bully and confound his wife out of her mind. His scheme involves taking pictures off the walls and stashing them; stealing rings, keys, grocery bills and hiding them—only to blame and disgrace Bella later in front of Elizabeth, the cook, and Nancy, the “cheeky” maid of nineteen. Playwright Hamilton, the author of other psychological thrillers including Rope (one of Hitchcock’s experimental films), has a way of plotting his villains in very close—even intimate proximity—to their would-be victims. Danger lurks not outside in a dead-end alley, or down a dark lane; it cannot be outrun or locked out because it already inhabits the same room with its prey.
More distressing to Bella than the daily brow-beatings and mind games, is the house itself. In the evening when Jack is out, as he is in the habit of doing almost nightly, strange things happen within. In her own words: “Every night . . . I find myself waiting for something. Then all at once I look around the room and see that the light is slowly going down” (36). An extra lamp has been lit somewhere in the house, but where? Footsteps and tapping sounds begin overhead; they seem to come from the third floor above her bedroom, but these upstairs quarters are sealed. No one goes up there, not even the maid with her feather duster. She listens in terror by the muted glow of the gaslight until, suddenly, the light goes back up again. Ten minutes later, Jack comes home. Bella knows it is too coincidental that the gaslight’s ebbings and risings are in near synchronization with Jack’s own comings and goings; but her husband’s forceful voice inside her head has made her doubt her own reason.
Lucky for Bella, Nancy (the young maid under her employ) is disloyal and inclined to gossip. Though such an employee might seem an unlikely savior, Nancy’s free talk about the Manningham’s private affairs has inadvertently reached the ears of one Detective Rough, a retired police sergeant familiar with the details of the crime that took place there fifteen years prior. Convinced of foul play, he shows up on the Manningham doorstep to have a chat with the lady of the house. The gloomy tension of the play is refreshingly moderated at the appearance of this sort of wise joker/therapist who makes witticisms and philosophizes even while breaking into Jack’s desk and convincing a troubled woman that she is not mad.
For a three-act, one-night play, Gaslight is deceptively layered. “On one level,” as actress Rosamund Pike points out, “it is a fairy tale, with Rough as Rescuer” (Curtis, Nick. “The Passion That Stirs the Cool Miss Pike.” Evening Standard, London. June 1, 2007). On another level, it is an effective domestic-peril thriller, with husband planning to dispose of wife; and finally, at “id” level, it is an eerie psychoanalysis of the dark and dramatic life of the mind.