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The Woman in Black—Frightfully Imaginative

By David G. Anderson

 

Curiously, the Utah Shakespeare Festival fall season has almost always provided us with a flair for and taste of the Halloween dramatic. Perhaps it started unintentionally, but knowing our beloved founder Fred C. Adams, the coincidence seems too unreal. The year 2003 saw Little Shop of Horrors. The 2004 season was by far the best Halloween season ever, with Macbeth, Blithe Spirit, and the cryptic, eerie nature of Eli in Spitfire Grill. Another thrilling play that kept with the spirit of the season was Pippin, with the bizarre, chilling efforts of the cast trying to persuade Pippin, the lead actor, to do himself in. In 2007 we had The Mousetrap, and last year, Gaslight. Perhaps the most spine-chilling has been saved for now. This year’s production of The Woman in Black might induce the most goose-bumps of all.

The association of Halloween with its haunted houses, ghosts, graveyards, mayhem, and death fits nicely within the framework of The Woman in Black. The play is set in the nineteenth century, and death and horrors are ubiquitous: the damp English fog, an island cut off from the mainland by a marsh, the eerie, aptly-named Eel Marsh House, locals barely breathing a word of dark secrets surrounding the ghost of a mother who lost a child on the causeway, and the deranged revenge she seeks upon other inhabitants of the island.

The Woman in Black is a ghost story—a play-within-a-play. It is creepy, old fashioned storytelling at its best; the kind often told around a campfire. An interesting phenomena associated with terrifying campfire ghost stories is the more macabre and imaginative they are, the closer everyone inches toward the center of the fire. This play relies on that most important element of any wonderful ghost story, or for that matter the theatre, imagination. Unlike most of today’s films and television, this story gives the audience credit for employing a practical imagination. Imagination, after all, delivers the proclivity of inching toward the seat’s edge, much as those around the campfire inch closer to the fire. Stephen Mallatratt, who made the adaptation to stage from Susan Hill’s novel affirms, “The fear is not on a visual or a visceral level, but an imaginative one” (1987).

“I think that ghost stories have to have a point beyond frightening. It’s all very well to be frightened but there has to be a point” (Susan Hill, The Woman In Black, Introduction). Audiences are forced to confront basic feelings regarding their fears. What is it in our imagination that triggers the emotion of fear? What is the reaction, and do we all fear alike? Is there a necromantic avoidance or desire within us? “Ghost stories . . . tell us things that lie hidden within all of us. . . . They also frighten us delightfully, give shape, form and substance to our darkest and most primitive and child-like fears and imaginings, and perhaps most importantly of all they entertain” (ibid).

The background story features the normally unaffected, junior solicitor, Arthur Kipps. He has been sent by his firm to a place located in a remote part of England to settle the affairs of a deceased client. This place is accessible only by Nine Lives Causeway during low tide. Eel Marsh House was owned by Alice Drablow, a name which stuns even the locals into silence. It is surrounded by bogs and contains secrets for which Kipps had hardly bargained. Something awful has taken place there, and strange dreadful things begin happening to the young Arthur Kipps. Most peculiar is the haunting appearances of the woman in black with a pale, emaciated face and appetite for malevolence.

The action takes place in, surprise, the very theatre in which we are sitting, making the audience co-conspirators. Kipps hires an unnamed actor to help retell, recall, and revisit the unexpected horrors he experienced thirty years earlier, ostensibly with the hope of exorcising those events from his life. The hired actor portrays Kipps, while Kipps himself plays several other characters and acts as narrator. The play-within-the-play functions as extended flashbacks that retell the journey. In reenacting the scenes, the actor brings the past to life with seemingly séance-like results and terrifying consequences. The question surrounding Kipps is if the man is prescient, knowing full well the results, or if his efforts are of an occluded nature.

The decision by Stephen Mallatratt to move the action inside an empty Victorian theatre was the vital adaptation from book to stage. Mallatratt explains, “as soon as the idea came of admitting that we were on a stage, all other problems solved themselves. The imagination does everything in this play” (Interview, 1987, emphasis added). The opening scene takes the form of an uneasy reading of the script’s beginning lines written by the inexperienced solicitor, while the professional actor criticizes. This cleverly written scene prompts the audience members to use their imagination and is key to the theatrical experience. This version of the play-within-the-play depends upon absence rather than presence, and thus upon performativity. What the audience experiences is a metaphysical version of the adaptation process.

Utilizing the theatre to stage the story of The Woman in Black is brilliant, not only because it solves certain logistical problems, but it also allows the theatre itself to become a character of the play. The spectral association of the theatre with the preternatural is a natural. This striking instance of the intersection between ghost story and theatre virtually appropriates the imagination. Stories of haunted theatres are second only to haunted houses. “Theatre, we know, is larger than life—a place where imagination is nurtured and stretched, and where superstition abounds . . . where every effort is made to attain the conductive air of ‘magic’ conjured up by the ‘live’ performance. This receptive atmosphere opens the door to the past . . . and to the spirit world” (Roy Harley, Theatre Ghosts, p 27-28).

Commenting on playwrights and ghosts, Sigmund Freud remarked, “We adapt our judgment to the imaginary reality imposed on us by the writer, and regard spirits and ghosts as though their existence had the same validity as our own has in the material reality” (The Uncanny, standard edition, 1957). The Woman in Black is a classic ghost story, metaphysically portrayed within the framework of thrilling theatrical storytelling, and allows all to succeed in a most believable way. “The play itself reveals itself as a sinister comment on the whole nature of storytelling” (Irving Wardle, The Times, 1989).

The imagination can be a wonderful and powerful tool, but it can also be debilitating and cumbersome. It is essential to good theatre. A fairly rigid, albeit entertaining, requirement of attendees is to suspend reality. Associated with the imagination is the power of suggestion. Film greats of the past such as Alfred Hitchcock terrified us simply by suggesting the sinister. The need to visually exploit was unnecessary.

“Darkness is a powerful ally of terror, something glimpsed in the corner is far more frightening than if it’s fully observed” (Mallatratt). Our imaginations are too powerful a tool to leave rusting and unsharpened.

The theatre provides us with the impetus to exercise this wonderful device. The thump in the night, the creak behind the door, the muffled scream, the eerie glows, the dark and spooky graveyard; all can have mesmerizing and terrifying effects on an audience as tension mounts. The Woman in Black is replete with all of the above. Add to these the swift undercurrents of a murder mystery, and the inexorable vortex completely submerges us, the willing accomplices, to an attempted exorcism of ghostly pasts—but then we are back to the plausibility of horror—ah, but perhaps it is best to leave the latter unspoken when ghosts are out and about. It is after all nearing All Hollows Eve.


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