Palimpsest: a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.
Written by Ruby Lawrence and directed by Dave Spencer, The Yellow Wallpaper is a modern take on a short story from 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Following her pregnancy, Alice (Gemma Yates-Round) stays with her husband John at a remote country house, while she ‘convalesces’. While she’s always heeded the advice of her husband and her doctor (who are both played by Charles Warner), there is a difference between their ‘interest’ when she was pregnant and after the birth of her child. However, they think her ‘behaviour’ with her child constitutes ‘closer scrutiny’ and lots of ‘R’n’R’.
While she’s not thrilled with her present residence and being under the constant, watchful eye of her husband and Nancy the housekeeper, Alice finds her own respite in the house’s ‘yellow room’. Initially disliking the ‘ambience’ of the room, she later thinks there is more to those four walls than meets the eye, which makes John rethink the ‘wiseness’ of keeping her secluded…
The Yellow Wallpaper is some ways a tabular rasa – a blank slate upon which one can project meaning. However, there are some things that the play that are immediately suggestive and in the spirit of the original narrative. Alice’s ‘predicament’ has all the hallmarks of postnatal depression and how men – especially at the turn of the 20th century, but still behaving as much today – have used ‘mental health’ as leverage against women. In the play we don’t see any alleged transgression, so we only have John’s word that Alice is ‘unwell’ and truly in need of ‘ongoing treatment’.
Rather than play to the Victorian stereotype of either the ‘hysterical’ or the ‘nervous’ disposition, Yates-Round has the audience on her side from the off. Possessing a ‘knowingness’, Alice breaks through the fourth wall to confide to the audience, and make comments about her husband and the doctor. Of course, when Alice does talk to audience, it’s open to interpretation whether the audience she ‘sees’ is similar to ‘the presence’ she sees within the rest of the walls…
So has Alice’s mental health really deteriorated? It could argued that if she was suffering from depression initially, the ‘treatment’ prescribed by her doctor and husband exacerbated her symptoms. How? By denying her the right to read and write… By denying her the means for self-expression. Initially alarmed at her taste in reading matter (the events in Norse mythology that chart the destruction and rebirth of the world), John’s also livid that she’s ignored his explicit ‘command’ to not write. The ‘fairy tale’ that Alice writes for her child doesn’t contain anything ‘distasteful’, but like Angela Carter’s take on the genre, it contains psychological truths and Alice’s independent thinking. There is, however, a meta- dimension to this, as Gilman – who also suffered from postnatal depression – showed The Yellow Wallpaper to a doctor to challenge his ‘diagnosis’ of her and her ‘well-being’. This being the case, Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper was her palimpsest – a way of projecting and reflecting her interior world.
With everything that Alice goes through, The Yellow Wallpaper lends itself readily for a feminist interpretation, with John/the doctor representing the patriarchy’s misguided efforts to ‘help’ and in the process, stifle the expression of women. Already subject to the economic and ‘legal’ subjugation in the eyes of the law, Alice (and other women like her) are denied an ‘interior’ existence and a sense of self-imposed identity. While this Orwellian paradigm was very much in force a century ago, women under the aegis of psychotherapy today never escape the ‘guidance’ of the patriarchal state.
What really makes this play work is Yates-Round’s performance, who imbue’s Alice with a spirited persona – one that hasn’t been broken, regardless of her ‘circumstances’ and the leverage the patriarchy have on her. As the play shows, even with unqualified submission and ‘playing by the rules’, there’s no guarantee that ‘wholeness’ can be found when what is within is denied expression. When the exterior world seeks to control and oppress one’s inner nature, it will seek a reflection of itself – even within the very walls themselves…
© Michael Davis 2018
The Yellow Wallpaper runs at the Omnibus Theatre until 24th June.