Gaslight – definition: to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity
First performed at Richmond Theatre in 1938, Gaslight – which is written by Patrick Hamilton and directed by Imy Wyatt Corner – has been updated for this revival to the present day. From the off, the audiences sense there is something amiss in the marriage of the Manninghams. Very much the ‘man of the house’, Jack (Jordan Wallace) has his wife Bella (Jemima Murphy) run any important decisions by him and obey his every word. One might think that being affluent would make Bella’s life easier, but the domestic help only remind her how powerless and subservient she is in comparison.
Trusted servant Elizabeth (Rebecca Ashley) has the respect and trust of both husband and wife, but Bella is certain that the younger servant Nancy (Grace Howard) is disrespectful towards her. But why should Bella care what the servants think of her? Because she’s sure Nancy experience schadenfreude at her own misfortunes.
Greater than her dread of Nancy having the last laugh is Bella’s fear of being ‘sectioned’. Accused by Jack of being perennially absent-minded and moving things that should be left untouched, we, the audience, recognise the true nature of Bella’s psychological abuse and the very real, physical danger that is imminent. In many ways, the dynamic between Bella and Jack is the same as between Nora and Torvald in A Doll’s House – what with Bella’s childlike demeanour to please Jack and keep on his good side. And just as external events bring matters to a head for Bella, there are other literary comparisons that can be made with her circumstances.
News of an earlier wife and noises heard in the attic can be likened to the antics with Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Then, with regards the visit of Detective Rough (Joe McArdle) whose visit is a catalyst for a number of revelations, this echoes the presence of Inspector Goole in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. It has to be said, however, that throughout Rough’s duration on stage, one wonders whether he is ‘gaslightling’ Bella too, which adds an extra level of tension to the proceedings…
But if the strange things that have transpired are not a figment of her imagination, then the servants are complicit in the husband’s machinations. This being the case, would ‘just following orders’ exonerate the servant’s actions? Or is it the case, in the words of Madeleine Albright, that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”…
© Michael Davis 2019
Gaslight runs at the Playground Theatre, London until 10th November.