Wednesday, 8 June 2016

"Gaslight": Performance and Power

From Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of "Rebecca" (1941), to Max Ophül’s "Caught" (1948), and Fritz Lang’s homage to Bluebeard in "The Secret Behind the Door "(1947), there is no shortage of tyrannical husbands and persecuted wives in the cinema of the Second World War and post-war period. What critics have dubbed the ‘paranoid woman’s film’ does little to disguise its roots in early Gothic or sensation fiction. These narratives, which came to their peak of popularity in the post-war years, suffuse the familiarity of the middle-class home with secrecy, danger, hysteria, and claustrophobia, playing on many Gothic tropes while situating the plot in a believable, domestic setting. Here the threat is not supernatural, but very real and very intimate, playing with the intricate power dynamics that politicize the domestic sphere – particularly one which is under the control of an oppressive masculine presence.

Other highlights include the appearance of a very 
young Jessica Fletcher!
One of the most popular and effective examples of the genre is "Gaslight". First reaching acclaim as a stage-play written by Patrick Hamilton, "Gaslight "enjoyed a long run in both British and American theatres throughout the 1940s, sparking two film adaptations in the space of five years. Set in Victorian or Edwardian England (depending on the incarnation), the plot centres around a young woman (Ingrid Bergman) who has been confined to her home, convinced by her controlling husband (Charles Boyer) that she is going slowly mad. Left alone each night when her husband leaves for ‘work’, Paula (or Bella in the play) begins to hear footsteps in the barricaded, ‘forbidden’ attic space overhead, the gas lighting flickering and dimming, driving Paula to hysteria. As she begins to question whether it is the house or her mind that is haunted, the intervention of a police detective (Joseph Cotton – bringing some American sex appeal to the original role) reveals the unsettling noises are key to discovering the secret her husband has been hiding all along…

Performativity and its relationship with power is an important aspect of the tension "Gaslight"'s plot hinges on and the idea of performance is particularly prevalent in the Cuckor adaptation. Paula and her husband, Gregory Anton, are both musicians, as is Paula’s murdered aunt, whose theatrical outfits, instruments, and sheet music litter the cobweb-strewn home that the newlyweds inherit. However, Anton’s performance runs deeper than this, his outward show of respectability becoming a mask of propriety for his criminal intentions and subterraneous cruelty. 

This duality is intrinsic to the Gothic potential of "Gaslight," hearkening back to fin-de-siècle texts of superficial propriety and hidden corruption such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The Picture of Dorian Gray. Anton’s cruelty and torture of his wife masquerades under a façade so convincing that even Paula hesitates to question his assertion that she is losing her mind. His ‘caring husband’ act is knowingly performative. As he outwardly plays the role of dutiful husband, in private Anton reveals true nature as Gothic villain.

Much like the traditional trapped maidens of Radcliffe, by the middle of the film Paula is almost entirely confined within the house, her sanity and competence undermined so successfully by her husband that she has become dependent on him. This feeling of entrapment and claustrophobia is even more acute in the play. Rather than witnessing the heroine’s gradual decline and ever-shrinking world, in Hamilton’s play we enter at the peak of Bella’s hysteria and confinement within the home. All three acts take place in one densely decorated room, the claustrophobia of Bella’s madness is
Vincent Price as Mr Manningham in the 
American production of Gaslight, 1942
palpable, her movements are monitored closely by her husband and, in his absence, the servants, who are convinced of her increasing mental delusions. Although in the 1944 film Paula has a slightly increased sphere of movement, this oppressive feeling of being watched, measured, and restricted is just as intense. Unlike many of her Gothic predecessors, for the most part Paula’s confinement is purely psychological. Anton does not physically drag her to his tower room and lock all of the doors; his form of torture is far more insidious as he hides items, withholds information, and forces his wife to question her sanity. Paula is confined by the gradual erosion of her confidence in her own memory and her inability to trust her own mind. Nonetheless, the threat, the possibility of physical incarceration is never far from the surface in both the play and its adaptations. Anton/Manningham repeatedly sends his wife to her room like a naughty child, and the ultimate goal of having Paula/Bella sent to an insane asylum looms in the background as a constant and very real threat, reminiscent of the fate of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria.

By forcing his wife to question her own sanity, Anton/Manningham asserts dominance over her, forcing Paula/Bella into an inferior position, completely lacking power and control even in the traditionally feminine realm of the domestic sphere. In this respect, "Gaslight" treats female disempowerment in a very similar way to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and many other novels written in this period. The woman is exiled from her own domain, the little control she did wield being worn away until she is completely powerless. 

Interestingly, in Hamilton’s play the disempowerment of Bella and the control her husband exercises is demonstrated as much linguistically as it is in Manningham’s elaborate games of hide-and-seek. Whenever Bella forgets an appointment or misplaces a valued object, Manningham squeezes answers from his unwilling and confused wife, forcing her to guess where she has allegedly transgressed. These dialogic acrobatics are not uncommon in Hamilton’s work (and can also be seen in the power dynamic between Maxim and the narrator in Rebecca) and, in a way, enhance the cruelty of Manningham’s scheme. In trying to achieve the impossible and please her husband, Bella is effectively driving herself mad as much as Manningham is. 

 The link between language and the performance of power can also be seen in Paula’s/Bella’s final revenge after her husband is caught, aping madness in a mockery of her husband’s new reliance on her to escape. “But how can a mad woman help her husband to escape?” she asks at the climax of the play. “If I were not mad I could have helped you – if I were not mad […] I could have pitied and protected you! But because I am mad I have hated you, and because I am mad I have betrayed you, and because I am mad I am rejoicing in my heart” (Hamilton, 2005).

In this final scene Bella reclaims power by performing madness and in doing so inverts the power dynamic that her husband’s control depends on to be effective. It is no longer rational masculinity who is in control (although in the Cuckor adaptation a hint of suppressed mania gleams in Anton’s eye when he reveals his motivation), but Paula, who frees herself by embracing and performing the madness she had resisted all along.

When not ghost-hunting in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Lucy Hall is a PhD candidate from the University of St Andrews who spends her time unearthing the Gothic in Second World War and post-war British literature, art, and film. She also likes to champion her enduring literary obsession Patrick Hamilton whenever the opportunity arises (like now). You can follow her on Twitter @LucyH_15

Monday, 6 June 2016

Gaming the Gothic!

NERD COMMENT ALERT: This has got stunlock
written all over it, amiright?

In Ron Scott’s interesting book chapter, “Now I’m Feeling Zombified: Playing the Zombie Online”, Scott outlines part of the history of the races and character types in Blizzard’s Warcraft and Diablo franchises. He observes that customer feedback from Warcraft II players did not match expectations when it came to their game race of preference: instead of picking the embattled human race, players were more likely to play as the bad guys, the orcs (172). 

This led to the publisher’s adding an “evil” character to its next instalment of the separate but similarly-themed Diablo, the Necromancer, and later Warcraft III would hit the shelves with a further evil race – the Undead. Again, after reviewing customer feedback, Blizzard found that the Undead were wildly popular, despite requiring different tactics due to their reliance on spells. 

Identification with the undead therefore changed the development of the game franchise. Scott argues that this identification allowed players to further assert a kind of outsider status within the world of online gaming, as the Undead are seen as a lesser race than the standard Orcs and humans (180), but their popularity across gaming in generally makes this problematic. I think there is something particularly appealing – even Gothic – to playing these kinds of roles, and I’ve set out to find out what it is.

There seems to be something performative about the Gothic. Whether we are talking about Halloween celebrations, gothic or heavy metal music, or tabletop games such as those of the Warhammer universe, there is something deeply appealing about being able to put on the guise of something darker than you are.

I think there is some kind of overlap between gaming and the Gothic, and perhaps I will get to investigate it more formally in the future. Scott’s paper is well worth looking up, and there is a sizeable amount of research on gaming, so I thought I would direct my short term “research” of this question elsewhere. As such, I’ve recruited a group of trusty tabletop gaming devotees and begun to run a campaign of Mordheim, one of Games Workshop’s discontinued “specialist” games.

Last person to pick a character has to be the screaming
flayed guy on the left.
Mordheim is certainly a Gothic game in its own right. Players run gangs of ruffians, represented by 28mm figures, and fight over pieces of a mysterious, glowing stone in the City of the Damned. Certain characters can gain experience and develop over games, so the playing of linked scenarios or campaigns allows a story to tell itself through the game play. Suspecting that Gothic gameplaying has something to say about Gothic narratives in general, I wanted to test how far this idea could be stretched, so all the players in the campaign were asked to provide a short back story to their gang. After matches, the most dramatic elements of each round are written into a kind of schlocky, episodic short story, which gives players a chance to gloat over their best moments and to see the narrative twists and turns of the next round hinted at. Just to top it all off, our campaign is not set in the city of Mordheim, but upon a Lovecraftian island, complete with the required amounts of swampland, madness, and tentacles.

The campaign has just about reached its midpoint. The most dramatic moments include a drug-addled aristocrat and “blunderbuss enthusiast” killing his own gang-mates and a mercenary captain being carried away by dead things in the swamp – to date, nothing too far off the beaten path of fantasy narrative – but the most enjoyable part for me has been patching together the story of the gameplay with a general plot based for the most part on the island’s geography. This central story has grown with very little interference from me, and can develop on it’s on in any number of directions based on the permutations of gameplay and the interactions of the players in response to them.

Part game, part choose-your-own-adventure-story, this campaign has swamped the genre borders more than crossed them. And I think the underlying dimension which allows it such freedom is its dark fantasy logic – there would be many more restrictions if we’d played a science fiction plot, for example. The connection between gaming and the Gothic may not turn out to be as profound as I had thought, but I must admit that I like the idea of a game coming alive and telling itself story. So I’ll keep playing. And listening.

“ “Now I’m Feeling Zombified”: Playing the Zombie Online. 169-184. Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Eds. Shaun McIntosh and Marc Leverette. Lanham, Toronto, and Plymouth: 2008, The Scarecrow Press. 

Jason Archbold (our wonderful guest blogger) is a Cotutelle PhD candidate at Macquarie University and the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture at Justus-Liebig-Universität. His dissertation explores morals and ethics in apocalyptic fictions. When he is not dodging zombies as part of his research, he can be found investigating cultures through cooking or buried in a mass of comic books.