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

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