Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper and the Panopticon

by Alyson Cummins, designer of The Yellow Wallpaper

I first came across The Yellow Wallpaper at college, where I briefly studied it as part of a module on consciousness. I was delighted when Aoife, our director, approached me last year about her idea to do a stage adaptation.  
The text is such a finely crafted, economical piece of work that it has been a very real challenge from the beginning. I think this challenge comes mainly from the fact that the language is so descriptive; she paints such a vivid picture, not only of her state of mind but also of her surroundings, which are so closely linked to her mental state. Trying to retain this for an audience member, as opposed to a reader, is one of the main things I have been striving to achieve. 
In the earlier stages of the design process I became very preoccupied with a building designed in the 18th Century called the Panopticon. It is as much a political and architectural thesis around space and power as it is a design for a building. The original design was for a prison, but its designer Jeremy Bentham thought it could be adapted for any kind of institutional building. It is most succinctly described on Wikipedia:

“The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. The design comprises a circular structure with an "inspection house" at its centre, from which the managers or staff are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. 

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.””

I was drawn to the idea of power and control being exercised through a person’s environment in light of and with regard to the heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper. I became more interested in the relationship between the protagonist and the individual audience member rather than trying to create a naturalistic environment for the action to take place in. 
The Panopticon model is also rather like a theatre in the round, except that the relationship is in reverse, because the person in the centre of the circular space is lit and is the focus of attention for those around the perimeter who are in darkness. Our production will be are staged in the Boys School at Smock Alley, which gives us the opportunity to place an audience on at least three sides of the space with the stage in the centre, and so this idea of the Panopticon and the power structure--as well as the opportunity to subvert it--really intruiged me. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Doppelgängers

by Tanya Dean, dramaturg of The Yellow Wallpaper

             Can I, who suffer from the wild unrest
                              Of two strong natures claiming each its due,
                              And can not tell the greater of the two;
                          Who have two spirits ruling in breast
                          Alternately, and know not which is
                               And which the owner true.
                                     Untitled poem by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 
                                                                1 April 1883.

While researching for dramaturgy packet for The Yellow Wallpaper, I become increasingly intrigued by how much of this story of a young woman increasingly trapped  in her own mind was motivated by the internal struggles of its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The young female protagonist frets that her “nervous depression” has kept her from fulfilling her marital obligations: “It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” 

By contrast, Gilman (1860 – 1935) felt a constant struggle between her traditional and radical ideologies. She saw herself as composed of two sides: in letters to a girlhood friend, Martha Luther, she explained how she saw one, "the mother side," as that part of herself that existed "merely as a woman" and disparaged it as "that useful animal a wife and a mother." She thought, however, that satisfying its claims might give her "happiness" to "enjoy." Against this side was her individual self, the "personal power of character," what she called "myself as a self." This aspect of her was unbounded by sex distinction and therefore had the capacity to be equal to that of a man. 

She met her first husband, the aspiring artist and poet Charles Walter Stetson, on January 12, 1882. Within 17 days of their first meeting, Stetson proposed, but Charlotte noted in her diary: "I have this day been asked the one great question in a womans [sic] life and have refused." Charlotte was already firm in her decision that her life's mission would be to improve the world. She warned her suitor in a letter (recorded in Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson): "Let me tell you…that I am not the combining sort. I don't combine, and I don't want to. My nature is the polliest of polygons, whose unhappiness it is true depends on the contact of its many faces…but which keeps its own unchanging shape…my life is one of private aspiration and development, and of public service…I will give and give and give you of myself, but never give myself to you or any man. " 

Thus began the fraught, anxious courtship of Stetson and Charlotte: a courtship that was to last nearly two-and-a-half years. Charlotte was torn between her love for Stetson and her desire for marriage, family, and home; and the certainty that marriage and motherhood would leech her time and energy for pursuing her own work and ambitions. She explained her agony to Stetson:

  "There will be times when this frenzy for freedom boils up with force, which ungratified, would bring misery to myself and those around me; and there will be times when the woman's heart will wake and cry with heart-rending loneliness.
  Then shall I seek for you like a dream—the tired child that wakes and feels for its mother, and if I do not find you there is nothing but a great blackness and despair, a deep remorseful agony, the unending horror of feeling that I myself have thrust you from me and woven my own shroud…
  Now these things are before me: I give myself to you and honorably fulfil my duties at whatever cost: subduing my deep-rooted desires and crushing out this Doppelgänger of mine whenever it appears. In due time I should reach content I doubt not; and should only suffer at intervals. 
  And if the glorious sweetness of our love held its own in both of us should know joy enough to overweigh all pain.
  Or: I leave you, and strengthen myself at all points, subduing in turn fierce heartache when it rose. In due time I should reach content, I doubt not, and should only suffer at intervals. And if my promise of energy and power hold its own, my sense of duty and place fulfilled would counterbalance heartaches." 

Although Stetson never placed her under any ultimatum, throughout the courtship he did try to encourage the part of Charlotte who desired matrimony and domesticity, and to discourage the Doppelgänger:

"[Charlotte] had one of those spasms of wanting to make a name for herself in the world by doing good work: wanting to have people know her as Charlotte Perkins, not the wife of me. She drew back with her old time feeling of independence from the prospect of sinking herself in our community. God alone knows how the terrible mood came again to her, for one could scarce find a happier being than she has been for months, or one more desirous of making me happy and of having a home & husband, & children & undying love.…She had a wild theory about living in one place—a home of her 'own' and having me come and see her when the erotic tendency was at a maximum. Of course I would not do that: and I would not think much of a man who would do it. The sweetest of marriage is cooperation towards advancement: close communion at all times, and the founding of a hearth. I will accept nothing else." 

By the summer of 1983 (following a brief trial "separation" from Stetson in the spring), Charlotte made her choice: she would try to accommodate Stetson's view that "her work is to be done if done well and to purpose by getting into harmony with that 'woman' [inside her] instead of trying to murder it." Charlotte Perkins and Walter Stetson were married on 2nd May 1884, in Providence Rhode Island. This was a huge change in Charlotte's previously fiercely independent and career-oriented life: she now found her time sucked up by domestic chores, leaving little time for her creative work. She attempted some rebellions: a week after the wedding, she wrote in her diary, "I suggested he [Walter] pay me for my services; and he much dislikes the idea. I am grieved at offending him; mutual misery. Bed and cry." In her later work, The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), she would talk about, "the home which is so far from beautiful, so wearing to the nerves and dulling to the heart, the home life that means care and labour and disappointment, the quiet, unnoticed whirlpool that sucks down youth and beauty and enthusiasm, man's long labour and woman's longer love." The Yellow Wallpaper is in part Gilman’s fictitious interpretation of the guilt of a traditional woman who feels herself failing to fulfil her socially-dictated role as wife and mother, and how that internal struggle affects her mental health.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: A Dramaturg’s Perspective

by Tanya Dean, dramaturg of The Yellow Wallpaper

“The ‘conversation starter’ of the production process,” was how Aoife (Spillane-Hinks, director of The Yellow Wallpaper and one half of the founding forces of Then This Theatre) nutshelled the role of the dramaturg for this show. So that seems like a fine place to begin explaining my role in this production...

Starting the conversation…
Back in March when Aoife first approached me about working on a new adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gothic novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, we chatted about how a dramaturg could best serve this particular and peculiar production. “Dramaturg” is a hazy job title, one that lies somewhere in the nexus between researcher, consultant, and critic. No two shows are the same, so the role of dramaturg shifts according to the needs of each specific production. My personal favourite analogy is that if the actors, directors, playwrights, designers, etc. are the builders of a play-world, then the dramaturg serves as the mapmaker. It’s my job to help discover uncharted territory, to explain strange new lands, and to gently but firmly guide fellow travellers safely past areas marked “here there be monsters.” For The Yellow Wallpaper, we decided, this “theatrical cartography” would take the form of research relating to the subject matter and context of the piece, on the adaptation of the text itself from a literary to a performance medium, and on the rendering of the piece in all its elements (design, performance, mise-en-scène, etc.). 

Drawing a Map…
Some aspects of dramaturging require a meticulous, almost clerical eye for detail. Like taking eight different editions of the text (including the author’s original 1890 manuscript, thank you Schlesinger Library!) and literally going through line-by-line, looking for editorial differences. I nearly went cross-eyed by the time I got to the last page, but from this, I was able to draw up a master text of The Yellow Wallpaper, which now serves as the basis for our adaptation. As part of the adaptation process, sometimes this means deciding between a differing word choice (“one expects that in marriage” versus “one expects that in men.”) Sometimes it means deciding on whether or not to include lines that CPG wrote in her original manuscript, but that were omitted from the 1892 published version (“A sickly penetrating suggestive yellow.”) Sometimes it can be as simple as the difference between punctuation (“I am glad my case is not serious!” versus “I am glad my case is not serious.”) It may sound like fiddly work, but these tiny details can make a big difference in the nuance of this woman’s story.

Plotting a path…
Then we come to the exploration of the play-world. Perkins-Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper at the end of the 19th century, a time of sweeping social, cultural, and political change. In order to better illuminate the world that CPG was writing from and that our protagonist is living in, I buried myself in the library for a few weeks and pulled together what’s known as a “dramaturgy packet.” This is like a reference book for a production; the basic elements are a glossary, an author bio, and a chronology for the time in which the piece was written. For YWP, I also included short informational essays on elements like America in the 19th century, women in the 19th century, and the Weir Mitchell Rest Cure for neurasthenia. From this, we were able to get into deeper conversations about things like what would be expected of our protagonist as a wife and mother, where would she stand socially, how would fashions and medical ideas of the time affect her physically and mentally. Slowly but surely, we began to develop a clearer understanding of the world that this woman lives in.

What lies beneath…
Now, we’re at the table-work stage, where the director, cast, and dramaturg talk though the script line-by-line, trying to dig a little deeper under the surface of the text. I’ll confess, table-work is probably my favourite part of the rehearsal process; it’s like watching the lights come on and suddenly the play comes into clearer focus. You begin to discover revelations and meanings that you never saw before, no matter how many times you may have read the script. A world begins to emerge…

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Launch, The Future...

On Sunday night, we launched Then This Theatre. Prizes were won! Food and drink was joyfully consumed! Dozens of our friends, collaborators, and co-conspirators honoured Then This by taking over the Grafton Lounge. And we got to talk about why we’re doing this.

Maeve and I founded Then This Theatre Company because of the spark we’ve found as we’ve worked together. We felt that same spark when we encountered Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Gothic novella “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We knew immediately this had to be our first production.

The Yellow Wallpaper, and this company, are much more than the two of us. We were delighted to celebrate, last Sunday night, not only the birth of this company, but the people who have made all of this possible. It is only through the solidarity and support of our friends and colleagues that this work happens at all.

With this in mind, we’ve launched our own online fundraising campaign. By visiting, you can read more about the Then This Theatre and The Yellow Wallpaper – and make a donation to support our work. Any level of support is greatly appreciated.

Check back here for new blog posts soon--we’ll be posting entries from different members of our creative team over the next few days and weeks.

Til soon,


Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper

This might be a ghost story. Worse yet, it might not.
The dark corners of the theatre reflect the dark corners of the mind in this adaptation of the American Gothic novella which charts a young woman’s descent into madness during the Victorian era of medical extremes. Trapped in an attic room and cut off from the world, she begins to obsess over the wallpaper, and what’s waiting behind it. As she struggles to make sense of its twisting patterns, what she discovers draws her closer and closer to the edge.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Then This Theatre Company Launch

You are cordially invited to the launch of 

The Grafton Lounge,
Royal Hibernian Way, Dublin 2.

August 7th @ 6pm