Yellow Wallpaper: Centuries Collide in Joyous Explosions, 22/07/2014

Last week, I wrote a post that was a philosophical analysis of Yellow Wallpaper, an original play that my friend Kristi Boulton adapted from a short story by Charlottle Perkins Gilman. I discussed many of the meta-fictional and feminist aspects of the play in the first post, based on a couple of conversations between Kristi and I. Now I’ve seen the play, and there’s even more roiling within it. The play is still running until July 27, and it's a good idea to go.

Yellow Wallpaper depicts a woman in
a multifaceted prison: a locked room,
a morality that reduces her to an
incubator, politics and economics that
make her entirely servile. Forces from
beyond her walls offer liberation.
“Yellow Wallpaper” the short story is a product of the late Victorian era, an expression of the feminist culture and the female voices that were rebelling against the period’s cultural oppression. And the trappings of the era are well on display. The costumes evoke the physical constraints of the time’s upper-class fashions and stiff pretensions. The characters themselves speak in mannered Victorianisms, which slowly strain and crack under the emotional pressures that the protagonist’s mental illness forces on them. 

This growing pressure constitutes the narrative thrust of the play. As the play begins, the protagonist just looks as though she needs a vacation in the country after a stressful period. Her husband, a Victorian doctor, is concerned for his wife, but confident that he and his brother, a fellow doctor whose Victorian coldness and status-consciousness is played for laughs, can restore her to mental health. Her sister-in-law Rachel is similarly confident and optimistic. The family maid is a non-entity. 

As the lead actress becomes more unhinged and obsessed with her visions and nervousness, her husband becomes similarly uncertain in his abilities and wracked with self-doubt. His collaborating brother becomes openly cruel to her. As Rachel sees the protagonist’s behaviour and statements sensibly questioning the Victorian morality in which the purpose of a woman is to bear and raise children, she snaps and begins losing her temper. The maid begins a scheme of her own to rise in this wealthy family at the expense of the doctor’s marginalized wife.

Yet Yellow Wallpaper is not only a story of oppression, but of liberation.

The first sign of this is in the use of names. The only use of the protagonist’s own name throughout the entire play was at the very end, spoken by the yellow spectres. She has been referred to as a patient, a wife, a mother, a threat, and as darling, but never by her own name.* The spectres call her Charlotte in the only moment where any character acknowledges her humanity. It is to the detriment of the human characters that only the spectres of the house, whose very ontological nature is obscured among many possibilities, accept Charlotte’s singularity.

* Names have a curious power in Boulton’s script.** One subtle assault on the protagonist’s security is an otherwise unremarkable character breaking her place in the social hierarchy when she calls the lead actor John.

** And I’ve just used our common naming convention to accord my friend an extra layer of respect. After all this analysis, it would be improper for me to refer to her by the familiar Kristi, trivializing her contribution to her own production. So here I call her Boulton.

Hanah Itner's masterful performance as
manic intensity itself straining against
its constraints anchors and elevates an
already fascinating play.
Charlotte is not simply mad, not simply unhinged. She is a creative figure, diegetically a nationally famous author of children’s literature, a genre that the play explicitly associates with fantasy and escape from reality. A symptom of the typical Victorian (and generally patriarchal, whether Western, global, past, or present) repression of women, her husband does not allow her to write, to express her creative drives, until she is cured. The doctors frame this cure in terms of self-discipline, self-control. Her presumptive healers see imagination, the creative act itself, as a threat.

The other female characters join with the doctors to supply the content and purpose for this discipline. She will have considered herself cured when she can hold her baby without anxiety, when she is able to be a mother, joyously happy in the care of her infant. Rachel herself articulates this ideology most clearly: she turns from Charlotte’s only apparently sympathetic ear to a dedicated enemy when she hears her express seriously the idea that not all women are cut out to be mothers. 

As a character, there is a psychological reason for this, because Rachel herself is barren. So psychologically, this is a simple expression of jealousy. However, Rachel never appeared in Gilman’s story. She is entirely Boulton’s creation, and Boulton herself plays her well. Her performance goes beyond this petty psychological motivation so that Rachel expresses one of our culture’s most oppressive ideologies: that the only purpose of a woman is as a vehicle for procreation.

It’s fitting that the day before I went to see Boulton’s play, I wrote some light reflections about how one can be happy in life without having children. I framed my own take on this in reaction to Lee Edelman’s notion that a life without children signifies a joyous embrace of death and the annihilation of the self and all others. Edelman’s Lacanian influence leads him to think this way, interpreting Lacan’s concept of jouissance as the annihilation of identity, the joy of becoming thanatos, the death drive.

Boulton told me that the more overtly sexual
elements of Granger's dance came from
collaboration with the Fringe version's lead
actress, Itner, and was absent in the original
McMaster production. A great improvement.
Because I have no loyalty to Lacan, I need not argue against this, only state my opposition, and instead argue that my own ideological perspective offers a better existence. Charlotte, in betraying her husband to the spectre women of her wallpaper, does not embrace death. Much of this is down to the physical interaction of Hanah Itner as Charlotte and Sarah Granger as The Wallpaper Woman. They relate through a sensual dance that is clearly sexual in nature, which supplies Charlotte’s positive identity: as woman, as writer, and as homosexual, a triple threat to the oppressive morality of the Victorian era and so many other oppressive cultural currents that still exist today. Granger’s dancing is explicitly a product of the twentieth century: she is a modern dancer breaking into this militarized Victorian setting. Their dances are the only times in the play when Charlotte’s body language changes from the shaking nerves of constricted energy to the smooth bodily flows of free motion. 

The Yellow Wallpaper charts many attempts to constrain Charlotte, whether through a reproductive futurist morality, the rhetoric of self-control, economic dependence, medical institutions, or anaesthetic drugs. Joining with the Wallpaper Woman is a physical and ontological transformation, setting Charlotte free. She doesn’t trade one morality from another, but articulates an ethical transformation, a complete metamorphosis of who she truly is. A new genuine identity is created, and the regimentation of Victorian identity, ideology, and political morality is impotent before the power of a woman who has finally freed herself.

Editor's note: In case you were wondering, Kristi: Yes, I thought it was good. And I hope you don't mind that I used a couple of photos from your Facebook page.

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