Yellow Wallpaper: The Undeniable Power of Theatrical Experience, 14/07/2014

Theatre is supposed to be strange. We usually gripe about how a special effect in a movie doesn’t look real enough, but we always know that it isn’t real because it’s an image on a screen. When we experience the strangest images theatre can create, the effect is especially powerful because we are physically in the same room as these phantasms. 

See it at the Player's Guild theatre at
80 Queen Street South in Hamilton,
June 17 – 27.
I met Kristi Boulton a couple of years ago when she was a theatre and media student and I was doing my doctorate at McMaster University. Today, she’s written a play based on “Yellow Wallpaper,” a chilling short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story is written in the first person, and the play presents a fictionalized version of Charlotte herself playing the protagonist, a woman confined in an attic for medical observation after an embarrassing mental health episode spoken of only in hushed terms. 

Locked away, she begins to experience visions, hauntings. A featureless female figure in bright yellow emerges from the titular modular wall, stalking her around the room with the voices of the women who have been confined there before. Not only these, but the cries of all the women who have been broken by the violence of men. Not only these, but echoes of Charlotte’s own torture and suffering, as her husband has happily betrayed her to a medical institution that has stripped her of freedom, personhood, agency. 

Boulton told me that her script and production has left it up to the audience to decide whether Charlotte’s experiences are real supernatural events, or if she really has had a mental breakdown and has become delusional. But the weirdness of theatre both complicates and simplifies this impression. It’s a fairly simple form of narrative literacy to think of a performance like this as presenting the audience with a choice between whether Charlotte’s haunting experiences are real or imaginary.

Because a contemporary theatrical (and televisual, and cinematic) literacy is more sophisticated than this. A reasonable viewer of this play knows that they’re watching an artificial experience: actors on stage in an adaptation of a Charlotte Perkins Gilman story. The ambiguity of whether her haunting is diegetically real or illusory is part of the play’s own structure. Posing and thinking about the question is itself part of how the audience engages with the play, and a discerning audience will understand that the ambiguous nature of the events on stage is part of the theatrical event. 

Audiences today don’t need to postulate the reality of what they see on screen or on stage to engage with an artwork, as if they were watching a documentary about imaginary people. Theatre is the presentation of a narrative through self-consciously artificial means. The sets are wooden blocks, often intentionally bare or sparsely decorated. Theatre creates an intentionally unsettling space, bringing its audience to an experience where they will see a purposely artificial story, a live barrage of affects whose purpose is to express ideas and emotions, and enfold an audience into that expression.
• • •
Theatre wasn’t always supposed to be strange. Before the invention of cinema, an artistic movement began in the 19th century for theatre to depict social situations realistically. Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen are the most famous voices from this movement today, though Leo Tolstoy and other Russian playwrights affiliated with the Moscow Art Theatre were remarkable figures as well. 

If you watch Brando's The Wild One, you understand just
how strange he makes that movie. The Wild One is an
extremely stupid movie. Its tone is essentially Reefer
, only about motorcycle riders. But Marlon Brando
shows up in this world of cornballs giving a totally realistic
performance as a swaggering young man driven to criminal
life by a lack of opportunity who acts out to cover the deep
wounds of his soul. It's totally incongruous and brilliant.
Probably the most influential inheritance from theatrical realism today comes from Constantin Stanislavski, the progenitor of modern psychological realist acting. The Method, when Marlon Brando brought it so forcefully to the American stage and screen, ushered in an era of realist filmmaking in cinema that lasted for decades. The theatrical flourishes and purposeful artificiality of the silent and studio system generations disappeared from American cinema for decades, only resurfacing in the genre play comedies and action films that developed in the 1990s and 2000s.

But the growth of cinema forced theatre to give up its pretensions to realism. This was not an immediate process, of course. Brando’s own theatrical work, along with the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller were developing viscerally realist theatre while Eugene Ionesco, Dario Fo, Peter Shaffer, and Samuel Beckett were bringing a new weirdness and surreality to the stage. Harold Pinter's works were deliciously vital combinations of realism and artifice. These experimental works created new forms of dramatic, conceptual, and emotional expression by dropping all pretence that the events on stage were real, or even aimed for verisimilitude to the real.

But the strangeness of theatre’s obvious artificiality belies its ability to express vitally important realistic ideas. Consider Boulton’s Yellow Wallpaper. A woman is trapped in a confined space and stalked by the psychic echoes of all other women who have been abused and tortured through a medical system that treated them as living laboratories and a wider patriarchal society that robbed them of physical agency and self-control. 

It’s a perennial struggle, one of the defining struggles of human culture for well over a century. The theatre is a space where an essential dynamism of the forces that constitute the globalized culture of our world can be displayed before us. The performance itself expresses those forces and we participate in them in real time as we experience and engage with the narrative

Charlotte is locked in an enclosed space where the narratives of millions of tortured and oppressed women are brought before her through an experience that, in its artificiality is more than real precisely because its nature as a performance allows the direct expression of forces that are normally diffuse and barely noticeable throughout our planet’s societies. She, and we, are the audience to the history and narratives essential to the entire human experience.

This is the power of theatre.

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