A Creation of Atmosphere

GASLIGHT by Patrick Hamilton, directed by Anthony Banks, with Kara Tointon and Keith Allen, Theatre Royal Brighton, Monday 6th February 2017, 7.45pm.

Patrick Hamilton: Brighton alumni (born in Hassocks), alcoholic, committed communist, somewhat successful writer but suffered a tapering off of his prominence later in his career and, after his death, more or less neglected in the stakes of important 30’s writers, Auden, Huxley et al. He didn't really punch in the same weight division of self-importance and ego as Evelyn Waugh or aspire, perhaps, to the universality of Orwell or Virginia Woolf.

So where does Gaslight stand in a re-evaluation of his dramatic achievement?

Looked at as a piece of dramatic writing, maybe not so high, but as a creation of atmosphere, of creeping fear, of the horror of being powerless, helpless, unable to see the whole picture, incapable of making any kind of change, it’s in a class of its own. And as an expression, a dramatisation, of the writer’s own demons, his paranoia, his obsessions, not to mention a metaphor for the political situation of the desperate years before the war, Gaslight invents a genre that maybe didn’t have so much impact on stage writing since but ultimately found itself happily at home in the cinema industry.

None of the characters in Gaslight influence the events of the story during the course of the play. Everything is set before the curtain rises, just like the furniture. Events takes a predetermined course. What is revealed during the action is the state of mind of the main character, Bella (Kara Tointon). We discover the truth of her situation with her. We are witness to her journey from innocence to knowledge and we see the effect this has on her, but she doesn’t effect the story. She has no impact on events. Her husband’s perfidy is revealed without her help.

This kind of storytelling is very familiar to us. Films have been constructed along these lines for decades, since Gaslight effectively. In fact a whole new kind of acting, The Method, was invented to allow actors to express outwardly their inner journey, reveal their mental processes, remain active while being essentially passive.

So it’s odd, but interesting, that this production takes a kind of old-fashioned theatrical approach, eschewing those acting tropes we are now so familiar with. Movies are the true heirs to the traditions of melodrama. Movies are melodramas! The music almost never stops. And the kind of music that the characters can’t hear (as opposed to that they can, such as in La La Land or Singing in the Rain) helps express or reveal their inner life. Just as it did in melodrama. It heightens the effect, makes us all feel the same, gets us all on the same page.

The opposite end of this particular spectrum is Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (for example). Here the characters act on each other, influence each other, continually, in real time, in front of our eyes.

Why did I feel that maybe this production thought that it was doing Ibsen and not Hamilton?

Certainly Gaslight has something important to say about how it felt to live in that pre-war state of suspended fear and horror. And the fact that there are horrifying parallels to the current political situation only increases (or should) the deliciously scary impact of the play.

But atmosphere is a poor substitute for ideas, or argument, or a genuine examination of motivation and character. Effects can only go so far. Horror and suspense are fun in their own way, like a rollercoaster, but with the end of the experience comes the end of its impact.

As far as Gaslight has something to say to us now, in our current predicament (and why else would the play be revived?) it is in the dilemma of that main character, that her fear, her manipulation by those literally above her (her husband performs his evil in the attic), her inability to influence her situation is expressed as intrinsic to her, it is hers solely, uniquely. Her individual freedom is the outcome most wished, and to the enjoyment of the audience, is ultimately delivered.

Since Gaslight’s premiere in 1938 individual prerogative has been the be all and end all, the universal subject and, paradoxically, it could be argued, why we find ourselves where we are today, in fear of a revival of demagogues and tyrants, of misogyny, of nationalism and a turning inwards.

As hard as the actors worked to make the play fun, to give us that joyous rollercoaster ride we were all hoping for, it was hard not to feel that the focus on the individual experience, the dramatisation of an inner life, was desperately old-fashioned, that in fact there is a different kind of drama out there in the real world which is looking at this kind of thing with a new, and somewhat horrified expression, and which doesn’t find this kind of thing funny or even diverting in the current climate.

Paul Corcoran