“John laughs at me, but one expects that in a marriage.” This blasé comment comes early in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s unnerving yet hilarious short story. The accepted banality of it is revealing. This unnamed narrator’s husband is a physician and has kept her isolated in a rural mansion for a “rest cure.” A woman of the late nineteenth century suffering depression, without any apparent bodily concerns and mental illness not yet properly identified, she is dismissed as hysterically nervous and removed from social interaction and work. While her grip on reality falters, she latches onto a deeper unspoken truth of her situation.
Bygone Theatre’s theatrical adaptation of this fanciful and compelling feminist tract, The Yellow Wallpaper, is an immersive, multi-media experience presented at the historic Campbell House. The small audience is invited to wander the space, venture up and down stairs and into various rooms. As The Woman (Kate McArthur) talks to herself and us, we are able to adjust our vantage point.
Her monologue here is the text of Gilman’s short story, though creator Emily Dix and co-writer McArthur have embellished it slightly. Most notably, there is speculative audio (accessed through headsets) of various private conversations the husband has with other men. I didn’t listen long enough to fully identify the voices—The Woman’s brother perhaps, or the doctor Weir Mitchell, whose care he threatens to place her under if she doesn’t “pick up faster.”
The wallpaper itself is a compelling character in the story. Trapped in an upstairs nursery, The Woman has little to do all day but examine this ghastly yellow landscape. The colour and pattern make her so very angry! Her descriptions are vivid, amusing, and increasingly grotesque: “lame patterns… committing every artistic sin,” “optic horror,” “columns of fatuity,” “unclean,” “repellent” and “revolting.” As the light shifts, and her mind with it, she begins to see in the pattern bulbous broken heads lying limp and the figure of a woman creeping beneath. She obsesses over freeing her, eventually identifying herself as the woman trapped in the paper.
There’s so much to unpack in all this. One of the most impressive aspects of Gilman’s story is its lightness of tone. The situation is fraught and unsetting, but unfolds with such delicious humour, enhancing our appreciation for The Woman’s intellect as it devours itself during this enforced isolation.
This humour is considerably harder to access in McArthur’s performance and the presentation as a whole. She seems to find the situation quite funny, but her manic laughter feels contrived and she certainly doesn’t let us in on the joke. Gilman’s story is more intimate; the reader shares her headspace in a way that isn’t possible here. McArthur performs live in the space, though it is hard to tell since she’s hidden and we never see or interact with her directly. I think her on-site presence is a missed opportunity for a more urgent immersion. Perhaps trying to find her—the woman hidden in the wall!—could be part of the experience, though the current technical set-up likely wouldn’t accommodate it.
There are several engaging conceptual aspects to this experience. In Bria Cole’s projections (featuring animations by Steven Dirckze), the yellow wallpaper has an eerie, spectral quality. The primary wide shot of the nursery is projected onto a sheet which billows in the air, echoing the subtle undulations of the pattern in The Woman’s imagination. The trapped figure is also present as a shadowy manifestation in the wall. The set dressing contains clever details too—the empty rocking crib, for example, reminds us of the child she doesn’t get to see.
A relatively unassuming table setting in one of the downstairs rooms reveals itself to be an slyly evocative mise en scène. The plates are bare until you shine a black-light pen on them, revealing cryptic text—short passages from the story which seem delightfully ominous when experienced as ghostly hidden messages. (This feels like a spoiler to me, but Dix does mention the effect in her Director’s Notes in the program.)
Inspired by the lasting impact of early pandemic isolation, there are compelling little pockets of magic in this ambitious presentation, but the overall gestalt is rather clunky. You’ll likely get more out of the experience if you are familiar with the source material. I recommend reading Gilman’s story beforehand.