The Woman in Black is based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, a prolific and successful British author who has written dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children.
According to the autobiographical sketch she provides on her official web-site, “I was born in Scarborough, the seaside resort on the North East coast of Yorkshire, in 1942. Scarborough is a beautiful place, with dramatic cliffs, two sweeping bays, amazing views, a Castle, a Harbour with fishing boats….” Clearly her hometown memories have helped to color the atmosphere of The Woman in Black, a play with a spookily romantic seaside setting.
Also helping to lend dramatic impact to her later work was her early experience as a theater-goer. As she tells us, "I became interested in the theatre very early on. The Scarborough Repertory Theatre was twinned with the Repertory in York, and alternated productions. My mother took me to almost every one, even though I was very young and probably could not understand a great deal of what was going on! But I loved the sight and sound and smells of the theatre from then.”
She was educated at primary and secondary schools in Scarborough and Coventry, and took a degree in English at London University. It was during her last year of secondary school—at age 19—that she published her first novel, The Enclosure. The book created something of a sensation, and as the author recalls, “I received a great deal of, mainly unwelcome, publicity for this along the lines of ‘Schoolgirl Susan writes sex novel.’ It shocked both my school teachers and my parents and caused me much embarrassment. It took me a very long time to get over the sudden exposure to fame, and to live down the notoriety.”
Upon the completion of her degree (and a second novel), she returned to Coventry where she worked as literary editor for the local newspaper for five years, during which time she wrote her third novel. Following her firing from the newspaper job, she immediately set to work on her fourth book, which was followed in rapid succession by four more, bringing her to a total of eight published novels by 1974.
In 1975 she married the Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells, and began a hiatus in her writing career lasting until 1983 with the publication of The Woman in Black.
Her first child, Jessica, was born in 1977, and her third, Clemency, in 1985. Her middle daughter, Imogen, was born in 1984, following the publication of The Woman in Black. Somewhat chillingly, given the subject matter of that novel, Imogen died at age five weeks. The author informs us that, “She is buried in the old graveyard behind the church of St Nicholas, Old Marston.”
Susan Hill won the Somerset Maugham Award for I'm the King of the Castle (1970); the Whitbread Novel Award for The Bird of Night (1972); and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Albatross (1971), a collection of short stories.
The Lady in Black was adapted for the stage in 1987 by Stephen Mallatratt, at that time a fortyish actor and writer associated with the Scarborough Company, a theater run by one of England’s most popular and successful playwrights, Alan Ayckbourn.
Hap Erstein in an interview with Mallatratt in The Washington Times (Oct 2 1990), recounts the genesis of the novel’s stage version. “[W]hen, in 1987, the [Scarborough] troupe needed a Christmas show, Mr. Mallatratt suggested The Woman in Black. He had read this best-selling ghost novel . . . on a beach vacation in Greece and recognized its theatrical potential.
“He wrote to Miss Hill and inquired if she would be interested in adapting it. ‘And she wrote back and said, “Not in the least. But if you want to have a go, by all means have a go,” ‘ he recalls. ‘She was amazed, to be honest, because she thought it was a stupid idea.’ “
The final form of the play was determined by the “economic and size constraints of the Scarborough theater” which compelled Mallatratt to make the cast as small as possible. In this case, necessity was the mother of invention, suggesting “the idea of two characters acting out the story, one changing identities as needed.”
Although he has written other plays and worked in British television—most notably for the comedy series, Coronation Street—Mr. Mallatratt is primarily known for his work on The Woman in Black.
According to the Washington Times, “Mr. Mallatratt estimates he could live on the royalties from The Woman in Black.”
Says Mallatratt, "It's one of those happy things that happen occasionally in one's life that you get a bloody good idea. I've got enormous affection for it, because it's given incomes to an awful lot of people,"
He also claims to be, “stumped by a question about deeper themes in the play beyond its attempts to scare us with ghostly comings and goings. . . .’[I]t's an acting piece. That's what it is, really. It's just a great story, which I nicked and managed to find another dimension to.’ "
From Scarborough The Woman in Black moved to London, where it opened in June, 1989. Fifteen years later, it is still playing to sold-out houses. It has also had successful productions in the United States, and throughout the rest of the world, including places as diverse as Hungary, Monaco, Australia, and Swaziland.
The play makes no attempt to replicate the “real world” on stage. On the contrary, the script announces that the setting is, “A small Victorian theatre . . . devoid of scenery.” What we find instead is a “clutter of cloths, boxes and furniture. This clutter will evolve according to the needs of the performance—though should include a couple of chairs, a rocking chair, a high stool, a blanket and a large skip or trunk.” In other words, the audience is being invited to watch as this miscellany of objects is reconfigured from scene to scene for the purpose of creating only rough approximations of the changing locations of the story. This technique of self-consciously exhibiting the contrived, purely suggestive nature of performance is usually described as “presentational” or “theatricalist,” and is characteristic both of much modern drama and of the classical theaters of Europe and Asia.
The performers continuously accentuate this presentational style. They repeatedly refer to themselves as actors; they discuss the fine points of their craft; they praise the sound effects, manipulate the lighting, assess the responses of the audience, and even criticize the script they are in the process of performing.
At one level, then, the play subjects itself to relentless de-mystification: “This is all just make-believe,” the audience is constantly being told both by the actors and by the setting. That being the case, how could anyone possibly be taken in by it? How could this self-revealing artifice, this obviously faked-up ghost story, scare a mouse?
But by all accounts, it does, and has done, for more than 15 years on the English stage and throughout the world. How, given the self-conscious fakery of the setting, does this piece of theater manage to terrify its watchers?
The answer lies in a paradox: the miscellaneous objects on stage are variously assembled to evoke what isn’t really present: a lawyer’s office; a railway station; a horse and buggy; a churchyard. And of course, a Haunted House. Indeed, the mother of all Haunted Houses, standing as it does out on an island, in the midst of a dismal marsh, on the foggy coast, in an isolated town, in farthest rural England.
But we only get to “see” the office and the churchyard and the Haunted House thanks to a force we must call magic. Theatrical magic. All these places are, quite literally, conjured up, out of almost nothing, right before our astonished eyes. Thanks to this sorcery, they are called forth from an absent world and made visible before our credulous gaze. Just like ghosts.
And there’s the paradox: the more artificial the material elements of the setting, the more powerful is the uncanny effect when absent places and vanished times are summoned up before us.
By creating the spell-binding presence of what our rational minds tell us is so clearly absent—by making the invisible visible—the setting itself becomes an exercise in the raising of spirits. It lures us into believing in the substance of shadows; and thus disposed, we are ready to be scared witless by the dire apparition of the Woman in Black when she finally—and theatrically—appears.
The plot of The Woman in Black unfolds on two levels, and is performed by only two actors, one named Kipps, and one who remains anonymous.
Level One takes place in the “present,” in the theater, during the rehearsal of a script written by Kipps about his long-ago experience of meeting the ghost of a woman dressed in black. The action of this section of the plot might be called, “putting on a play.”
Level Two consists of the ghost story itself, which unfolds in the play being rehearsed in Level One. Kipps tells us explicitly that he wishes to relate this tale to “purge” it from his mind and soul. Accordingly, the action of this section might be called, “exorcising the ghost.”
The two characters are involved in both levels of the plot. Kipps, who is now an old man, has hired the nameless professional actor to portray himself in the ghost story. Kipps, meanwhile, will play all the minor characters in that narrative.
In the “Level One” sections of the play, the major conflict is between Kipps, the theatrical amateur, and his hired professional over the most effective way of staging the ghost story. The professional, for example, tells Kipps his that his script, as written, would take five hours to perform. Astounded, Kipps agrees that changes must be made. At another moment Kipps, as a sort of actor/director, suggests that the professional might follow up the introductory monologue of the ghost story with some lines from Hamlet--another spooky tale. Thus, the rhythm of the play consists of a constant back-and-forth going from Kipps’s story of “encountering the ghost” to the aesthetic conflicts between the professional and the amateur about “putting on a play.”
The “Level Two” ghost story is a classic example of the genre. One of its classical elements is the haunted narrator, a figure like the Ancient Mariner, obsessed by the tale he feels compelled to tell. Early on, Kipps informs the professional actor that he wants his story revealed so that it can be “laid to rest. . . . So I may sleep without nightmares.” Or, as he says a little later, “I recalled that the way to banish an old ghost that continues its hauntings is to exorcise it. Well then. Mine should be exorcised. I should tell my tale. . . . that I might be forever purged of it.”
But before one can exorcise a spirit, there must be a summoning and confrontation, which is what the narrative of Level Two is mostly about. As Kipps begins, we encounter another classical ghost-tale element. At the outset of a spook story, the narrator is almost always a paragon of the rational, modern mentality, someone who looks with disbelieving disdain on supernatural beliefs in general, and on the very idea of ghosts in particular. Young Kipps is just such a man. He is a solicitor in London who is assigned by his firm to attend the funeral and settle the estate of a recently deceased client, “the extraordinary Mrs. Drablow.” It seems she has left behind a confused welter of documents that must be sorted out and brought back to London, a job that will require Kipps to spend considerable time at her now-abandoned house at Eel Marsh in the remote village of Crythin Gifford. He is forewarned that Mrs. Drabow was “as they say, a rum ‘un,” meaning eccentric or strange, and that her house, connected to the mainland by a low-lying causeway, can only be reached when the tide is out.
Thus ominously informed, Kipps dutifully makes the trip, which is long and exceedingly complicated, Crythin Gifford being so out-of-the-way that it can only be reached by changing trains several times. On the last leg of his railway journey, he encounters Sam Daily, a large landowner in Crythin Village, whose cryptic and disturbing remarks about Mrs. Drablow and Eel Marsh add yet another note of menace to Kipps’s mission. Still further troubling chords are struck by the innkeeper at Kipps’s hotel who asserts that not even a real-estate tycoon such as Daily would think of buying the house at Eel Marsh, and again by the onlookers of the village who seem to treat Kipps as a “pariah” as he makes his way to Mrs. Drablow’s funeral.
Just before this point, the play makes one of its many transitions from Level Two to Level One, this time to add a bit of exposition whose importance will become evident only at the end of the performance. Kipps confesses to the professional actor that as he watches the ghost story being performed, “it is as if I relive it all, moment by moment . . . though you, of course, will never suffer as I did.” What precisely that suffering was we will not learn until later, but we do take note of the fact that the professional commiserates with Kipps by saying, “never think I don’t feel for you. I have a child myself. . . . A daughter. She is four.” And this in turn leads Kipps, after “earnestly gripping” the man’s hand, to say, “Love her. Take care of her.” This somewhat baffling exchange is an example of a plot device often called a “plant,” an event or piece of information “planted” early in the narrative, whose significance—in this case, the important role of children in the story being told—we will only grasp at the play’s end.
Back at Level Two, we observe the funeral of Mrs. Drablow, a gloomy affair attended, it seems, only by Kipps and one other person, Jerome, the firm’s local agent. But suddenly we discover that there is a third attendant. As the service comes to an end, the actor playing Kipps—that is, the professional, not Kipps himself—turns toward the audience. There he sees, standing in the middle of the aisle, the Woman in Black. Again, it is important to stress that this figure is seen by the professional actor, not by Kipps who is playing Jerome in this particular scene. Indeed, Kipps does not turn around at all and shows no awareness of her presence.
This same phenomenon occurs again, immediately following the funeral, when once more, the actor-playing-Kipps sees the ghostly woman, while Kipps himself, still in the role of Jerome, intentionally refuses to look at her.
Following this, we again shift to Level One, where the professional effusively congratulates Kipps, who had earlier promised a surprise, for pulling off “the most remarkable coup de theatre I have ever experienced.” It soon becomes clear, however, that there is a fundamental ambiguity or misunderstanding in the conversation that follows. The professional actor, though he doesn’t say so explicitly, evidently is referring to the unanticipated appearance of the Woman in Black. Kipps, also unspecific in accepting the theatrical compliment, seems to believe the actor is referring to his word-perfect command of his lines. That only one of them sees the woman, and that they subsequently talk past each other about that fact, are additional plants whose importance will emerge later.
The next event in Level Two is Kipps’s first visit to the house at Eel Marsh. He is driven there along the causeway at low tide by Keckwick (played by the real Kipps), who then morphs into a sort of voice-over narrator, facing the audience as he addresses us directly, setting the scene while the professional actor playing the young Kipps goes through the actions being described. With his attention focused on us, the narrator tells of a graveyard adjacent to the house; he describes how Kipps wandered into it, and how he found the old headstones, weather-beaten and moss-covered, impossible to decipher. What he neither tells us nor sees, but what we see, is the Woman in Black suddenly appearing behind young Kipps, who turns and is mesmerized by the sight, and who is totally unnerved when she seems to vanish before his eyes.
Shaken by this visitation, Kipps runs to the house, which he finds dark and musty, but by no means the gothic horror of his worst imaginings. Nonetheless, he decides to leave Eel Marsh at once, on foot, without waiting for Keckwith to return with the horse and buggy. As he is walking along the causeway, however, one of the sudden sea fogs of which he has been warned suddenly sets in, totally obscuring his view of the unfamiliar landscape. Stumbling back toward the relative safety of the house, he hears the sound of a pony’s hooves and the wheels of a cart in the sand, and assumes that Keckwick has come for him. But then it becomes clear that these sounds are from a different world:
The sound grows nearer, then recedes. . . . At length . . . fades altogether, and away on the marsh is a draining, sucking, churning sound . . . together with the shrill neighing and whinnying of a horse in panic. And then another cry: a shout, a terrified sobbing . . . from a young child.
Keckwick finally does arrive, and takes Kipps back to the village. As the first act comes to an end, it is obvious that the afternoon’s experiences out on Eel Marsh have shaken the young lawyer. No longer is he the sceptical rationalist of the earlier scenes. Instead, he tells us, “What I had heard . . . and what I had seen. . . . had been, in some sense I did not understand, unreal, ghostly, things that were dead.”
The events of Act II are quickly summarized. Despite his terrifying experiences in the graveyard and the fog, and in defiance of dire warnings from various townspeople, Kipps decides to stay on at Eel Marsh while he sorts through Mrs. Drablow’s papers.
As he examines the documents, he is conscious of two overriding emotions, “tedium and a certain lethargy combined with a desire to . . . be back in London with . . .dear Stella,” his fiancee, and later, as we learn, his wife. Tedium soon gives way to astonishment as odd sounds rock the house, and the cry of a child pierces the night.
Amid these uncanny phenomena, Kipps manages to piece together the elements of the dark story that shadowed Mrs. Drablow’s life and laid its curse on the isolated house. It seems Mrs. Drablow had a sister named Jennet who bore an illegitimate son in Scotland. Mrs. Drablow and her husband, Morgan, adopted the boy while his distraught mother took up residence in Crythin, hoping to maintain some sort of emotional contact with him. As she had written in a letter to her sister, “Love him, take care of him as your own. But he is mine, mine, he can never be yours.”
Despite this plea, Mrs. Drablow attempted to keep the boy from his natural mother, permitting Jennet only “very occasional” visits, and never allowing her to “see the boy alone nor ever disclose who she was. . . .” Nature, however, took its course, and the boy and his mother became attached. Jennet planned to reclaim her child and take him away from Mrs. Drablow. But before she could execute her plan a terrible accident occurred: while riding in a pony-drawn cart along the foggy causeway, the boy, his nursemaid, the driver, the pony, and a dog, all blundered into the marsh and drowned. To add to the horror, Jennet saw it all from an upper window of the house.
“From that day Jennet Humfrye began to go mad,” Mr. Daily tells Kipps.
She blamed her sister. . . . The flesh shrank from her bones . . . she looked like a walking skeleton—a living spectre. Children were terrified of her. . . . She died in hatred and misery. And as soon as ever she died, the hauntings began. . . . And whenever she has been seen . . . and whoever by, there has been one sure and certain result. . . . In some violent or dreadful circumstance, a child has died.
The Lady in Black, then, is the ghost of an enraged, vengeful mother—a modern-day version of Clytemnestra, who exacted blood retribution for the killing of her daughter.
In the final moments of his play, we learn why Kipps has been so intent to tell his tale and exorcise this ghost. After finishing his business at Crythin Gifford, Kipps returns to London, marries his beloved Stella, and has a son of his own. But one day when he and his family are on an outing in a park, mother and son decide to take a ride in a pony-drawn cart. As Kipps stands watching, he once again sees the Woman in Black. We then hear the neighing of a frightened horse, and shouts of terror from the child and his mother. And suddenly the sickening realization hits Kipps that the ghost has struck again, once more vengefully killing a child, this time his own son.
With the re-enactment of this tragic moment, we come to the end of the action in Level Two, and presumably to the dramatic climax of the play. But the playwright has a surprise to spring on us back at Level One. It consists of a simple question and its devastating answer. “Who is she” asks the professional actor, “[the] young woman with a wasted face?” He assumes that she is an actress engaged by old Kipps to play the role of the Woman in Black. But there was no actress. After a lengthy pause and looking “unwell” old Kipps reveals the terrible truth that is the play’s second and ultimate climax: “A young woman. . . . I did not see a young woman.” After which the lights fade, and we hear the same ghostly noises that filled the air at Eel Marsh.
It is at this moment that the importance of the earlier plot “plants” becomes clear. We remember that the real Kipps was never actually watching when the Woman in Black appeared on stage. Rather, his attention was always focused elsewhere, and he had simply been assuming that the professional actor was only pretending to see the ghost. And, with a sudden sense of dread, we remember that the professional actor has a young daughter. Now, in a terrible moment we, together with Kipps, realize that the ghost has in fact returned. We see that far from exorcising her, the play has summoned her from the dead. And most horribly, we understand that the professional actor has not merely performed a play, but has actually relived Kipps’s terrible encounter, and now, like Kipps himself, he will suffer the evil spirit’s curse on his child. The actor’s little daughter is doomed. And with that unspeakable recognition, the play ends.
Or does it? After all, we in the audience have seen the ghost too. What about our children? As the lights darken for the last time, that final unspoken question hangs in the air.
The most important information about any dramatic character is the answer to the question: what does he want? In the case of Kipps, this is quite clear. He tells us explicitly that he wants to stage the play he has written about his encounter with The Woman in Black to purge her from his soul, to rid himself of the nightmare of her psychological presence, to heal himself.
Because of the gravity and urgency of this objective, he is willing to go through the rigors and even the humiliations of performing on stage. After all, Kipps is a solicitor, not a barrister. The former are lawyers who work in libraries and offices drafting legal documents. The latter are the wig-wearing advocates who appear in courtrooms before judges and juries. Thus, Kipps practices that branch of the law furthest removed from acting. As he says, “it is not a performance that I wish to give. . . . I am not a performer—I have no pretensions to be—nor inclination—but—those terrible things that happened to me—they must—I have to—let them be told. For my health and reason.”
For a person of his reserved, scholarly temperament, learning to act is a painful process, all the more so because he must endure the frequently caustic criticisms of the professional actor whom he hires to stage his autobiographical drama. But any amount of discomfort is worth it for Kipps, so long as the end result is the performance of the play and the exorcism of the ghost.
In fact, this intensity of purpose drives him to work at improving his amateur skills, at becoming a better actor. Indeed, so strong is his goal that we see him changing during rehearsals from solicitor-scholar to enthusiastic performer, becoming, by the end, a man of the theater. One of the most engaging and satisfying elements of dramatic development is observing how characters change and adapt in pursuit of their goals. Kipps’s transformation into an actor offers a very clear example of that process.
Like Kipps, the professional actor also has as his objective the staging of the ghost play. But unlike Kipps, he has no searing personal stake in this goal. Rather, his motives are professional: he wants, as a matter of self-respect, to do his job well.
For example, it is he who emphatically rejects Kipps’s original idea that the story of the woman in black should be presented as simply as possible—merely read aloud. Instead, he insists that it be staged; or rather, to use the term disdained by the solicitor, “performed.” To make that possible, he explains, Kipps will have to play the numerous minor characters in the narrative in order to provide the several roles that make dramatic interaction possible. Kipps, of course, objects to any such histrionic involvement on his part.
The exchange between the solicitor and the actor tells us most of what we need to know about their characters at this point in the play. Says Kipps, “Those most horrible events will not be treated as amusement or diversion. I insist sir!” But the man of the theater is not to be browbeaten into surrendering his professional standards: “And I insist, that you consider your audience. . . . [I]f your tale is to be heard, it must be offered in a form that is remotely palatable. You have come for advice and assistance, you must trust me.”
As the play proceeds, the professional actor becomes increasingly absorbed in his role and increasingly enthralled by the story itself. As is sometimes said of an actor giving an excellent performance, “He loses himself in the part.” Of course we don’t mean that comment literally; we intend it as a figure of speech.
But it is no figure of speech in The Woman in Black. And here we come to the heart of the play’s dark irony. As the plot develops, Kipps and the professional actor virtually exchange places emotionally and psychologically. At the outset, it is Kipps who is carrying the burden of the ghost’s curse, and the actor who stands apart, viewing the problem of presenting this curse as a professional challenge and nothing more. But by the end, the actor truly is lost in the part, literally taking on the core of Kipps’s identity. His role has become reality: he is now the accursed, while Kipps is now the bystander.
We should note that this exchange of identities is anticipated at the very beginning of the play by the odd way the playwright chooses, in his stage directions, to designate the speakers in the written text:
A middle-aged man enters. He carries a manuscript. . . . This man, whose name is Kipps, will not be referred to as “Kipps” but as “Actor”—even though he clearly isn’t one.
In the most famous definition of drama in the history of western literature, Aristotle tells us that the purpose of a tragedy is to bring about “the proper purgation” of the emotions of “pity and fear.” Many translations use the term “catharsis” rather than “purgation,” but the underlying idea is the same. A serious play has as its purpose some sort of emotional cleansing or purification. It is the spiritual equivalent of a visit to the steam room.
We should note that Aristotle was describing the salient features of the Greek plays he knew, not laying down rules for the way all plays at all times must be written. However, if he had been making a rule requiring purgation or catharsis, The Woman in Black would be a conspicuous example of its violation.
Rather than leaving us feeling calm and drained of emotional toxins, the play ends by plunging its audience into a state of horror, a condition of pity both for the professional actor and ourselves, and of fear for his child and for our children. In this way, the play inflicts the opposite of Aristotelian catharsis: it ladles out emotional infection, arousing dreadful expectations for the actor and for ourselves.
This is a peculiarly modern way to craft an ending. When we read or see classical drama, we generally find (there are, of course, notable exceptions) that questions and problems raised at the beginning are somehow answered and resolved at the end. The answer may be devastating, as in Oedipus Rex where Oedipus learns that he himself is his father’s killer. And the resolution may be appalling, as in King Lear, where the problem created by dividing the kingdom among his daughters results in widespread mayhem and death. But when the mayhem has been suffered, and the dying is done, the problem, however unhappily, is settled.
It was the 19th century British playwright, G.B. Shaw who noted that modern drama had embraced a different sense of ending. Rather than moving from exposition, through development, to resolution, said Shaw, modern plays offer exposition, development, and discussion, meaning by the latter term an inconclusive, open-ended encounter with the enduringly problematic nature of life. When Nora walks out on her family at the end of A Doll House—the granddaddy of all modern drama—she leaves everything up in the air.
The Woman in Black is far closer to this kind of an ending than to the classical model, and that is precisely why the play leaves us feeling so uneasy.
We said above that the ghost in this play resembles Clytemnestra, a character from The Oresteia, the classical Greek tragedy by Aeschylus. The Oresteia lays out a very complex story of murder and vengeance within in a single family. Father Agamemnon kills daughter Iphigeneia; Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, kills him; and their son, Orestes, kills her. This last crime arouses the Furies, supernatural female spirits whose business it is to punish mother-killers. It’s a gruesome story, and legend has it that at its first performance the appearance of the Furies aroused such fear that strong men in the audience fainted and pregnant women miscarried.
But in the end Orestes escapes the wrath of these monsters, while the Furies themselves are tamed and turned into benevolent, earth-dwelling protectors of Athens. Questions answered, problems resolved, evil spirits exorcised. Precisely the elements withheld in The Woman in Black, which ends in uncertainty and fearful expectation.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.