The New York Times obituary for Frederick Knott, who died in 2002 at the age of 86, describes him as “a notoriously unprolific playwright,” who, after a long lifetime, was known for only three plays: two big hits, and one moderate success. The big hits were Dial M for Murder (1952), and Wait until Dark (1966). The former received 552 performances on Broadway, the latter ran for eleven months in New York and two years in London. Both were turned into Hollywood films. Dial M for Murder was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Grace Kelly; Wait until Dark starred Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin.
The moderate success was Write Me a Murder, which ran for 196 performances on Broadway, between October 1961 and April, 1962. Unlike his other two plays, this one did not find its way to the silver screen.
As The Times tells us, the playwright was born in China in 1916, the son of Quaker missionaries. He was educated in England, graduating from Cambridge University in 1938. Between 1939 and 1946—from the outbreak of the Second World War until its end—he served in the Royal Artillery, attaining the rank of major.
Following the war, he set to work as a playwright, finishing Dial M for Murder in 18 months. However, it would be years before that script was produced, appearing first as a television drama in 1952. From there it moved to the West End in London, and then to New York, and finally to Hollywood. It has since become a staple of regional and community theaters throughout the world.
Nine years later, Write Me a Murder appeared, and five years after that, Wait until Dark. Between 1966 and his death in 2002, Frederick Knott produced no additional plays.
In 2003, The Guardian, a British newspaper, quoted him as saying, “I was always intrigued with the idea that somebody would plan a crime, and then you see that everything doesn’t turn out right. You can plan a murder in great detail and then put the plan into action and invariably something goes wrong and then you have to improvise, and in the improvisation you trip up and make a very big mistake.” This describes the structure of each of his plays, including Wait until Dark.
Jeffrey Hatcher revised Knott’s play in 2013, moving the time of the action from 1966 to 1944, and changing the contents of the doll being sought by a band of con men from heroin to diamonds.
By setting the play in October, 1944—four months after D-Day, two months before the Battle of the Bulge, and six months before the final defeat of the Nazis—Hatcher creates a cast of male characters whose lives have in important ways been shaped by the war. One is a draft-dodger, one has suffered psychological trauma, and one, having served honorably, has now turned to crime.
The wartime setting also invites us to see the character of Susan through the lens of Rosie the Riveter, that archetype of World War II womanhood: strong and independent, confronting problems on her own, and succeeding in the absence of a husband.
Jeffrey Hatcher grew up in Steubenville, Ohio and attended Denison University.
Originally intending to pursue a career in acting, Hatcher eventually decided to seek fulfillment as an author—a goal he has pursued with impressive energy. The Playwrights Data Base lists more than forty plays written by him since 1987—an output larger than Shakespeare’s.
Many of those works are stage adaptations: of fiction, of non-fiction, or of other plays. Notably, he has created theatrical versions of Henry James’s ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw,” of Mitch Albom’s personal memoir of his conversations with a dying mentor, Tuesdays with Morrie, and of R.L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, produced by the Public Theatre in 2009.
In an interview for the American Theatre Wing, Hatcher explained that he is attracted to the process of adaptation because it provides an opportunity to “re-energize” himself by working with plots and characters created by someone else. “Sometimes,” he noted, “when you’re writing a lot of your own material you can go to the well . . . once too often.” Adaptation, in other words, allows him to dip into another imaginative “well” while his own is being replenished, allowing him to store up the creative juices until the next time “you do one of your own original pieces.”
The physical location of the action is a basement apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village, New York. The stage directions tell us that the “general appearance of the room is masculine/practical but there are the occasional dollops of New York bohemia,” including “drawings (nudes, abstracts), framed photographs, lots of books. . . . A military raincoat and cap. A cane.” The military attire belongs to the man of the house, Sam Hendrix; the cane to his blind wife, Susan.
Also belonging to Sam is an array of photographic equipment: “developing pans, bottles of chemicals, etc.,” which sit on a work bench that takes up a major portion of the space in this cramped apartment. It all belongs to Sam, who was a photographer for the Marine Corps during the war, and is now a professional photographer in civilian life.
This, then, is essentially Sam’s room, the place where he practices his profession. His photographs hang on its walls; it is decorated with his prints and filled with his books. It expresses his “masculine/practical” identity. Though Susan has been married to Sam for more than a year, she is still a kind of stranger to his world. So we are struck from the outset by Susan’s attempts to find her way around an alien space—one which, in the end, she learns to dominate and control.
The action of the play revolves around an elaborate attempt by a trio of con men to recover a doll that they believe has come into the possession of Sam Hendrix. The doll, we ultimately discover, contains a fortune in diamonds—a treasure that at least one of the con men is perfectly willing to kill for. When Sam is lured away from the apartment, Susan, his blind wife, is left alone to cope with the conspirators.
Gil Benbrook in his “talkinbroadway” blog does a good job of summarizing the plot:
Susan's husband Sam innocently brought the doll into their house after a woman he sat next to on a train put it in his satchel for safe keeping. The woman later came to their apartment to pick it up, only to be told that it had gone missing. Sam and Susan have no idea that the doll is filled with something of extreme value; that the woman who came to pick up the doll has been murdered; and that con artists, including a sociopathic killer, are planning to do whatever necessary to get the doll from them. And all of that happens before the play actually begins. Disguising themselves as various seemingly harmless characters, the men work their way into Susan's apartment, while continually searching for the doll, literally right in front of her. Knott deftly uses Susan's blindness as a perfect theatrical conceit to raise the chills several notches, since the audience sees the deceitful and horrific events unfolding before Susan that she cannot. Hatcher's adaptation has eliminated a few holes in Knott's original plot, and by setting it in the 1940s has added the elements of film noir and the impact of World War II into the mix, both added bonuses.
Additional important plot elements include the conflict and ultimate cooperation between Susan and her bratty, 14-year-old upstairs neighbor, Gloria; the attempt by the con-men to convince Susan that her husband murdered the woman who came looking for the doll; and the slow build toward powerful moments of recognition and reversal.
Aristotle tells us that these are the indispensable features of a complex plot, one that holds viewers’ attention by the creation of dramatic surprise. “Recognition” occurs when a major character passes from ignorance to knowledge about another person or situation, or even about himself. The protagonist may discover that the character she trusted is actually an enemy, or that the gun he thought was loaded is in fact filled with blanks. Probably the greatest recognition in the canon of western drama is Oedipus’s discovery that his wife is his mother, and that he himself is the man who murdered his father. Flowing from such recognitions come “reversals”—180-degree changes in the protagonist’s condition or state of mind. Oedipus, for example, changes in an instant from a king delighting in his power and good fortune to a man plunged into misery and shame.
Much of the second act of Wait until Dark consists of a steady process of recognition, during which Susan discovers that she is being manipulated by con-men. She passes from ignorance to knowledge, discovering that Mike, a supposed war-buddy of her husband, is in fact one of the conspirators. Bit by bit the evidence accumulates, until Susan, the blind victim of her antagonists, ironically comes to “see” what’s really going on around her.
This then leads to a series of reversals in which Susan turns the tables on her most dangerous adversary, the psychopathic killer, Roat. But this process itself contains a series of reversals with Roat and Susan repeatedly switching positions, now one holding the upper hand, now the other.
There is also a major scenic reversal which occurs when Susan engineers a total blackout of the apartment, thus giving her the advantage over her sighted opponent, who, unlike her, has not learned to function successfully in the dark. But this situation is itself reversed when Roat opens the door of the refrigerator, whose light restores his advantage over Susan. This continual see-sawing back and forth between adversaries provides the mounting dramatic energy of the play’s final scene.
Susan Hendrix, a woman in her twenties, lost her sight in an automobile accident a year and a half before the action of the play begins. Which means that she is still learning to be blind. Her husband, Sam, is a demanding taskmaster in this project, insisting that she develop the skills necessary to be self-reliant in her sightless world. “[Y]ou can walk to my studio and back,” he tells her, “but no asking for help.” To which Susan responds, “Why do I have to be the world’s champion blind woman?”
Because she is still learning to adapt to her disability, the audience is led initially to see Susan as vulnerable, someone who might easily fall victim to the predators we encounter in the play’s first scene. But, as her character develops, we see her growing more self-confident, capable in the end of devising and executing a plan that defeats her adversaries.
When Mike describes her as someone who “can’t see,” her response is, “Thank you for that. Most people say ‘You’re blind.’ Like, this is what you are, not this is what you can’t do anymore.” So she resists the idea of being totally defined by her lack of sight; she wants to be accepted as Susan who now can’t see rather than as a person completely transformed by her loss.
However, she also worries that her marriage may be threatened by her handicap: “[Sam] thinks he made a mistake. . . . but it’s one thing to save a hurt puppy on the side of the road, it’s another to live with it and watch while it doesn’t get better.” This anxiety makes her susceptible to the con-men’s attempt to paint Sam as a man who has been cheating on her with the woman who gave him the doll—a discarded lover whom he has now murdered.
So throughout the play, a group of criminals manipulate an insecure blind woman in order to recover a doll containing a fortune in diamonds. Late in the second act, Gloria reveals that she stole the doll, and returns it to Susan. Now in possession of this dangerous object, Susan could easily hand it over to the criminals, and rid herself of danger. Instead, she refuses several times to give it to the murderous Roat, instead she takes possession of his knife, drenches him with gasoline, and traps him in the dark. She even mockingly offers him her cane when he complains that he can’t see anything. “You know. . you’re one clever blind girl,” he tells her.
By offering him her cane she in effect declares they have switched positions, with him now the blind victim. And by withholding the doll, she is attempting to assert her autonomy.
But again, the tables turn. Roat opens the refrigerator door, illuminates the room, and finds himself back in control. In a panic, she agrees to give him the doll, but the psychopathic Roat now wants revenge. He fails, because Susan doesn’t give up. Instead, she continues the struggle with her tormentor. Using a kitchen knife that she has literally hidden up her sleeve, she stabs Roat several times. But he still pursues her. As the battle continues, Roat gets the knife away from Susan. He raises it to stab her, but at that moment she finally manages to pull the plug on the refrigerator, again cloaking the room in darkness. What will we find when the light comes back on?
Sam, back from his wild-goose-chase, enters the apartment and sees the appalling tableau of Roat hanging dead from the open refrigerator door, with Susan wedged between that door and the kitchen counter—alive. He rushes to help her but she stops him. Her final speech, the last words of the play, brings her dramatic journey to its conclusion: “No. . . I can do it myself. . . . See?”
Mike, Carlino, Roat. This trio of con-men comprises three very distinct characters.
The script describes Carlino as a “bearish man in a heavy overcoat.” He defines himself without speaking a word during the first moments of the play by rifling the Hendrix’s refrigerator, helping himself to a chunk of leftover meatloaf and stealing a twenty-dollar bill from the freezer compartment. According to the proverb, actions speak louder than words, and what Carlino’s actions say is that he a petty thief who seeks instant gratification for his criminal instincts. A former policeman, he is the muscle of the group, physically imposing and just bright enough to think on his feet when unexpected obstacles pop up during the course of the con-job. However, his rather dim-witted failure to anticipate a double-cross on the part of his pathologically violent confederate, Roat, results in his death.
Mike at one point in the play says that charm is virtually a professional requirement for a thief. He embodies this proposition. Pretending to be a Marine lieutenant who served in Italy with Susan’s husband, Sam, he charms his way into her trust. Indeed, he charms the audience as well, which, like Susan, will uncritically accept his bogus claims, until, at the end of the first act, he reveals himself to us—though not to Susan—as one of the conspirators. Near the end of the play he displays the essence of his character in this exchange with Susan:
MIKE. Give . . . me [the doll].
In other words, Susan has intuited from her brief acquaintance with Mike that he is a man with a conscience, someone incapable of the kind of vicious cruelty practiced by Roat. Confronted by the moral impossibility of harming Susan, he decides to abandon the criminal scheme and just take off without the doll. In his final speech, before his own murder, he says, “You know the funny thing? I actually was a lieutenant once.” So there is a kernel of truth buried within his deceit. It seems he has served honorably, was in fact an officer, and, at some level, remains a gentleman.
The word “character” comes from a Greek term meaning “sharp stick,” an implement used to inscribe a mark on the hide of a farm animal—a kind of ancient branding-iron. So “character” is originally a physical mark that establishes a creature’s identity. Roak is marked by just such a physical sign: his club foot.
Part of the con involves Roak’s pretending to be both an old man and that man’s son. But Susan can hear that both of these fake characters are the same person: they’re wearing the same shoes which squeak identically. When Roak confronts Susan at the end of the play, he explains that squeak:
They’re orthopedic. Club foot. I wasn’t born with it. When I got my draft notice, I wore a work boot two sizes too small for a week and a half. Day I go down for my physical, my foot’s bent backwards almost. I get my 4F, but not for the club foot. ‘Mental exception.’
“4F” means physically unfit to serve. So Roat has caused his own physical deformity as a way of dodging the draft, a dishonorable choice to have made during what has come to be known as “the Good War.” The club foot, then, identifies him as a moral outsider. It’s the physical expression of his “mental exception.” We see that exceptionalism in his creepy attachment to the switchblade knife he calls “Geraldine,” in his gloating description of two murders he has committed, in the pleasure he takes in tormenting Susan, and especially in his gruesome intention to burn her alive.
Gloria, the fourteen-year-old upstairs neighbor, begins the play as a bratty annoyance to Susan. She balks at closing the door of the refrigerator she has opened, and in a fit of temper she dumps the contents of a kitchen drawer on the floor. She lies to Susan about wearing glasses, and in general projects a mood of adolescent fractiousness and resentment. But we learn that her home life is substantially responsible for her emotional problems: her mother is both an alcoholic and a part-time prostitute. When clients arrive, Gloria has to leave home. Her only refuge is Susan’s apartment, which, not surprisingly, she enters in a bad mood.
But as she becomes Susan’s ally in unravelling the conspiracy, she changes, showing her resourcefulness and intelligence. Eventually she even admits that she does wear glasses, a mark of her improved relationship with Susan.
Susan tells Mike that she met her husband, Sam, when they were both patients in the hospital where she was being treated for the injuries she sustained in the car crash:
He met me when he wasn’t very strong. I gave him a chance to be strong again, to be the guy he used to be. . . . He went over [to Italy] to take pictures, but . . . the things he was taking pictures of . . . he couldn’t look through the camera lens anymore, so he ended up in Ward 7, across the way from me.
So the horrors of the war Sam was photographing brought about his emotional breakdown, which landed him in the psychiatric ward. A blind woman and a psychologically damaged man found each other and married. When we first encounter Sam, he is in fact being “strong”—on Susan’s behalf. He wants her to learn to be self-reliant, to avoid falling into the trap of victimhood and dependency. Having had his own period of weakness—and apparently having overcome it—he is determined that Susan will do the same.
The title, Wait until Dark, sounds like a threat—a warning that something scary and dangerous will happen when night falls. Something like, “Wait till your father gets home.” On the other hand, for Susan, the arrival of darkness is the opposite of dangerous—the dark is her ally, the medium in which she can out-maneuver her enemy. When Roat can see, she is vulnerable; when the dark arrives, she is strong.
A marriage between a blind woman and a photographer invites us to consider the various meanings—literal and figurative—of the verb “to see.”
Sam captures the visible world in his photographs, but he is blind to the fact that the con-men are manipulating him throughout the play. By contrast, Susan, who can’t literally see, is the one who figuratively sees-through the con. She is in the dark figuratively until she is in the dark literally, at which point she is enlightened about her situation.
As audience members, we know more than the characters on stage: we view the unfolding of the con, and we watch Susan setting up the trap of darkness. This is called “dramatic irony”—the contradiction between what the audience knows and what the characters believe. We see and they don’t. But this know-it-all confidence gets upended at the conclusion of the first act, when we experience our own recognition and reversal as Mike turns into one of the bad guys. We didn’t see that one coming.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.