When the cracks can't be papered over
Oscar Wilde reputedly said on his deathbed: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Wilde’s haughty humour lasted until the end, but the wallpaper outlived him.
Eight years before his death, in 1892, American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper was published. Yes, there’s a tussle between wallpaper and a complex protagonist, but a sense of otherworldliness replaces any humour. It focuses on a young married couple who move into a “colonial mansion”, marvelling at the cheap rent. Mary, the wife, has recently given birth, and life between the mansion’s walls begins to change ominously.
Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks has admired Gilman’s work since reading it as a teenager, and her stage adaptation is now at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. “It’s the simultaneous power of the story, of the character and of the writing that make it so powerful. I love the political nature of it . . . it’s an unconventional woman telling this story at the end of the 19th century. It lived in my head as a thing I loved for a long time.”
This Then’s production debuted at the Absolut Fringe 2011 and now Maeve Fitzgerald has returned as the tormented protagonist. At that time, it was performed at Smock Alley, with the audience standing in tiered circles, looking down into the space, watching Fitzgerald’s character unravel.
There have been multiple interpretations of the work, and its mental-health themes. To some, Mary is suffering from postpartum depression; to others she may be a ghost in her own story. As her mind unhinges, confined to her room, she begins to imagine things, including a world behind the titular wallpaper. “The play is about isolation and frustration of a creative impulse,” says Spillane-Hinks, “but it’s also about gender dynamics and the struggles women have had.”
The book was hailed as a feminist classic, and Gilman was dedicated to women’s rights. Some interpretations suggest that the requisite roles of motherhood and the subordinate wife contribute to Mary’s mental distress. Spillane-Hinks acknowledges this, but believes it is a broader human story. “Anything that treats humans with dignity is rich in feminism. It’s about understanding the humanity, equality and need to be protected, of all people. Of course it’s a woman’s story, but only women were in this position then.”
The role requires a great deal of skill. The play is presented as Mary’s monologue and is an intense psychological workout. Slight, child-like and clad in a Victorian night shift, Maeve Fitzgerald grasps at reality, wide-eyed and crumbling before us. “Maeve is the perfect person to play Mary – she brings intelligence, chops, physicality, but she has an understanding of this woman, and a love for her. We didn’t try to change or judge her. She’s not a fool or a mad woman.”
Some 120 years on, Gilman’s story still has the power to provoke and chill. Its gothic Victoriana merely veils its relevance to contemporary issues.
* The Yellow Wallpaper is at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin until Saturday.