In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was prescribed the ‘rest treatment’ for a mental illness that we’d now recognise as post-partum depression. Under the treatment, the writer was directed by her physician to move to a colonial mansion for the summer and restrict herself to two hours of mental stimulation per day. The other 22 hours were for resting and sleeping. Her pen and books were confiscated.
Quickly finding herself on the precipice of insanity, Gilman quit the treatment, wrote her now famous short story The Yellow Wallpaper, and sent it to her doctor as a warning of the deleterious effects of the rest treatment. The doctor ignored it, but the story became an important contribution to early feminism, and now Gilman is regarded as a keystone feminist writer who influenced the ensuing works of Sylvia Plath.
In DRAMAC’s stage adaption of the story, the lead character, played with stamina and compelling fragility by Antonia Zappia, is confined to her room and slowly stifled by her husband’s (Tom Southwell) misguided concern towards her mental health. His condescencion towards her grows increasingly frustrating, lending to the dramatic tension of the play.
As in the original short story, the woman becomes fixated with the yellow wallpaper of her room. She watches it mutate and churn before her eyes, staring at the pattern for hours on end. Soon she begins to see the figure of a woman creeping around on all fours behind the pattern and becomes obsessed with freeing her.
The wallpaper is represented by a framework of yellow rope – it’s a stunning piece of set design that strikes the audience immediately and holds attention throughout the play. Behind this weblike structure lurks the mysterious figure, played by Madelaine Caban, who’s at turns spiderlike and graceful, a ballerina and then a malevolent ghoul.
Expect exposition – the original story is written in a series of journal entries – but for the most part the script (adapted by Cameron Colwell) flows well and the engagements between characters feel realistic and charged.
We caught up with the director of the show, Georgia Drinan, and quizzed her on what relevence this story still has today, and the processes of bringing it to a modern stage.
Were you aware of The Yellow Wallpaper before you took on this production? What parts of the story struck a chord with you?
The first time I encountered The Yellow Wallpaper was in ENGL306 Feminism and Literature. The story shook me – it’s so powerfully told, so unexpected, that it immediately struck a chord with me. I was actually quite shocked to discover it was written so long ago; for me it seemed so relatable. As soon as I’d finished reading it, I had the idea for the set, and I knew I had to direct it. I’d never directed before, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. Seeing it actually come to life was … surreal.
The Yellow Wallpaper was written in 1892. What about the story is relevant for today’s audience, and how does it engage with modern feminism?
As much as I wish it weren’t relevant for today’s audience, it really is. In my research for adapting the piece, I found several studies that showed a consistent disparity in the way medical professionals treat men and women. In the US, women wait on average 20 minutes longer than men to be treated for severe abdominal pain. Women are also more frequently misdiagnosed with mental illness in the face of genuine health issues, as more and more women report doctors dismissing their allegations of pain as stemming from mental or emotional issues.
Even with all our advances in equality in 2016, this idea that women’s judgment and assessment of their own physical symptoms is somehow invalid due to this archaic notion of ‘hysteria,’ still pervades.
The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of a woman suffering from the effects of institutionalized misogyny, constantly unable to exercise power over her own situation due to the lack of credibility that women are assigned, which is still heartbreakingly relevant.
What was the most challenging part about animating this famous short story for the stage?
The script proved to be a challenge. As much as I love the story, it’s rife with bizarre word choices and clunky dialogue, and fairly devoid of explicit action. Converting the gorgeous subtlety of the story’s subtext into something palpable for the audience to experience also seemed near impossible. I’m extraordinarily lucky that I had a very talented writing partner. Cameron Colwell helped me turn my scribbled scene outlines and vague ideas into a workable script. He’s a godsend!
The character of Charlotte, and indeed the entire premise of the play, is rooted in the experience of a real woman. Was this something you held in mind during your direction of the play?
I thought about Perkins-Gilman’s life story quite a bit during the process. The Yellow Wallpaper is quite autobiographical, and we drew a lot of inspiration from the author’s life. I know the lead actress, Antonia Zappia, studied Perkins-Gilman’s life and writing, but the character she plays is very much her own. As much as it was inspired in part by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman herself, she constructed the personality and history of the main character and a person in and of themselves.
Do you have a favourite scene or snippet of dialogue?
I adore the final scene. Even after all the times I’ve seen it and reworked it, it still packs a punch.
But getting to get back into ballet and choreographing the dance elements with Madelaine Caban has been so much fun. Often exhausting and challenging, but fun.
The Yellow Wallpaper is running tonight and tomorrow night at 8pm in The Lighthouse Theatre. Find more info and tickets here.