Saturday, September 22, 2007

A trick of the light

In the evening we went to see "Angel Street," which I recommend to anyone who wants to be absorbed and taken out of his daily round of interests. You sit on the edge of your chair most of the time and it is really a grand mystery story. Every member of the cast is excellent.

The handsome villain is so well played that the audience hisses him, and the old detective is a joy. But the part which seems to me incredibly hard to play, night after night, is that of the wife, who is slowly being driven insane by her husband — a very fine piece of acting.

— Eleanor Roosevelt


Angel Street, by Patrick Hamilton. Or Gaslight as it is perhaps better known (in large part thanks to the 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, and introducing Angela Lansbury).

Earlier this summer, I watched the movie, and the British film that came before it. While thoroughly enjoyable, and with more similarities than differences, apart from telling a great, thrilling, suspenseful mystery story, they didn't wow me. I'd seen the Hollywood movie years ago, so I knew the basic plot. I dozed off a few times during the British movie, so I'm not sure I'm not lying when I say I've watched this one too. I watched them dutifully, as a completist, to find the Patrick Hamilton in them. I found a little: mostly in the maid, her aspiring beyond her station. There wasn't the drink and thoughtless cruelty I've come to associate with Hamilton, though there was cruelty, deliberate and purposeful — Hamilton does seem to have an interest in the mechanisms of cruelty of all kinds. And madness — certainly madness is central to Hangover Square, but most of Hamilton's characters are one way or another driven out of their minds (in a much looser sense), usually through a fog of drink, by desperate circumstances (does tedium count?).

So, what of the play? How much liberty had been taken with the films? How much Hamilton was in them really? I hunted, pinpointed, and purchased a copy of the play, in a charming shop.

I've mentioned before that I'm not one much for reading plays — they're meant to be seen, after all — but this was a wholly engrossing reading experience. (Maybe I should read more plays.)

It speaks to Ingrid Bergman's screen presence, if not her performance (for which she received an Oscar), that I couldn't help but picture her as I began reading the first act. It speaks to the strength of Hamilton's writing that by the end of that act that picture had entirely vanished.

The play is — as plays ought to be, I guess — tighter, without superfluous backstory or unnecessary complications. Hollywood added a layer of coincidences, which I now see for the distractions they are. Here, every word — and, I imagine, every look — counts. Here, everything cuts to the chase.

Mrs Manningham. But I'm married to him. You must go. I must think this out. You must go. I must cling to the man I married. Mustn't I?

Rough. Indeed, cling to him by all means, but do not imagine you are the only piece of ivy, on the garden wall. You can cling to him if you desire, as his fancy women in the low resorts of the town cling to him. This is the sort of wall you have to cling to, Ma'am.


*****

Gaslight has returned to the stage this past summer. The director of the London production makes the point that it is quite a modern play, and a good play.

"It actually calls for stylish and truthful acting. There's no way you could play it with your hand on your chest. There's no requirement to be histrionic. The tone of it is too well-written and in that sense it's a 1930s play, not a pastiche 1880s play. In actual Victorian melodrama, the situations were much more extreme and bloody than they are here."

...

"It's difficult to talk about it, because it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a thriller in the Victorian manner, but it's a thriller written by someone who can really write. He pitches you into the situation between the husband and wife within three lines of the opening. You don't know how you get into the terror — it just happens after about three sentences."

Far from being passé, the play, he believes, was ahead of its time. "Without wishing to sound too portentous about it, you can see the hint of a play that, in a different world, in a different theatre, he might have written — about sex."

The flirtatious relationship that Manningham has with his maid-servant, one of the many means by which he sadistically undermines his wife, is telling: "The maid is very important in creating the atmosphere of the play, suggesting the kind of middle-class marriage where the wife is neurotic and not available to her husband. Gaslight is not a feminist play but it's a marvellous portrait of a desolate marriage. It's hetero-hell."


The play as written on the page turned out to be a good deal steamier than either film version, the innuendo more blatant.

*****

A little history of Hamilton translated to film:

Putting aside the novels and coming back to the films, I saw them with fresh eyes. The key Hamilton terms are missing: cement, plains, pleasure. Those three words recur endlessly, as he describes the slate and limestone city of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Hard, unyielding surfaces. Snot-grey grass. Miserable hotels. Crowded bars. But Hollywood doesn't do cement or pleasure (as Hamilton understood it). It specialises in fake surfaces, overblack shadows that follow actors across trembling walls.


(I'm not sure I agree. Hamilton is full of fake surfaces, though they be not the facades of buildings but the manners of people.)

*****

Sean French, Hamilton's biographer, on what went wrong on Hamilton's path to success and on the recent revival of his work.

Sometimes I think the only answer is to forget literary criticism — just push a book into people's hands and say: "You'll enjoy this. Now go away and read it."


In the time it's taken you to read this far, you might've already read, or viewed, or enacted in your head — experienced — Act One.

2 comments:

Bybee said...

You've won me over. I must read Patrick Hamilton. Which novel or play should I start with?

Sam said...

Yes, reading plays can afford many wonderful surprises, as it reduces the words to the bare essentials, without any distractions of costumes, sets, etc. Years ago I read all the plays of Oscar Wilde, and they are all brilliant. Of course, conversation is what Wilde was all about!

Another interesting little movie is the 1994 film Vanya On 42nd Street. Stage director, Andre Gregory held rehearsals for Chekhov's play, Uncle Vanya, in New York over a period of five years, without ever intending to actually put the play on. It was just an opportunity for actors to drop in and rehearse a great play. French film director, Louis Malle, decided to film one of the rehersals and the result is this film. We see the actors arriving at the theatre and talking among themselves and then we are not actually aware of the transition to the play, but suddenly we realize that it has started and how quickly we see the actors become embedded in their characters. It is amazing and gave me a whole new respect for actors and for Chekhov. The play comes across as surprisingly contemporary, considering that it was written a hundred years ago! Afterwards, I had to go out and buy and read Chekhov's plays.