Theater archives

A Spectre Calls


Der må leve gjengangere hele lande utover. . . . Og såer vi så gudsjammerlig lysredde alle sammen.

[There must be ghosts living all over this country . . . And then we’re all of us so godawfully afraid of the light.]

— Ibsen, Ghosts

On the page and in life, Henry James was a chronic player of psychological games, fond of testing and observing how people would react to each other in a given situation. (He parodied his own obsession in the nearly impenetrable late novel, The Sacred Fount.) A ghost story, to James, was scary not for its ghosts— like Ibsen, he assumed they were everywhere— but for what they revealed about the living; some of the creepier ones are ghost stories without having any ghosts at all in the conventional sense.

The Turn of the Screw, famously, has two ghosts, whom James supplies with names and identities. The trick question is, who sees them? The increasingly distraught governess who narrates the tale is sure that she can— though, never having known Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in life, she has no basis for comparison. And she’s equally convinced that her charges, Miles and Flora, can see the two revenants, though neither ever admits as much. Having had a traumatic experience— possibly more than one each— Miles says little and Flora nothing at all. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, alternately superstitious and skeptical, likewise tends to keep her own counsel. Are the children being lured by evil spirits back from the grave, or has the young, nervous governess, catapulted into this fraught situation, invented the apparitions out of her own hysteria? Spend some months in a desolate country house with only two disturbed children and an old domestic for company before you answer.

The history of the story’s critical interpretations is as layered and ambiguous as the tale itself. For its first few decades, it was seen as a simple horror story: ghosts and possessed kids scare new governess. The era of Freud’s wider acceptance brought Edna Kenton’s new reading, spread widely by Edmund Wilson’s essay on James in The Triple Thinkers: Now the children were puzzled innocents, looking on wide-eyed as the governess projected the ghosts out of her own sexual repressions. Their key was the “governess fantasy”— replacing the mistress of the house in the master’s bed— that Freud had discussed in, among other places, his essay on Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play James had admired in his friend Elizabeth Robins’s 1893 production.

The Freudians held sway through the 1960s, their influence underpinning the adaptations that gave the work a more public stature, like Benjamin Britten’s opera, William Archibald’s play The Innocents, and Jack Clayton’s film version of the latter. But time alters everything. The structuralists have noted some odd things about the story’s narrative framework— the governess’s account is introduced by two successive narrators, neither of whom reappears at the end— and the scientifically based have found symptoms of abuse in the children’s behavior which can’t be so casually explained away anymore as exaggerations of the governess’s maidenly hysteria. (Wilson anticipated this, describing in his essay how he gave the tale to the Austrian novelist Franz Hoellering, who made no judgment as to who saw the ghosts, but told Wilson, “The man who wrote that was a Kinderschänder [child molester].”)

Doing away with the drawing-room apparatus of its predecessors, Jeffrey Hatcher’s neat, showily theatrical adaptation does away with much of the repression as well, in its last few scenes spelling out its interpretation so openly that you may start to long for the decorous old ambiguities. Until then, though, Hatcher’s work is elegantly mischievous, stretching James’s pivotal scenes into striking, often comic shapes that give off unexpected resonances. Reducing the cast to one actress in the central role, and one actor who plays everyone else from Miles to Mrs. Grose, Hatcher makes this piece of economy the stage equivalent of James’s densely noncommittal style. Instead of deciphering the sense of the double-edged phrases, we’re kept on our toes guessing who’s talking when and where. By the time we catch on, we’re caught up in the next eerie event.

As with last year’s Scotland Road, Hatcher’s ideas get breathlessly perfect articulation from his director, Melia Bensussen, and her two principal collaborators, lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz and sound designer David Van Tieghem. In a genre as overworked as the ghost story, both fields are fraught with the dangers of overdoing, of relying on the obvious, of settling for the cheap thrill. Keeping the stage in relative darkness, Kotlowitz dodges the obvious with pin spots, often from unexpected angles, and with subtle color mixing; there’s something wonderfully wrong about the sunlight by the lake. Using a discretion I don’t always find in his work, Van Tieghem solves the problem with sheer restraint, with tiny hints of tune, faint whispers, gentle knocks, creaks, or footsteps, so we’re never quite sure what we’ve just heard. The gorgeous stylization would be pointless, of course, without strong performances to support, and the evening has two: Enid Graham gives the governess a lucid, demure certitude; her occasional rigidity is balanced by the sly humor that she allows to creep delicately into a moment. And I love her voice— at once creamy and tart, like a good liqueur. Opposite her, seeming to come from all directions at once, is Rocco Sisto, a long-armed, big-nosed man a head and a half taller than Graham. Does it seem odd when he plays a 10-year-old English public-school boy? No. Does it seem coarse or campy when he plays a dowdy old housekeeper? Again, no. The proof of Sisto’s quality is that he can make his tasks here seem perfectly normal; if he could clone himself he’d be an entire rep company.

The four characters in Patrick Marber’s Closer bring ghosts along with them, too— they’re haunted by past selves and former relationships. “Nobody changes,” one of them says in the last scene, but it’s not for lack of trying: the young girl changes her name, the journalist tackles a novel, the medico moves from national health to private practice. And, of course, they switch partners— the piece is Les Liaisons dangereuses with the moral component removed, carried on in the alternately blunt and secretive spirit of a cutthroat bridge tournament. As in his earlier play, Dealer’s Choice, Marber is sharply observant in mapping the clashes that arise as his compulsively faithless characters dive eagerly toward their next betrayal. As before, he’s less sharp in finding a dra-
matic shape for his observations. Once you’ve grasped the rules of the game, the scenes begin to echo each other till the last few confrontations seems just another turn of the screwed. You start to wonder why these people spend all their quality time together discussing what they did with their previous lovers; the dialogue takes on the flattened sound of Pinter with the pauses filled in. As in Dealer’s Choice, a homophile element is toyed with and then fastidiously left unexplored; Patrick Marber plays must be as dangerous to be queer in as Wyoming.

Still, the diminishing returns and the dubiety don’t set in till very late. His own director, Marber’s handled a strong quartet of actors skillfully, with waiflike Anna Friel and suavely impassive Rupert Graves making the most vivid impressions. In other respects, the author’s directorial gifts are sadly meager: Paddy Cunneen’s incidental music seems to be left over from the early 1930s, and
Vicki Mortimer’s set is the maximally unattractive execution of a truly sophomoric idea. In front of what looks at first like a tower of discarded video screens, the furniture from each scene is pulled upstage as that for the next scene comes on. Instead of a park, the last scene appears to take place in a Salvation Army thrift shop. I prefer ghosts; their omnipresence causes less clutter.