There’s been a lot of talk about patriarchy lately, especially when it comes to men making decisions and the laws that govern women’s bodies and lives.
We thought we outgrew all of that years ago, but it continues to show its ugly head.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew all about it when, in 1897, she wrote and published (in the New England Magazine, after others had refused to print it), her timeless short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
In 1913, The Forerunner published their article entitled “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'”, an excerpt of which (undated) appears in the program of the drama presentation of Write Out Loud, as part of their new program , Lit Alive. An accompanying solo piece, “Ripples from Walden Pond”, narrated by Henry David Thoreau, alternates with this, until December 10).
In this author’s note, Gilman describes his own “severe and continuing nervous breakdown, tending to melancholy”, and describes the “renowned specialist in nervous diseases” who assigned him the much-used “resting cure”, which confined women to live “a domestic life”, and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again” (“as long as I live”, she continues in the original).
After three months of this diet, she admits to being “close to the limit of total mental ruin”.
She wrote the story to help other women avoid this fate.
In her explanatory article, she names the doctor who treated her, but feminist scholars have since suggested her story was actually an indictment of her controlling and condescending first husband.
The story, and its dramatization (presented exactly as written), combines the two versions.
The unnamed woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is treated with the “rest cure” by her husband, a doctor.
He says her problem is “a temporary nervous breakdown – with a slight hysterical tendency” (“hysteria”, a frequent Victorian diagnosis for women, whatever the disease; was related to the uterus).
Based on today’s extensive knowledge and understanding, it would appear that she is suffering from postpartum depression. She doesn’t feel able to take care of her newborn son (“it makes me so nervous”); her husband thinks that she, like all women, is not capable of much.
He sentences her to three months in an old colonial mansion and forbids her to work, read, write or socialize with the outside world.
She is practically imprisoned and her husband is rarely around. Her brother, also a doctor, comes to see from time to time, but he agrees, seeing women as passive, sickly and weak.
Without mental or sensory stimulation, she becomes obsessed with the peeling wallpaper in the old nursery. She hates the room, describing the wallpaper as “repulsive, almost revolting” in color, with a “yellow smell” and a “weird, disturbing pattern”.
Over a series of scenes, diary entries in a hidden book where no one can see it, we watch her unfold, her mind racing in madness.
Some have seen the story, which has been adapted many times – on radio, television and in film – as gothic horror. For others, her crawling over her passed out husband at the end is symbolic of the beginning of her assertiveness and empowerment – breaking out like the woman behind bars she sees in the wallpaper pattern.
Either way, it’s a horrible trip.
Rachael Van Wormer, unlike her hapless character, is in total control. She floats effortlessly from insightful to delirious, gradually removing her confined clothing layer by layer, finally removing the constricting corset.
It’s a brilliant tour de force performance, excellently directed by Veronica Murphy (artistic director and co-founder of Write Out Loud) and beautifully designed by Alysa Kane (no yellow!), with lighting by Nathan Peirson.
Van Wormer said the play had “haunted, thrilled and inspired” her since she first read it at 18.
The piece is unequivocally spooky and scary (here, each scene is introduced by increasingly frantic piano music); it is terrifying, infuriating and heartbreaking.
You shouldn’t miss it.
- The first Lit Alive production of Write Out Loud, “yellow wallpapertakes place at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center, 903 10th Avenue, alternating with “Ripples from Walden Pond,” until December 10.
- Note: it’s a steep walk (or rickety elevator) to the small forum theater upstairs on the third floor
- Performances take place on varying days and times, so check the website
- Tickets ($30) are available at writeoutloudsd.com
- Operating time: 50 mins.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, is a longtime San Diego arts writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.