Camille Lapaix walks around London and takes note of the number of gaslighting shows in our theatre catalogue. There are far too many of them:
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes walking through London to stumble onto one of the West End’s most recognisable posters – the infamous white mask, the red rose, the pitch black background and just above, “LONDON’S GREATEST LOVE STORY”. Curiously, the love referenced here isn’t between Mr André and Mr Firmin, or between the Phantom and a really good psychotherapist (needed to rationalise his gaslighting behaviour). Phantom of the Opera’s greatest love story is between the Phantom and Christine Daaé… even though she is consistently terrified of him throughout the play.
If you define an abusive relationship by showing signs of violent and coercive behaviors, used to ascertain power and control over a partner, does the above sound familiar?
Sexual assault by deception, anyone?
Christine is apologetic, obedient and submissive. Instances where the Phantom physically mistreats her or her loved ones are not amiss. He kidnaps her, tries to set her on fire and, in some productions, goes as far as hitting her. He murders Joseph Buquet and Ubaldo Piangi. He tries to hang her fiancé Raoul. Don’t forget either that he forcefully grabs her during The Point of No Return and kidnaps her at the end of the song, or that he murders someone for the chance to be on stage with her. He disguises himself in order to deceive her and uses her ignorance to invasively and inappropriately touch her.
Not withstanding the obvious trauma of physical assault, the Phantom exerts such control as to psychologically abuse Christine as well – he devalues her thoughts and feelings; he threatens and intimidates her; he gets angry and jealous. For most of the musical, Christine does not know whether he is an angel sent from heaven, her father, or a figment of her imagination. Even Carlotta thinks her mad.
This manipulation of Christine until she stops trusting her sanity or her perception is called gaslighting
The pervasion of theatrical manipulation
Of course, calling out a character whose core occupation is to manipulate everyone might not make for the most groundbreaking revelation. But hyper-romanticized and manipulative theatre pairs are not a rare instance. Take An American in Paris for example.
Isn’t Lise and Jerry’s relationship the most glamourous and romantic couple you’ve seen?
- How many times does Lise say no to Jerry when he first asks her out?
- Does he listen to her?
- How many times does he try to change her name from Lise to Liza, because of how “sorrowful” it sounds, even though she refuses?
He insists, she resists, he pushes her boundaries over and over again until she changes her mind, and finally they walk hand in hand towards their happy ending.
If only gaslighting were a new problem…
Toxicity and gaslighting within relationships has taken roots in popular theatre works for centuries – Much Ado About Nothing is framed entirely by the mistreatment of one its main character by her suitor. You see, Hero is supposed to marry the oh-so-husband-material Claudio. But shame! On the awaited day, she is publicly accused of promiscuity, her chastity redefined by the male characters right there and then. Hero is humiliated and she’s scorched in the midst of her own wedding, by no less than her own fiancé and father.
Forget the fallacy of the accusation (a scheme, only to satisfy the men’s selfish vendetta), or that Hero’s livelihood is a direct consequence of her marriageability. Stripped down to the mere text, this is about a woman berated and humiliated to such an extent that she ends up blacking out, collapsing on the floor and having to pretend she is dead in order to rehabilitate her virtue.
In Shakespearean terms, Hero gets off lightly. In The Winter’s Tale, doesn’t Leontes act in similar fashion towards his wife, Hermione? He berates her, accuses her of having an affair, of bearing an illegitimate child and imprisons her. His abuse leads to her death, yet after her resurrection, the happy couple still walks off hand in hand. Even that’s lucky when considering Desdemona. Othello murders his wife because he suspects her of having an affair… and she never magically comes back to life.
Of course, all three of these husbands are absolutely heartbroken over their wife’s deaths… not heartbroken that they killed them, more so than they killed them for no good reason. Murdering your spouse is the appropriate answer to infidelity…
There should be no rehabilitation for Othello in the prism of today’s society
To a modern audience, it has become clear that these tragedies are not just tales of woe and sorrow, but rather more examples of domestic abuse. There should be no rehabilitation for Othello in the prism of today’s society – his excuses might have been looked over in the 17th century, but we live in a world where almost 600 women were killed by their current or former partner in England between 2009 and 2015.
One can argue back and forth about the relatability of Shakespeare to the current audience demographic, but personally I have never related more to a character than to Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. So let me include a jade’s trick of my own:
“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.”
Back to more current, equally divisive shows
The revival of Young Frankenstein at the Garrick Theatre has shown this topic to be as relevant as ever. A female character, intrinsically defined by her distaste of physical touch, is raped. But dont worry, she changes her mind mid-coïtus, thanks to a well-endowed Frankenstein’s monster.
There are fireworks when she climaxes! People laugh!
It is understandable that the joke had to stay in for this revival to remain as close to the original material as possible – there is time to add macchiato jokes, yet none to rewrite the sexual assault ones…
An unfortunate disclaimer
I do not hate any of the plays and musicals I have just mentioned. If I had to stop enjoying everything I find problematic, I would soon turn into a sad and bitter theatre fan. But the world is not manichean – we are all more than our unyielding opinions and you are allowed to enjoy a work that would make the Bechdel test’s creators weep… as long as you are aware of its issues, whether they be open physical violence, psychological abuse, harassment or gaslighting.
There is a more complex point in question here, which is that domestic abuse needs to be more openly talked about. It needs to be stripped down and explicitly qualified as unacceptable. We don’t have time to waste reading between the lines anymore.
Domestic abuse does not need to be hyper-romanticized on stage
After all, isn’t it our duty as people, artists, writers, to do better?
It can be better, and not just in feminist theatre festivals, but in mainstream theatre too.