Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Play of Surface: Theater and the Turn of the Screw

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Play of Surface: Theater and the Turn of the Screw

Article excerpt

"He's like nobody.... He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are somehow darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange--awfully; but I only know clearly that they're rather small and very fixed. His mouth's wide, and his lips are thin, except for his little whiskers he's quite clean-shaven. He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor."

"An actor!" ...

"I've never seen one, but so I suppose them." (1)

Thus the governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898) describes a man she has seen, later identified as Peter Quint. Why should he call to mind an actor? The strongly marked features and bold eyes suggest it, perhaps, as might the somehow showy contrast of fiery hair and whitish skin. There are his clothes, which appear to her a costume: certainly, though indefinably, not his own. Yet it is also more than this. The sighting of Quint on the tower lasts only one "unspeakable minute"; nonetheless, his image fairly leaps out at her, sharply defined as "a picture in a frame" (16). An actor out of context, he has somehow too much presence, is too intense, too able to fix her with his eye. But for all this force he lacks substance, since he is "like nobody" Nobody she has ever met, for sure--but the words hint that "nobody" is what he is like. He is surface without center, impact without a weight behind it. He fascinates yet repels, commands the gaze but alienates; like an actor, he deceives.

In the first part of this essay, I examine the theatricality of The Turn of the Screw, considering the presence of performance as metaphor within the tale, and the ways in which James's fascination with the contemporary stage pervades the text. In this period of his career, James wrote several works that made self-conscious attempts to embody "dramatic" or "scenic" principles. What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Awkward Age (1899) are perhaps his most fully realized examples of the "play-as-novel," to use Peter Brooks's phrase (2): each case, a central situation is explored through a series of presented episodes "with no going behind, no telling about the figures save by their own appearance and action." (3) The Turn of the Screw belongs to this period, but my concern is less to examine its dramatic structure--an ambition that has been realized already by other critics (4)--than to draw attention to more elusive qualities of theatricality: to ideas of acting and role-play that produce, for reader as well as protagonist, a conflicted sense of what is "real"; to qualities of shadow and stillness that heighten anticipation and create a focus for action and speech that is shockingly compelling; to the way in which the theater auditorium itself--a space marked literally and figuratively with the traces of past performance--becomes a powerful and unsettling metaphor through which we can read the haunted scene of Bly.

This story achieves its effect as much by suggestion and the deliberate withholding of information as by direct revelation. Famously, James claimed his intention was to make the reader "think the evil, make him think it for himself." (5) The second part of my discussion considers how reception is altered when the tale comes ready equipped with "visuals": here, in the form of theatrical adaptation. I examine William Archibald's 1950 stage play The Innocents, a dramatization of The Turn of the Screw that later became the basis for Jack Clayton's better-known film. I argue that The Innocents is more than the "fairly straightforward dramatic reconstruction" Val Wilson terms it; (6) rather, Archibald's play undermines its own apparatus of realism, drawing on uniquely theatrical qualities to provoke a sense of profound disquiet in its spectators. My second example is more recent. Jeffrey Hatcher's The Turn of the Screw (first produced in 1996) aims to stay "true to the essence" of James's story and themes, yet rejects virtually all the resources conventionally used to make the stage world resemble a fictional one. …

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