Erin Horáková

Bring Back the Mice


ISSUE 91 | HORROR & COMEDY | OCT 2018

An extreme shallow focus close-up black and white image from 1943 of a mouse with a large tumor standing on the edge of what appears to be an upturned glass cylinder.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is what I knew about The Woman In White musical before it happened to me:

One: the entire plot of the eponymous Wilkie Collins novel it is (loosely) based on, as described to me by my colleague Dr. Molly Katz via gchat. She cut and pasted in (long) sections of the text in an effort to process the “sensation” part of the sensation novel.

Two: that it had a deliciously awful production history, tough and juicy as a cheap steak at a low-rate chophouse with deals that really are too good to be true. “WIW” is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s floppier outings. Trevor Nunn, of the justly famous Nicholas Nickleby, got called in to direct the London transfer and still, she would not fly. Michael Crawford, playing the novel’s memorable villain Count Fosco, nearly died in the fat-suit he’d invented for the part. Then an understudy came in. Then they tried a mid-run full reboot. They drafted Simon Callow, whose dramatic talent, knowledge of and love for the period’s literary productions are undeniable, but who, it seems, cannot carry a tune in a bucket using both hands. Nothing and no one could save this show. Indeed after seeing Charing Cross Theatre’s reworked version, drawn by morbid curiosity (it’s like DashCon for theatre nerds), I do not think the musical’s salvation remotely possible.

Alas, it was not even a fun mess. Webber is, as befits his career of Tory interventions in the Lords (he’s baaaaack, the phantom of the cloooose voooote!), a bourgeois commercial artist par excellence: his work is either bluntly effective (often due to the collaboration of a competent lyricist like fellow arch-conservative Tim Rice) or “meh” palp. His music may soar in Wagnerian power chords, but as an artist, Webber lacks the grandiosity of vision to falter interestingly. I could complain about this musical for years, but it wouldn’t be as generative as the time I could spend talking about what the hell happened with a truly spectacular failure, like the simultaneously-running The Grinning Man over at Trafalgar Studios. Better to put this to bed quickly.

In The Woman In White the musical, an artist named Walter is employed as drawing-master to two pretty young sisters in the country (if you’re going to pipe up with “in the BOOK–,” I really suggest you do a Burr and wait for it). On his way down to said country, a yokel train line employee stops Walter to tell him about a spooky prophetic train crash dream he had, which is definitely not going to be a plot point later. Then a chick who looks Uncannily Like one of Walter’s hot young charges (again, definitely not going to be a plot point, I am sure) shows up to go “oo, I have a secret.” This Woman is wearing White. Walter thinks, “well that was Spooky Shit–was she a dream? A production of my fevered brain? A madwoman? Ah well.” He gets to the house and proceeds to fall in love with the Woman’s doppelgänger, Laura. Meanwhile both sisters fall in love with him. One could ask why, but one would get no satisfactory answer. Marian, the slightly older one, informs Walter of the fact that Laura is already engaged. She reminds Laura of this too, in the mildest possible way. I really cannot stress enough the degree to which Marian’s intervention amounted to saying “um, guys?”

That Woman in White shows up again to tell Walter that Laura’s fiancé, Sir Percival, is bad news. She declines to give details. Sir Percival himself then shows up with his bestie, Count Fosco. When Walter asks Percival what’s up with that spooky lady in an accusing fashion, Percival is all “oh yeah it’s really sad and stuff, she’s like, crazy? Anyway, I pay for her care. Former servant’s kid, right thing to do. I’m just that kind of guy!” Walter flips out when no one will believe his second-hand vague warnings and sulks off to London. Laura has doubts but gets married–apparently exclusively because her marriage to Sir Percival was her father’s dying wish, and Sir P doesn’t seem outright awful.

It was hard to even remember Marian’s damn name given that it was said in the show maybe 3 times ever? in a whisper?? But we sure do know it was Marian’s “fault” that Laura hooked up with Sir Percival. Laura comes back from her honeymoon, and Marian asks how it was. Laura reveals that Sir Percival is abusive and blames having married him instead of Walter on Marian. Now, if the upset young Laura had said this to her mother-figure in shattered naivete and betrayed despair, and the overly self-effacing Marian had taken that unfair criticism from someone she loved onboard, that could be interesting. However, this is also what Walter thinks—-not in a flush of a lover’s thwarted anger, but consistently.

Structurally, the whole piece thinks it: Marian spends the rest of the musical trying to make up for the crime of having said one neutral factual statement. She tortures herself over whether she was motivated, without really realizing it, by jealous love for Walter rather than concern for Laura. You could argue that Marian’s influence over Laura was such that Laura could never weigh Marian’s judgements lightly, and that Marian ought to have known this. But even if we put in the work to perform such a frankly generous psychological reading, the adaptation would still be assign agency and blame to the story’s women in the cruelest and most sexist way possible. “Sir Percival the wife beater” thus becomes a sort of force of nature. The guilt and fault are all Marian’s for having failed to protect Laura, for having been deceived by very convincing appearances and for not having listened to Walter’s self-interested vagaries. Marian is portrayed as a bad sister (or mother-figure), a bad woman and a bad person for experiencing any desire of her own, no matter how consciously repressed and sublimated into efforts to act well and do right by her family and friends. In Woman in White the musical, even the imperfect concealment of the original sin of desire is damning. Herself-sheltered Marian is not only stupid for being taken in by an older and established sociopathic conman, it’s as though she beat Laura herself. The musical ends up engaging in victim blaming at one remove.

After Marian shoulders the blame for a bad husband abusing her sister, that Woman in White crops up again. The White-Wearer is all, “by the way I’ve had a name this whole time, I’m Anne, and oo I still have a secret.” Marian’s like “well what’s this secret then, ‘Anne’?” Anne retorts “no I’ll only tell Laura, bring her here, oo bye.” So Marian returns to the ranch, where she finds Sir Percival trying and failing to make Laura sign a document that will give him her fortune. Count Fosco acts really surprised that Percy Pig was so weird about this, like every guy who ever had NO IDEA! his friend was terrible to women. Marian and Laura sneak out to meet Anne, but apparently not sneakily enough. They’re followed by this bratpack, who catch Anne and ship her back to the asylum.

Now or at any damn previous point, Anne could just say her frigging secret. Just spit it out. I slightly understand not telling Walter, ass-haberdasher and foolish boy. I wouldn’t want to tell Walter the time of day. More seriously, given the character’s history, if the ill-used Anne just wanted to talk to literally any woman, like the housekeeper or anything, I’d get that. But what modesty prevents Anne from screaming her Truths when the cops show up? Anne could have single-handedly prevented this whole dumb plot, and I am LIVID she didn’t. I had to come back to this shitshow after intermission, because by god I’d paid.

[Image of Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting on a throne on his reality TV show eating a parfait.]

The second half was better than the first, though that wasn’t exactly difficult. Marian spies on Fosco and Percy Pig via an exterior ledge outside the room they’re in, but alas she hears only fragments of their Evil Plan. This plan is comically interrupted by thunderclaps, which is fun in the moment but also Example Million of this show not being able to support its own gothicism without puncturing it with nervous titters. Fosco hears Marian on the ledge, figures out what’s happening, goes up to her room (which she has to scramble back to) and drugs her. While Marian’s unconscious, Laura apparently sleepwalks and falls to her death.

Convinced this was foul play, Marian haplessly wanders through London trying to find Walter. She happens upon a portrait he drew of Laura, and when she finds the now-bitter, drunken artist they vow to discover what really happened. Marian visits and seduces Fosco to get some information from his desk about Anne’s whereabouts so that they (and we) can finally hear that secret. Having broken with Sir Percival, who’s busy gambling away Laura’s money before he’s officially gotten it (some Legal Business there), and peeved that Marian doesn’t actually want to bang him, Fosco Sticks skulks off to the continent and out of the narrative to con another day. Walter and Marian go to see Anne, and Walter feebly intimates that he loves Marian back now. But alas! In the asylum they find not Anne but Laura, who is still alive! Sensation!! It turns out Percival swapped Laura with Anne (who is markedly less still alive). Marian says Laura needs Walter now and so Walter obediently transfers his affections back her, roughly as easily as you’d transfer a Pokémon from your backpack to the Professor.

The threesome (not in that sense) (but it’d sure solve a lot of problems, including the intense sisterly Sapphic tension expressed in both the book and the musical number “For Laura”) confront Sir Percival at the scene of that ominous train-dream prophecy we were all sure wouldn’t come back or anything. Laura dresses up as the dead Anne to freak Sir Percival out. Indeed, Manna Karenina is freaked out. He tells all before he gets smooshed by a train.

The play does something interesting here (shocking, I know): having resolved the question of whether we were dealing with a real woman, the product of Walter’s imagination or a ghost, it doubles back on that Turn of the Screw ambiguity to re-infect the text with supernatural energy. Anne metaphorically and literally haunts the play’s ending. Laura ends up psychically channeling the luckless Anne, revealing information she couldn’t possibly know herself. This is probably possible because Anne was Laura’s bastard half-sister (the secret!!), and Laura’s ghost has some serious unresolved business with Percival.

It seems that before marrying Laura, Sir Percival seduced the unprotected lower-class Anne, got her pregnant, abused her so severely that their unborn child died, and then locked her up when she inconveniently went mad with grief. Percival then killed Anne, and substituted her body for Laura’s so that he could inherit Laura’s fortune. The train that came to kill the richly-deserving Sir Percival was a good special effect, but I was most impressed by how it ended the show.

(Book fans who started screaming sometime during the first paragraph may now cease.)

Now, the question isn’t “is this a good adaptation of Woman in White?” That ship has sailed. The question is, is Webber’s Woman in White a good piece in and of itself, on its own merits?

Andrew Lloyd Webber with a creepy smile speaking into a microphone while wearing a leather jacket and holding a bunch of red roses.

Webber himself. Image by Effie under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Nope.

A stage show is never going to be a novel, but it could be, ought to be, a good stage show, working with the elements that made the inherently-theatrical sensation novel genre effective and popular. With its lush atmosphere, its capacity to contain over the top elements in a spun web of naturalism, and its emphasis on generating a strong, physicalized reader response, the sensation novel is dead perfect for the blockbuster musical format. But I don’t see the musical capitalizing on any of this. Go ahead and use the structures of the possibly-supernatural gothic to discuss gender, sex and abusive domestic relationships via heightened and grotesque motifs in order to allow yourself and your readers to think unspeakable truths about the violence of heterosexuality under capitalist patriarchy. That’s literally what this iteration of the gothic was built for! But you’d better be damned careful that what you’re saying via these exploratory metaphors doesn’t get tangled and come back around to actually say really regressive shite. It’s telling that the Victorian book didn’t make this mistake to the degree the contemporary musical does.

The musical makes an attempt to reckon with what the creative team perceives as Laura’s lack of agency, especially in the back half of the book. But in doing so, they fridge Laura for almost the whole of the second act, undercut her sympathetic solidarity with her sister, and actually reduce the complexity of her feelings and her agency as regards her own marriage. Someone told this creative team that Laura’s position in this novel was part of a network of destructive Victorian ideas about womanhood. The creative team did not take into account that the exact same thing could and should be said about any contemporary female character. “Something must be done about the Weak Women in this Victorian Novel!” said the millionth adapter, before proceeding to make ham-fisted alterations that made things worse, but in a samey 21st century-flavoured way.

Laura is infantilised and threatened in disturbing ways in this book. This is not a surface-level problem, and in trying to correct it on those terms, the production team reinforced it. The musical’s ostensibly been re-written to promote Laura’s agency, but like her doppelgänger, she fails to communicate and seems even to vanish. That’s what you get from a facile, commercial engagement with feminism: all letter, no spirit. Careless presumption and vague girl power box-ticking produces art that can be subterraneanly more damaging than the cultural material it’s “updating,” layering demographic front-facing representation over male creative work and decisions. You see your own face, smiling back at you with dead eyes.

The same nominally feminist refashioning metes out undue punishment for even Marian’s very modest expressions of desire and agency. In de-centering Marian, dropping the novel character’s “butch” qualities, sticking her with an unlooked-for single-minded obsession with a now-vacant Walter and decomplicating her relationship with Fosco, we wind up with a narrative in which it’s not even obvious she’s supposed to be the protagonist.

Fosco has been almost equally wronged. He’s gone from the uncannily shining star of the book to a sticking point. The initial staging featured the book Fosco’s beloved pet mice, but they had to nix the rodents in this re-staging (as we must imagine they’ll always have to do in less expensive revivals). With them we lose Fosco’s femininity and his curious childlike tenderness, which the novel doesn’t depict as at odds with his intellect or his capacity for violence. This new physically non-descript, unmarried Fosco, whose claim to sophistication and “gift for living well” amount to a Wine of the Month club membership, rambles through the musical with no hinted-at broader political agenda or even discernable purpose, like a sketchy unlicensed Roman tour guide hanging around the colosseum. I don’t really know why he’s still called Fosco, to be honest. Why bother? The character could have been Dr Jim Jambles, for all the likeness between him and his hypnotic inspiration. If this is all you’re going to do with an outré, compelling character, just bite the bullet and cut him. I can’t believe someone almost died in a fat suit for this musical’s sins.

Perhaps worst of all, the production still wants to call on the power of story-elements it’s abandoned. The musical’s remaining invocations of the book’s creeping draw between Marian and Fosco are worthless because Marian is barely herself and Fosco is no one at all. She could never want him, she’s hot for Walter. Fosco’s preposterous and foolish for thinking she might. Besides, Marian believes Fosco took an active part in murdering her sister. She’s not going to endanger her reputation and person to run off to unknown parts of Europe with a cheap, threatening, self-interested conman.

Yet the musical makes it quite clear that we’re also supposed understand Marian’s rejection of Fosco as some kind of wop-wop trombones missed opportunity on her part, and ultimately as a rejection of her own life, agency and happiness. Marian is a sad spinster, and will be forever, and it’s all her own fault. Logically that’s not at all justified, but still the emotional beat sits there, absent of a song. Yet another thing stupid Marian got wrong. God, how this show hates the book’s complex, intelligent, sensitive protagonist. Everything it does to “help” her, and via her a vague concept of Modernity (and that, more even than notional Feminism, is what I believe this adaptation’s changes are nominally in the service of), ends up slicing her through the tendons.

The show was not without moments of genuine power, though these largely came from elements dragooned in from the original text and weakly or bewilderingly evoked here. The charge of “For Laura,” a tune that swells up nicely, like a sail catching, means less without the strange alterity and intensity of Marian’s first-person diaristic narrative. Collins’ text features a sororal relationship that feels temporally unlikely now and perhaps too codependent for modern tastes, yet sympathetic and interesting. Gothic themes and images, women under threat, draw power from a megatext this musical can’t screw up but doesn’t do much to contribute to. The high gothic moments worked better than anything else, but all those themes and images felt clumsily stolen. Catching yourself appreciating them felt like being pickpocketed by an astoundingly crap thief.

Musically, the show doesn’t believe its own love theme. The grinding predictability of every single lyrical choice was such that if before the show you’d given me the last word in the first line of every couplet and told me to aim low, I could have written these lyrics in less time than it took me to hear them with 90% accuracy.

Laura you know you can trust me
Please let me know what is wrong?
We seem so far apart
And it breaks my [A/N: wait for it–] heart.

Or how about:

Nevermore alone
Never to forget you
Not when my life was changed forever the first time I met you
You’re all I know
And though I’ve lost you you’re someone I can’t let go… of

Painful.

There were solid musical moments: a goth version of “Holy and the Ivy,” a sung prayer, “For Laura,” and “You Can Get Away with Anything”—a half decent generic baddie song that properly belongs to some more fun, camp villain. As was, it only reinforced the generic quality of Fosco’s antagonism. Even though they were the musical highlights of the evening, the production ought to have avoided incorporating those preexisting songs. There’s nothing like an ominously-intoned “The holly bears a berry/As red as any blood/And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ/To do poor sinners good” to make the show’s comparative lyrical poverty inescapably obvious.

This adaptation was marred at every stage by the same mincing “enormous condescension of posterity,” in historian E. P. Thompson’s phrase, towards its source material and the period in which it’s set that made the musical’s gender politics such a mess. Embarrassed by the text itself, the musical tries to tidy everything without understanding quite what it’s handling, like a careless housekeeper who throws out half your papers. It wants gothic effects, images and thematic power – guilt and shame and secrets, deep marital problems and the dangerous allure of forbidden, even uncanny passion – but it undercuts all the elements that lend themselves to such emotional responses with comic thunderclaps, trying to better the story (lazily assuming it can, simply by virtue of being contemporary) and landing at clumsy melodrama even Collins never dreamed of. The perfect synecdoche for this laziness comes when, in the musical Woman In White, Marian finds Walter. She does so because he gave his very last coin to a beggar woman. Awh. How schmaltzy, how sentimental, how Victorian. Except Wilkie would have laughed his tiny opium-addled lungs out first. This happens in the musical, and not the book, because it’s the sort of shit we think happens in A Victorian Story.

Adaptations tell us as much about the time and people that made them as they tell us about the time, people and particularities of a source text. The musical is, if anything, more sexist than the original, with the Victorian setting used to justify broad "of its time" awkwardness. We use the Victorian (or the 50s a la Mad Men, etc.) as a way to say things we believe, with an edge of distance, irony and plausible deniability. Eras become modes not of representation, but of short-hand self-presentation via difference. We’re not like this, even as we’re the people putting words in the past’s mouth. This popular period is currently our collective cultural midden, a repository for the imperialism and melodrama and bullshit we refuse to baggage-claim but still carry about.

In summation:

Bring 🐁 back 🐁 the 🐁 mice 🐁!!


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