By Jeff Davis
This play means far more to me than what I can put down in a short page. Still, as Ms. Gilman wrote her essay “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” I find it fitting to at least attempt to do the same.
This play has gestated in my brain for 15 years. I first read The Yellow Wallpaper in an American Literature class my junior year of High School. When I read it, I was suffering from depression, an issue which has continued—albeit controlled through medications and therapy—for the rest of my life.
Naturally, The Yellow Wallpaper immediately spoke to me. I appreciated the statements it made about mental health, depression, and the treatment of women, statements that were bold and unheard of in 1892. I also appreciated all the choices Gilman made in her work. The Gothic thriller edifice. The feminist themes. The unreliable narrator. Gilman took several elements that should be at odds with each other and created a work that is beautiful, poetic, haunting, and moving.
As soon as I had finished reading, I wondered if The Yellow Wallpaper had ever been adapted for the stage. The limited information I could find on the internet back in 2001 didn’t really give me an answer, but the thought of a stage adaptation stayed in my head ever since.
In 2014, when I joined Agape Theatre, I looked again for a stage adaptation, this time targeting one I’d want to direct, and I found several. As I continued to dig, I noticed that the adaptations all took a similar approach to the material. All have either transferred Gilman’s text verbatim to be delivered as a monologue by a single actress or they’ve attempted to flesh out the story with the use of several supporting characters, many of whom are only mentioned a handful of times in the short story.
None have told the story on stage the way I wished to do so, as a two-person show between our female protagonist and her husband/doctor. The dynamic between these two characters is perhaps the most fascinating and important aspect of the short story. Why then, has it not received the attention and focus it deserves onstage? I sought out to rectify that, and on September 4th, 2015, I began writing.
While I started this project, I expected it to be a commentary on mental health and the treatment of women, and it is, but it has developed into more than that. It’s become a power struggle between a fiercely independent, free-thinking woman and her well-intended but neglectful and even abusive husband. While I’ve stayed true to the thematic elements of Gilman’s short story, her heroine comments on her surroundings and her medical treatment but stops short of fighting back. Mine does all she can to live her life her way and has a bit more of Gilman’s own rebelliousness to her (many of her best lines are taken from Gilman’s autobiography and other writings).
I welcome and appreciate your thoughts and feedback as we continue to craft The Yellow Wallpaper into a piece worthy of a full-scale production, something Agape Theatre hopes to produce in 2017. I also hope that this play doesn’t die here with our company. I want it to live on, both in publication and in productions around the world.
While the conversation about women and mental health has dramatically shifted and improved from 1892 to 2016, we still have far to go. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper is to save others from insanity and depression and to draw attention to the treatment of women in America. I can only hope that this play can help continue several important conversations begun over 100 years ago.