Separating what’s real from the imagined has long kept writers of all types inventively engaged in their craft—everyone does love the ambiguity of life on both sides of the abyss. When it comes to ghost stories, the real frequently (via untimely passing) becomes the imagined, returning to settle scores, scare the bejezus out of new dwelling owners or—as in the case of The Ghost and Mrs Muir—a phantom to die for.
Wanting to keep his own pecuniary werewolf from the door, Henry James wrote a five part, twelve-installment tale for a semi-popular literary magazine in 1895 to “take up my own pen again—the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and struggles,” alluding to the fact that his foray into the theatre as dramatist only proved what a superb novelist he was.
With The Turn of the Screw, James readily demonstrated his mastery of the narrative art even with a predetermined form (the limits of serialization), utilizing a masterful introduction (enticingly teased out in an old country house filled with ladies and gentlemen positively salivating for all of the gruesome details). Brilliantly and in an equally—for James—unusual narrative twist, the actual story is to be a reading of the heroine’s (herself already 20-years dead) journal which faithfully chronicles the incredible chain of events in Bly—a delightfully gothic house in Essex.
From a letter to H.G. Wells, the author sums up his challenge succinctly:
Of course, I had, about my young woman, to take a very sharp line. The grotesque business I had to make her picture and childish psychology I had to make her trace and present, were, for me at least, a very difficult job, in which absolute lucidity and logic, a singleness of effect, were imperative. Therefore, I had to rule out subjective complications of her own—play of tone, etc.; and keep her impersonal save for the most obvious and indispensable little note of neatness, firmness and courage—without which she wouldn’t have had her data. But the thing is essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d’esprit.
Ah! If only so many other pot-boilers had been created with half of James’ meticulous craft!
One can only suspect that adapter Jeffrey Hatcher might not have read the letter to the science fiction wizard, prior to his 1996 adaptation of the novella. Constructing it as two-hander solves as many problems as it creates. “The Woman” (an unnamed parson’s daughter) is the singular, narrator; “The Man” plays all of the remaining parts (housekeeper Mrs. Grose; the Master of the estate; 10-year-old-going-on-ageless Miles; former manservant to the Master, Peter Quint—so intriguingly close to Peer Gynt)—save and except for Miss Jessel, the previous governess who “went away …”, and Miles’ baby sister Flora. Too conveniently in the play, Flora has been struck dumb having witnessed the horrific end to Quint: that missing voice largely negates James’ notion of “two turns of the screw” being more calamitous than one.
The essence of James is his marvellously irritating habit of asking more questions than are answered. Hatcher is the opposite: the vague sexual innuendo in the original is summarily discarded with far too little left to anyone’s sordid imagination—replete with full-on kisses that seem more aligned with scoutmaster scandals than just what were the “things” Miles is to be expelled for from a very private, very expensive school. The utilization of a covey of riddles works well to establish the young boy’s quick wits, but becomes an unwelcome crutch to open the avenue of possibility regarding the meaning of touch. For those who have never read the “pot-boiler,” this stage version might satisfy in the tabloid “tell-all” of our times. Most tragic of all is the heroine’s MIA metamorphosis from naïve girl hoping to snare her man by doing just as he has asked to heroic saviour of the young whose elders have abused them in ways unspeakable (shielding Miles from Quint in the original ideally sets up the inevitably pathetic finish). Hatcher has so “redone” the events—jamming everything into just seven days, that a “where are they now?” coda is required to allow the patrons in on the fact that the curtain has fallen.
Director Derek Campbell has done his able best to make the ninety minutes of uninterrupted proceedings vanish like mist on the moor toward sunrise. The purposely Spartan set (a series of platforms curiously at one with Lilli pads in the pivotal pond) draws the audience into the notion of choice: is the current governess mad, or do the ghosts truly walk the property?—score one for Hatcher, having Flora unseen continuously reinforces that conundrum. The choice of human-made music, initially (employing the “Prayer” from Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel), is a nice touch; following that reference with Miles’ piano repertoire quoting Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre is more than a few measures over the top: why not summon up Debussy’s “The Girl with The Flaxen Hair?”
Yet this is a production that cannot be missed by anyone who knows theatrical excellence when they see it. The acting is superb.
Carolyn Baeumier’s overall demeanour as the governess faced with “surprises” unbound is a marvel of overt understatement (she quietly builds to the state of mad), dedication (when flaunting her full body to the mirror the heat rises even as James’ subtle characterization withers on her robust vine) and art (watch her eyes for a masterpiece of inner characterization that belies, confounds or supports the action around her at will).
Proving yet again that he is Buffalo’s most versatile actor, Vincent O’Neill brings his expertise in characterization, body language and timing to the play like never before. (One really wishes the playwright had allowed Flora to speak: what O’Neill might have come up with for that can, sadly, only be imagined.)
In his capable hands, housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Hatcher has summarily fired all of the other servants in James’ typical upper-class world) has a convincingly stooped back (thanks in large part to Dixon Reynolds’ costume design) and appropriate understanding of her “place” in the hierarchy of English life. The Master—seen only in the early-going interview of his next governess for his brother’s orphans—is a model of elegant slime. As the de facto sound effects department, O’Neill manages to iterate such “sounds” as “footstep” without a snicker; his lascivious utterings as the sex-craved Quint serve Hatcher’s vision to a tee. Unquestionably, best of show comes from his deft depiction of Miles: with a vanishing neck and an especial, short-step walk the physicality of this willingly? (you decide …) possessed youth is only surpassed by a delivery of speech that must have aspiring actors everywhere taking notes as to how such a mature man can readily step into the persona of a pre-pubescent terror. Most other actors wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance in reaching O’Neill’s level of accomplishment. JWR