I was fascinated by the term “gaslighting”. It came up in conversation one day with my in-laws who had explained that it was about playing mind games. I had to dig a little deeper and discovered that it’s more than a game but a manipulation of the mind in a very dangerous way – playing psychological games to make a person doubt their own memory and sanity that and the phrase itself was coined after the 1938 play, GASLIGHT. It was also made into a film that launched Ingrid Bergman into stardom. I knew the play was coming to Toronto with Mirvish Production so I was eager to learn more.
GASLIGHT is currently on stage at the Ed Mirvish Theatre until February 28, 2016. This production includes an incredibly strong leading cast including Owen Teale and Ian McElhinney (yes, of Game of Thrones) along with Flora Montgomery.
The sensational thriller takes place in the Victorian era and centres around a woman, Bella, who believes she’s losing her sanity. Her convincing husband is a skillful manipulator and places many doubts in her head. At first we’re not quite sure what his motives are. Money? An affair? But it’s heart-wrenching when she begs him several times, “if I am mad, please be gentle with me.”
In the play written by Patrick Hamilton, the aggressive Mr. Manningham (Owen Teale) has terrified his wife Bella (Fiona Montgomery) into believing that her mind is full of daydreams, hallucinations and forgetfulness –that her mind can’t be trusted in any capacity. Losing all confidence in herself, she’s left with insecurities that make her question herself and constantly apologizing for what she doesn’t understand.
Quick-thinking, and retired, Detective Rough (Ian McElhinney) with his sense of humour comes into the story line to help unravel the truth. He shines a light on what possible motives are for such manipulations of the mind with shocking conclusions.
When Owen Teale was in the city last fall to talk about the show he had stirred my curiosity even more. “In playing this dark character, which I have tremendous fun, it’s not for me to judge him… I’ll let you do that. But it is for me to understand his situation and his circumstances in what makes somebody do the things they do,” said Teale.
So where does the “gaslight” reference come from in the play? Bella explains to Detective Rough that each night when her husband goes out, the gas lights dim until a few minutes before he comes home. Is it a ghost? At least that’s what she’s convinced herself since thoroughly checking the house. There was no other logical explanation but it was just one of the daily occurrences that was driving her to the brink of madness. Some would say that the reference to the psychological twist is similar. That is, someone who manipulates then leaves only to return…and it repeats.
There were many moments in the story that made me wonder how often this continues to happen. It’s easy enough to sit back and think how this person can be so blind-sighted so much not to notice what’s going on. But I just keep thinking about Teale’s words “I am not to judge.” While not physically damaging, gaslighting can be emotionally and psychologically destructive.
GASLIGHT is a powerful play that certainly casts no doubt that it’s a good one to see if you love psychological thrillers.
By the way, ever wonder if someone has tried to gaslight you? This is an interesting read that also gives you the signs if it’s happening to you. Article in Psychology Today