Monica Taylor - 4522884
Dr. David Fancy
November 2, 2012
Family Structure and Cultural Expectations: The Woman in Black
In this essay I will provide a rigorous performance analysis of the Lyndesfarne Theatre Company’s recent production of Woman in Black by Susan Hill with a view to demonstrating that representations of what Althusser describes as Ideological State Apparatuses (Althusser, in Counsell and Wolf) are in evidence in the production. In particular, the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) of family and culture – those “distinct and specialized institutions” that can be understood to organize human social life (35) – will be shown to be integral to a full understanding of the overall signifying patterns of the production of Woman in Block. In order to substantiate my claim, I will take into account Althusser’s assertion that the ideologies that inform the ISAs I will be discussing always have “a material existence” (37) and therefore need to be understood in the theatrical context to be in evidence in the materiality of the stage itself. Indeed, I will prove the presence of ISAs by demonstrating how clusters of signs working together to form what Barthes describes as “myths” – those manifestations of “second order sociological system[s]” that organize clusters of socially generated connotations and assumptions (Barthes, in Counsell and Wolfe, 15) – work together to support the underlying assumptions that prop up the ISAs under investigation. I will substantiate my claim that myths are in evidence in the production by demonstrating how individual contributing signs are generated onstage, and
will do so with specific reference to a range of semiotic dynamics discussed in Kier Elam’s The Semiotics if Theatre and Drama. At the end of the paper, I will be in position to make some summary statements about the extent of which the production of Woman in Black simply displays the existence of the ISAs I have detected, or if indeed the production problematizes or even challenges these ISAs. Additionally, I will provide evidence from systems of signs apparent in the theatre building in which the production took place, the production’s advertising, the program and so forth as necessary in order to support my claims.
Woman in Black’s main character is faced with a circumstance that is greatly embedded in the concept of family. As the main character, Arthur Kipps, attempts to keep his sanity (and in turn, his family) intact, he witnesses the torment and negative effects of a world where a family was torn apart. This play provides multiple sets of sign systems that lead a western audience to believe that one way of creating and maintaining family is correct and to live differently can have negative effects. Bertolt Brecht speaks of the way ideologies (in this case family) naturalizes ideas and presents them to the audience as common sense. By examining The Woman in Black’s construction of family ideology I will attempt to “reveal the mechanics by which performance manufactures its view of the world, [this play] seeks to ‘alienate’ that view, offering it to the audience as extraordinary, to be addressed critically” (Brecht 43). What allows the audience to think critically about the elements in this play is the element of fear. This alienating feeling that the play leaves the audience with, will allow the audience to reflect upon what exactly made them so uneasy and fearful. Three myths, apparent in this play, will be deconstructed to understand how this play sheds light upon the construction of the family unit
and why this construction seems to perpetuate itself from generation to generation as the “normal” in western society.
The ISA of family is constructed and reproduced by “ideal” families in western culture and are seen as the proper way of having a family. These assumptions about family are reinstated by heads of our state; for example, presidents and premiers as heads of the family and the first lady follow behind to care for the children and support the husband. An important myth to deconstruct is the idea that there must be a male partner who is the head of the house and makes the decisions. There needs to be a clear binary of power so the dominant side (male) seems more important and authoritative than the submissive side (female). To whose advantage is this myth supporting? Set in the 1920’s, the Woman in Black, can be seen in the theatre as beginning to question the assumed role of the male as head of the household as the Woman in Black attempts to take charge of her, and her sons destiny. “Myth,” Barthes writes, “addresses the way existing signs are remobilized as tokens of socially and politically charged networks of meaning, while still managing to retain an appearance of ‘naturalness’ of ‘what-goes-without-saying’” (44). Using two examples from the stage production, this myth of male (father) hierarchy will be deconstructed as a system of family that did not sit well with the Woman in Black, and through the use of fear, may not sit well with the audience either. The denotative flexibility power the men in the play hold as well of the use of the stage as a transparent object and the image of man in contrast to the woman in black will be examined.
Arthur Kipps and the “actor” use denotative flexibility to transform the objects on stage into props during their scenes that they are rehearsing. The male characters in this play are the
only ones who are able to freely move and transform objects to assist them in the telling of their story. The Woman in Black is shown many times within the house attempting to manipulate objects but is unable to do so, so she destroys them. The power that this creates for the male characters to use the set, as if transparent, demonstrates to the audience the reinforcement of the power system within family structure in the 1920’s and how the Woman in Black is attempting to shatter it. The freedom of expression that the male characters on stage experience creates an interesting binary when compared to the inability of the woman in black to express herself. The stage presents a visual sign to support this binary; the male characters tell the story from the front of the stage in clear view of the audience. The woman in black, however, tells most of her story through the nursery which is set in the back of the stage behind a thin black curtain. This curtain is a physical divide on stage that symbolizes her inability to freely express herself like the men in the story.
The physical image of Arthur Kipps in the play lends itself to the myth that man is the stronger and more dominant partner in a relationship between man and woman, especially in contrast to the woman in black. His clothing as an object becomes almost a separate sign as the actor moves from his character in “real life” to his “scripted reenactments of the story”. Elam describes this subjective / objective continuum as “unavoidable, when thinking about dramatic representation, to draw a firm and automatic distinction between the active subject, embodied by the actor, and the objects to which he relates and which participate in the action through his agency” (15). Kipps’ clothing as the object demands from the audience the recognition that he is proper, clean, well-kept and upholds a traditional manly appearance. The clothing object is in stark contrast to the black which is worn by the woman in black who appears on stage. The
lighting assists in supporting this sign system as the male characters, Kipps in specific, are usually lit in flattering tones that preserve his image. The woman in black is lit in ways that show the decaying state of her clothes and face. Thus giving the audience the impression that she, as a woman (in her womanly clothing), are submissive in stature in contrast to the sharply dressed Mr. Kipps.
The woman in black provides a unique view of how the staging of a show and the presentation of a character through actions and objects can speak clear messages to an audience without dialogue. As the woman in black does not speak in this play, the audience relies on systems of signs that have been constructed to mean something. Barthes gives insight to this as he explains that “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness that one can reason about them while discounting their substance” (13). The woman in black, Janet Humphries, was stripped of her right to raise her own childhood and therefore rebelled against the “common sense” notion that a mother should raise her own child. Two sign systems will be deconstructed as showing how the myth that a mother should raise her own child is supported in this play as well as the play having the ability to allow audiences to question why images of motherhood are constructed the way they are.
In the nursery, on a platform raised up in the back of the stage is an empty rocking chair. This chair holds significant meaning in understanding how this play reinforces the myth that a woman is nothing without motherhood. Elam highlights Australian playwright Peter Handke in speaking of “the professed object in writing his plays of drawing the audience’s attention to the
sign-vehicle and its theatricality rather than to the signified and its dramatic equivalent, that is ‘making people aware of the world of the theatre … there is a theatrical reality going on at each moment. A chair on the stage is a theatre chair” (10). This concept allows the audience to see the chair as having a polysemic nature (multiple meanings) because they realize that it is a theatre chair that can be many signs. This concept that the chair is “a theatre chair” is reinforced during the bows at the end of the show as the woman in black nods her head from the rocking chair up in the nursery. Throughout the show, the polysemic nature of the chair is revealed as Arthur Kipps discovers the nursery along with the meaning behind it. The first time the audience sees the chair is when the haunting sound of the chair rocking back and forth is heard throughout the theatre. The chair is discovered to be rocking on its own, frantically, in the dark of the nursery. This movement reinforces the current scene when Kipps discovers letters of Janets (woman in black) frantic attempts to keep her son. In another scene, the rocking chair is picked up by Janet herself in a wild attempt to destroy the nursery. She picks up the chair last and dramatically goes to smash it in half. The lights go to black out before the audience can see if she decides to destroy her attempt at preserving her “motherhood” in the nursery or not.
The story, written in 1983 by Susan Hill and adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987 can be shown to demonstrate how western culture has developed a pre-existing attitude and understanding about body image. Through media and mass produced culture, theatre directors can use this knowledge to connote meaning through images on stage without having to speak directly about them. This process of denotative and connotative flexibility is essential in understanding how the myth of appearance is understood by an audience. In this play, the woman in black is seen to be thin and wasting away. Public discourse about women’s body
image has shifted over the years and a woman who is thin and “wasted” is not seen as beautiful like a model, but unhealthy and sick. In choosing to present the woman in black with denotative features such as having her face thin and pale, audiences will connote that she is unfit to take care of herself and a child. Plummer and Macionis, in the chapter The Mass Media Key concepts explored Ideological State Apparatuses, write about how this concept can be taken a step further. They believe that audiences today have the cognitive power to understand what is being connoted to them and challenge that thought. “'Audiences may resist the dominant meanings and messages (of the media), create their own readings and appropriations of mass-produced culture, and use their culture as resources to empower themselves and to invent their own meanings, identities, and forms of life…Media culture thus induces individuals to conform to the established organization of society, but it also provides resources that can empower individuals against that society” (Plummer & Macionis 752). It is possible that the director, Kelly Daniels, may not have realized when presenting the woman in black in such a stereotypical “unfit motherly” appearance that audience members may critique that denotative/connotative function and consider who creates these standards of woman as fact.
The myth that a successful and proper family has a mother, a father and 2.5 children is supported in this play by Arthur Kipps’ written word to his fiancé Stella. The woman in black, however, demonstrates her unease and eventual retaliation against this ideology by destroying all of the perfect “nuclear” families around her. The staging of the play demonstrates the woman in black’s intent by hinting at the start of her realization through the written word. Using two sign systems of linguistics and how they are conveyed on stage is something Barthes understands to be important materials in the construction of myths (in this case, the nuclear family); “mythical
speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictoral or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance” (13).
Arthur Kipps’ task once at the Eel Marsh House was to go through Mrs. Drableau’s papers. Among the chaos of papers and fear, Kipps uses ostension to draw the audience to an important piece of information on stage. Kipps points to the paper and says “here is a letter I have found, from Janet to Alice Drableau” he then proceeds to read a series of letters between the sisters. What is pointed out is that Janet goes from signing the letters with the affectionate “J” and “Janey” to the serious and formal “Janet” when she finds out her sister is to take her son away from her family. Saussure’s recognition that the ideas and preconceived notions about the way we link a name and a connotation are “ready-made ideas that exist before words; it does not tell us whether a name is vocal or psychological in nature; finally, it lets us assume that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation – an assumption that is anything but true” (4). The connotations of these signings are important in understanding how Janet is rebelling against the family ideology as a ghost. Now that the woman in black is dead and has no social obligations she is free to express herself to her audience that she is free from the constraints of the family ideology. Althusser describes “ideology as representing the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (37). This seems to be true that Janet recognizes these restraints through her letters. Janet changes her approach to the situation from motherly/sisterly to cold and businesslike. Her ghost self, is free from these ideological perceptions of how family members are to interact with each other and makes this statement by
killing the young children and destroying the constructions of nuclear families that was denied to her.
In attempting to understand how and why family units are formed in such a way, theorist Luce Irigaray writes in “This Sex Which is Not One” of how woman are excluded from the cultural and socio-economic systems of men. Women are seen to be a man’s other, represented only in relation to man. “The passage into the social order is assured by the fact that men, or groups of men circulate women among themselves … Whatever familial form this prohibition may take in a given state of society, its signification has a much broader impact. It assures the foundation of the economic, social and cultural order that has been ours for centuries” (Irigaray 59). This myth is substantiated within this play through Kipps’ fiancé Stella. Through the use, again, of the written word Kipps communicates with Stella throughout his stay at the Eel Marsh House. As he is writing letters to Stella, he speaks aloud of how it is his responsibility to make sure she is alright and he worries that she will not be okay as she is a woman left on her own without her man. It is interesting to note that the two times he writes to Stella and speaks these thoughts aloud, the woman in black makes an appearance and the other time the fog that represents the woman in black picks up with the wind and knocks the train around. Now that the woman in black is dead, she is free to express herself without the societal constraints of “being a proper woman” and acting submissive.
When considering an analysis of a theatre production for its role in perpetuating or deconstructing an ideological state apparatus, one must also consider the space in which the performance is taking place. The culture surrounding the art of performance is one that may seem to be flexible and artistic in nature but with careful analysis of the performance of The
Woman in Black, it becomes clear that the ideological state apparatus of culture in the arts is anything but simple and flexible. Using two myths about the performance space and structure will assist in understanding how important space and place is in the perpetuation of the pre-existing conditions of performance structure and what this implicates for the audience members. First, deconstructing how the conscious performance by the actors on stage uses the stage space to perpetuate the “proper” conventions of a theatre performance. Second, understanding how the theatre space creates a culture of submissive audience members who are subjected to the preexisting social practices of theatrical objects.
In normal life actions, people may not be aware of their bodies forming patterns or rhythms that may be interpreted by other people as meaning something. On stage, however, actors are more conscious of their body and its relation to the connotations the audience will have with each action. “connotation is not, of course, unique to theatrical semiosis, on the contrary, the spectators very ability to apprehend important second order meanings in his decoding of the performance depends upon the extra-theatrical and general cultural values which certain objects, modes of discourse or forms of behavior bear” (Elam 11-12). The myth that actors consciously make an effort to detail their movements in the theatre space to consciously mean something to the audience will be proved as apparent within this production.
The structure of The Woman in Black has the actors playing actors on stage who are attempting to perform a story provided by the elderly Arthur Kipps. The stage event connotes itself as the “actor” sits in the audience at the beginning of the play signaling to the audience that we are in a theatre space and these actors are attempting to put on a play for us. The “actor”
speaks to Kipps from the audience about his projection and tone, even saying out loud “we don’t want to bore our audience to death now do we?” He makes reference to body language on stage by telling Kipps to use his arms and gesture to show “how grand the entrance hall really is.” It is interesting to see how the characters on stage are alluding to the fact that they are creating a piece of theatre. Elam discusses that “many participants may not be aware of the meanings they attach to phenomena, theatrical communication allows these meanings sway over practical functions: things serve only to the extent that they mean. In drawing upon these socially codified values, what is more, theatrical semiosis invariably, and above all, connotes itself” (12).
As the actors on stage workshop how they are going to stage and tell the story of the woman in black, they use the stage space in two different contexts. One context is in “real life” where older Arthur Kipps and the Actor are discussing acting and storytelling. The second context is using the same stage and the same “real life” props in multiple different ways to set the scene. It is with these props that we see the generative capacity of various theatrical signs’ denotative flexibility and transformability to create the many different scenes needed in telling the story. Objects such as a wooden bench are used as; a train cabin, a desk, a room divider, a carriage and a foot stool, these objects all mean something different to the audience in each scene. This concept of flexibility is a tool that is exceptionally useful for the theatre space as the space limits the amount of different full sets to show multiple scenes in the story line. Flexibility of theatrical signs allows the audience to believe that the space has been changed for the purpose of the scene. This is a conscious effort on the audience’s part to “suspend disbelief” and submit to the cultural expectations that surround being an audience and understanding the various degrees of stage realism. Allowing the sign systems on stage (that use one object with multiple
denotative purposes) to mean what the actors intended is a behavior of the audience that has been culturally created as correct and expected. The director needs to rely on this cultural expectation to be followed by the audience for the play to make sense.
Audiences are expected to act a certain way in a theatre. It is necessary for this to happen so that the show can proceed as planned. It is not socially acceptable to disrupt the show by getting up and going to the washroom in the middle of an act, for example. This can be seen as an example of the reproduction of labor power in our culture. The experience of seeing The Woman in Black exposed how participating in a leisure activity away from the work force does not exempt a citizen from the practice of submitting one’s self to a higher power of control. Althusser explains this concept of reproducing labor power “To put this more scientifically, I shall say that the reproduction of labor power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e. a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’” (40). Two sets of sign systems will be analyzed to show how the myth that one is free from a ruling ideological state apparatus in the arts culture is false. The experience of seeing The Woman in Black encompassed what it was like to experience the creation and perpetuation of a culture of submissive audience members.
Before even going into the theatre space itself, the lobby is filled with posters reminding audience members of the rules during the performance. The programs that are in the hands of the spectators who are chatting amongst themselves have a whole page dedicated to the conduct that
is deemed appropriate for the culture of theatre. Once seated, the director, Kelly Daniels welcomes us to the show reminding us that we are audience members about to see a show. The signs surrounding this expectation of submissive audience members are foregrounded as soon as we sit down. As the lights dim, a pre-recorded speech fills the room with the sound of procedures for being a proper audience member; turn off your cellphone, put your waste in the garbage, wait until intermission to use the washrooms. Elam explains the dynamic hierarchy of the performance structure as “a structure, that is, as a system of elements aesthetically realized and grouped in a complex hierarchy, where one of the elements predominates over the other” (16). What is dominating in this situation is the awareness that we are audience members and therefore should behave as audience members. This realization and reaction sequence begins with the sign systems in the lobby, the opening reminders and then as the show starts, with Arthur Kipps sitting in the audience as we are commenting on the dynamics of the audience. This foregrounding of reminding the audience of who we are and what we are expected to do leaves little to argue that we are reproducing and perpetuating preexisting expectations of a proper member of arts culture.
It can be assumed that even though audiences will be reminded of their role as an audience member before the show, once it is started you will be free to relax into a mode of suspended belief and enjoy the show as if invisible. This myth is shattered within this production as the audience space is used throughout the performance as part of the scene. This is shown in many ways. First, the space itself is cold (the side doors were left wide open) to feel like the cold space of the Eel Marsh House. There is fog hanging in the air over the audience for the entire performance which assists in setting the scene and making the audience feel like they are part of
the marsh. Through the use of transcodification “a given semantic unit” (in this case, the marsh) “is signified by the linguistic or gestural system rather than by the architectural or pictoral, as often occurs in mime” (Elam 15). Kipps runs through the audience when he is “running through the marsh” and he gestures out into the audience as if the marsh is really there. These sign systems are strengthened in a scene where the dog, Spider, gets sucked into the marsh and Kipps mimes reaching right into the audience to drag her out. These sign systems throughout the play remind the audience that they are in an audience setting (and are reminded to act like audience members in turn) and that they are active parts of the performance which keeps them from drifting into that “haze” of passive onlookers.
This paper can conclude from this analysis of the Lyndesfarne Theatre Company’s performance of The Woman in Black that the presence of ideological state apparatus’ of family and culture was prominent in both the content of the play and the play’s delivery of material. Myths were used as the basis in which to prove how sign systems were present during the performance that assisted in reinforcing the reality of these ISA’s in our modern day culture. Althusser supplies a series of hypothesis to clarify his understanding of ideology. This paper was successful in providing truth to the following four statements created by Althusser; “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence, ideology has a material existence, all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects and individuals are always-already subjects” (Felluga).
The idea that ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence was considered when analyzing how audience behavior has been pre-
determined by arts culture and this imaginary set of rules controls the conditions in which people interact with the performance space as compliant and respectful audience members. It can be declared from this paper that this myth that audience members act this way is in fact true. The brochures, the prerecorded reminders and posters about behavior alluded to this phenomenon but the behavior observed in the theatre was proof that this myth was true. This is also how Althussers statement that individuals are always-already subjects is true. We, as members within the arts culture, have been “groomed” for many years to act a certain way in an artistic cultural situation. We, as already made subjects, are subjects of this ideology of culture within the theatre and never individuals.
The ideology of family structure was demonstrated throughout the performance by analyzing the hierarchy of men over women, mother hood and the nuclear family structure. These myths were proven to be shown as true on stage with the woman in black resisting the myths by acting out. She was able to do this because she was dead and removed from the ideological structure of the family and the assumed position and behavior of a woman. Althusser’s statement that ideology has a material existence was very relevant to this performance as the physical sign systems that were shown on stage were the physical building blocks of the myths that supported the ISA of family structure. His last statement that all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects was shown as Arthur Kipps was being hailed constantly by the sign systems on stage. As the man in the equation it was important for the audience to see that he was being hailed (mostly by the woman in black) as the subject of these myths around family.
Through these four statements hypothesized by Althusser and the analysis of the myths throughout this paper, the presence and reinforcement of two ISA’s; family and culture, were proved to exist. Understanding why they exist, and why they seem to be reinforced as fact is interesting. Kelly Daniels, the director, may seem like the instigator in reinforcing these ISAs but it became clear through the analysis of why and how these ISAs have existed for the length that they have that ISAs exist for a larger reason than just to ensure a successful performance at the Seneca Theatre in Niagara Falls. With the knowledge of semiosis and theatrical sign systems, further analysis into other forms of theatre and performance in daily life will lead to a higher understanding of how society is constructed and behavior is perpetuated by these dominating and sometimes invisible ISAs.
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