The Woman in Black (play)

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The Woman in Black (play)
Written by Susan Hill
Stephen Mallatratt (adaptation)
Date premiered 1987 (Scarborough)
1989 (London)
Genre Horror story, ghost story
Setting Eastern Britain

The Woman in Black is a 1987 stage play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt. The play is based on the book of the same name, which was written in 1983 by Susan Hill. It is notable for only having two actors perform the whole play. It was first performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, in 1987. The production opened in London's West End in 1989 and is still being performed there, becoming the second longest-running non-musical play in the history of the West End, after The Mousetrap.[1]

Book synopsis[edit]

The book follows the story of Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, as he journeys to the small market town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs Alice Drablow. At the funeral, he sees a young woman with a wasted face, dressed all in black, standing in the churchyard.

Bemused by the villagers' reluctance to speak of the woman in black, Arthur goes to Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow's former abode, an old building in the middle of a marsh, cut off at high tide. Sorting through Mrs Drablow's papers, he finds a box of letters, and ultimately discovers the dreadful secret of the Woman in Black – to his own terrible cost.

Plot summary[edit]

The plot remains faithful to Hill's book, but adds an extra dimension of a play within a play.

Act I[edit]

The play opens in an empty Victorian theatre, with an old Arthur Kipps reading from a manuscript of his story. A young actor, whom he hired to help him, enters and berates him for his poor delivery. After a much heated debate, they decide to perform the story, with the Actor playing a younger Kipps, and Kipps himself playing all the other characters he met, as well as narrating the play. When they run through the play, however, things begin to go terribly wrong...

Kipps (played by the Actor) learns of the death of an elderly and reclusive widow Mrs. Drablow, and travels up to Crythin Gifford to sort through her private papers. On the train, he meets a local landowner, Mr. Samuel Daily (played, like the other characters, by the real Arthur Kipps), who tells him a little about Mrs. Drablow. Upon their arrival at Crythin, Mr. Daily drops Arthur off at the local inn, where he is to stay the night.

The next morning, Arthur meets with a local man enlisted to help him with the business, Mr. Horatio Jerome. They go to Mrs. Drablow's funeral together, where Arthur first sees the woman in black. At first feeling sorry for the young woman, who was apparently suffering from some dreadful wasting disease, he asks Mr. Jerome who she was. Mr. Jerome suddenly turns pale and, terrified, hurries Arthur away from the church, saying there has been no woman there.

Upon their return to the inn, Mr. Jerome seems to have recovered, and says that a local man would arrive presently to escort Arthur to Mrs. Drablow's house.

The local man, a villager named Keckwick, arrives a few moments later, driving, much to Arthur's delight, an old-fashioned pony and trap. Keckwick drives Arthur out to the house, and Arthur stays for the day, sorting through Mrs. Drablow's papers, and amazed to find out how many there are. He also finds an old cemetery outside the house, where he again encounters the Woman in Black. Later that day, a thick fog settles on the marsh, cutting Arthur off from the mainland. (This effect was achieved using theatrical fog.) He decides to try to walk back across the causeway, and sets off into the fog. Only a few yards onto the causeway, however, Arthur realises that he is lost, and is forced to retrace his steps back to Eel Marsh House. Before he gets there, however, he hears the sound of a pony and trap on the causeway. Assuming that it is Keckwick coming after all, he goes back into the fog. However, it soon becomes apparent that the pony and trap is in trouble, as he hears it drive out onto the marsh. Helpless, Arthur listens as the pony and trap gets stuck in the quicksand, and all its occupants, including a young child, are drowned. Arthur returns to the house in a state of shock. Whilst he is exploring the house, he discovers a locked door, which, due to his state of heightened emotion, causes him some distress when he is unable to open it. He is further amazed when Keckwick returns a few hours later.

Act I ends with a monologue from Arthur, who says that he is sure, although he does not know how, that the sound he heard was not Keckwick, nor any living thing, but that he has encountered things that are dead.

Act II[edit]

Back in Crythin Gifford, Arthur seeks the help of Mr. Jerome, and asks if he would accompany him back to Eel Marsh House or send him someone to help. Mr. Jerome becomes once again profoundly terrified, and practically throws Arthur out of his office, saying nobody in the village would accompany him to the house. Arthur later meets Sam Daily, and tells him of his day at Eel Marsh House. Sam, concerned, invites Arthur to his house, where he gives Arthur his dog, Spider, as a companion. (The "dog" is, like many other things in the play, imaginary.)

Returning to Eel Marsh House, Arthur finds what is inside a locked room, a child's nursery, abandoned but in perfect condition. Later that night, he hears a knocking sound in the nursery and he and the dog, Spider, go up to find out what it is. Inside the nursery, which has now been ransacked, and in one of the play's most iconic scenes, Arthur sees an empty rocking chair, rocking back and forth as if somebody had just left it, although nobody passed him. In his nervous fear, Arthur returns to his bedroom.

The next day, Arthur finds a correspondence from almost sixty years ago, between Mrs. Drablow and a mysterious woman who is apparently her sister, which tells of tragic events. The woman, named as Jennet Humfrye, was unmarried and with child, and as such was sent away by her family. A son was born to her in Scotland, but pressure was immediately exerted on her to give him up for adoption. At first refusing vehemently saying she would die first, Jennet ultimately gives in and sends the child into the care of Mrs. Drablow and her husband.

However, Jennet, unable to bear being parted from her son, returns to Crythin Gifford after a time, and stays with her sister. She is allowed to see her son, provided that she never reveals her true relationship to him. The child, however, becomes more and more attached to the woman who, although he doesn't know it, is his mother. Jennet plans to run away with him, but before she can manage it, a tragic event occurs.

The child goes out onto the marsh one day with his nursemaid and dog, riding a pony and trap. A fog suddenly descends upon the marsh, and, lost in the thick mist, they ride out blindly onto the marsh. Getting stuck in the quicksand, the child, the nursemaid and their driver (Keckwick's father) are all drowned. Jennet, driven mad by her grief, contracts a terrible wasting disease, and several years later, dies. Immediately after her death, however, she returns as the Woman in Black.

Having found out about the Woman, Arthur suddenly becomes subject to a series of terrifying events in Eel Marsh House, and eventually, collapses on the marsh when trying to rescue Spider, to be found and taken back to Crythin by Sam Daily, who assures him that Spider is all right. He tells Arthur the story of the Woman, and that many of the people he has met during his journey (Jerome, Keckwick and Daily himself) have all lost a child after seeing her.

Kipps, assuming his experience to be over, returns to London and marries his fiancee, Stella. Out at a country fair one day, Stella and their baby son Joseph go for a ride on a pony and trap. Arthur, waiting at the stall, looks around to see the Woman in Black. The Woman jumps out in front of the pony and trap that Stella and Joseph are riding, and the pony careers out of control, crashing into a tree and killing Joseph, and, ultimately, Stella too. (This scene is done entirely with recorded sound and narration.)

Having come to the end of their rehearsal, Kipps and the Actor, out of character, sit down to rest. Kipps wonders if performing the play to his family will exorcise his ghost.

A twist is added at the end of the play when the Actor asks Kipps who the actress playing the Woman was. Kipps, suddenly turning pale, looks at the Actor in horror. Mirroring the scene with Mr. Jerome, Kipps says, terrified, "I did not see a young woman", implying that the Woman in Black had really been in the theatre, and that she had returned because Kipps was meddling in her affairs once again. The play ends with the rhythmic knocking of the rocking chair as the lights fade to a blackout, with a lingering image of the Woman in Black's face visible behind the gauze for a few seconds.

Production history[edit]

The play premiered in 1987 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough as a "Christmas ghost story".[2]

The play opened in the West End at the Lyric Hammersmith in January 1989,[3] then moved to the Strand Theatre in February 1989[4] and subsequently transferred to the Playhouse in April 1989 and finally the Fortune Theatre in August 1989.[5][6] [7] Direction was by Robin Herford, the Set Designer was Michael Holt and the Lighting Designer was Kevin Sleep. The original London cast (1989) was Charles Kay as Arthur Kipps and John Duttine as The Actor.[3] The current cast includes Crawford Logan as Arthur Kipps, Tim Delap as The Actor, Stuart Sessions as Understudy: Arthur Kipps, and Andrew Kinsler as Understudy: The Actor.


The play is currently used as a live theatre performance in the GCSE and IGCSE Drama curriculums and as a basis for comparative essays and sometimes theatre reviews. It can also be seen as helpful to GCSE/IGCSE English Literature students, as one of the set texts a student can choose to study is The Woman in Black.


  1. ^ Top 10 Longest-Running London Theatre Shows Retrieved 19 February 2012
  2. ^ Wiegand, Chris. "'The Woman in Black' and other West End haunts" The Guardian, 11 June 2009
  3. ^ a b Wardle, Irving. "Imaginative and hideously real trap; Review of 'The Woman in Black' at the Lyric, Hammersmith". The Times (London), 19 January 1989, Issue 63295
  4. ^ Church, Michael. "Theatre. 'The Woman In Black' - Strand." The Independent, 22 February 1989, p.28
  5. ^ (no author). "'Woman in Black' Celebrates 10th Anniversary"., 7 June 1999
  6. ^ Dalglish, Darren. "'The Woman in Black'"., 29 January 2002
  7. ^ Bosanquet, Theo. "'Woman in Black' Embarks on Tenth Tour in 2010"., 23 December 2009

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