A Victorian Thriller in Three Acts
|Written by||Patrick Hamilton|
|Date premiered||5 December 1938|
|Place premiered||Richmond Theatre, Richmond, London|
|Setting||On Angel Street, in the Pimlico district of London, 1880|
Gaslight was written during an dark period in Hamilton's life. Six years prior to the play Hamilton was hit by a drunk driver and dragged through the streets of London, leaving him with a limp, a paralyzed arm, and a disfigured face. Two years later, Hamilton's mother committed suicide.
The play closed after six months and 141 performances, but it has endured through an impressive list of incarnations most notably Five Chelsea Lane (1941 American play), Angel Street (1944 American play), and Gaslight (1958 Australian television play). Angel Street was a hit in its Broadway premiere, and it remains one of the longest-running non-musicals in Broadway history, with 1,295 total performances.
The play was adapted to the big screen as two films, both entitled Gas Light—a 1940 British film, and a 1944 American film directed by Orson Welles, also known as The Murder in Thornton Square in the UK. The 1944 film received seven nominations at the 17th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won two, Best Actress (for Bergman) and Best Production Design. In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The play is set in fog-bound London in 1880, at the upper middle class home of Jack Manningham and his wife Bella. It is late afternoon, a time that Hamilton notes as the time "before the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea."
Bella is clearly on edge, and the stern reproaches of her overbearing husband (who flirts with the servants in front of his wife) make matters worse. What most perturbs Bella is Jack's unexplained disappearances from the house: he will not tell her where he is going, and this increases her anxiety. It becomes clear that Jack is intent on convincing Bella that she is going insane, even to the point of assuring her she is imagining that the gas light in the house is dimming.
The appearance of a police detective called Rough leads Bella to realise that Jack is responsible for her torment. Rough explains that the apartment above was once occupied by one Alice Barlow, a wealthy woman who was murdered for her jewels. The murderer was never found.
Jack goes to the flat each night to search for the jewels, and lighting the apartment's gas lights causes the lights to dim in the rest of the building. His footsteps in the supposedly empty apartment persuade Bella that she is "hearing things". Rough convinces Bella to assist him in exposing Jack as the murderer, which she does, but not before she takes revenge on Jack by pretending to help him escape. At the last minute she reminds him that, having gone insane, she is not accountable for her actions. The play closes with Jack being led away by the police.
Gas Light premiered on 5 December 1938 at the Richmond Theatre in Richmond, London. It transferred to the Apollo Theatre on 1 January 1939, and to the Savoy Theatre on 22 May 1939. The cast featured Dennis Arundell (Mr. Manningham), Milton Rosmer (Mr. Rough), Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (Mrs. Manningham), Beatrice Rowe (Elizabeth) and Elizabeth Inglis (Nancy). The production closed 10 June 1939, after a total of 141 performances.
In the spring of 1941, Vincent Price and his wife, actress Edith Barrett, saw Gas Light performed in Los Angeles as a three-hander titled Five Chelsea Lane. They were impressed by the play and set about securing the rights for a Broadway production of their own. By fall, they had found a producer to underwrite the project, but Barrett abruptly withdrew to remain in Hollywood and work in films. In November 1941, Price returned to work on the New York stage. Judith Evelyn, the Canadian actress who played the role of Mrs. Manningham in Los Angeles, joined the Broadway production. The name of the play changed to Angel Street.
Angel Street premiered on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre on 5 December 1941, produced and directed by Shepard Traube. The cast featured Leo G. Carroll (Rough), Florence Edney (Elizabeth), Elizabeth Eustis (Nancy), Judith Evelyn (Mrs. Manningham) and Vincent Price (Mr. Manningham). Price left the play after a year, when his working relationship with Evelyn deteriorated into what she later described as "violent dislike". In December 1942, John Emery assumed the role of Mr. Manningham.
In a long profile headlined “The Triumph of Traube,“ published on 14 March 1943, The New York Times described some of the challenges faced by the production, including the untimely opening date, two days before Pearl Harbor: “On Dec. 5 the play opened, on Dec. 6 the rave reviews had sent a long line of pilgrims to the theatre box office, on Dec. 7 the play was forgotten under the impact of the Japanese attack. Angel Street wabbled momentarily then picked up its stride, which has hardly slackened since.” The play transferred to the Bijou Theatre on 2 October 1944, and closed on 30 December 1944, after 1,295 performances.
On 19 December 1941, The New York Times announced that Traube had cancelled a trip to the West Coast in order to form a touring company for Angel Street. The tour was to begin in Baltimore in February, with stops including Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Chicago, Illinois.
On Sunday, 15 March 1942, the touring company of Angel Street opened in Chicago to rave reviews. The New York Times reported an observation by Chicago critic Robert Pollak that "Not since Hellzapoppin had the crowd out front participated so heartily".
The play ran at New York City Center from 22 January 1948 to 1 February 1948 for 14 performances. Directed by Richard Barr, the cast featured José Ferrer (Mr. Manningham), Uta Hagen (Mrs. Manningham), Phyllis Hill (Nancy), Nan McFarland (Elizabeth), Ralph Roberts (Policeman), Victor Thorley (Policeman) and Richard Whorf (Rough).
On 19 August 1952, The New York Times announced that a new off-Broadway group, Hamilton-Bruder Productions (a partnership of Patrick Hamilton and Janet Bruders), was opening with a revival of Angel Street.
The play was revived on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, opening on 26 December 1975 and closing on 8 February 1976 after 52 performances and 4 previews. Also directed by Shepard Traube, the cast featured Michael Allinson (Mr. Manningham), Dina Merrill (Mrs. Manningham), Christine Andreas (Nancy), Bette Henritze (Elizabeth) and Robert E. Thompson (Rough).
The play was produced at The Old Vic, London in June 2007 under the title of Gaslight. Directed by Peter Gill, the cast featured Andrew Woodall as Mr. Manningham, Rosamund Pike as Mrs. Manningham and Kenneth Cranham as Rough.
The Irish Repertory Theatre produced the play Off-Broadway (as Gaslight) running from 17 May 2007 to 8 July 2007. The production was directed by Charlotte Moore and the cast featured David Staller (Mr. Manningham), Laura Odeh (Mrs. Manningham), Laoisa Sexton (Nancy), Patricia O'Connell (Elizabeth), April Ann Klein (Police Officer) and Brian Murray (Rough). Murray was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award as Outstanding Featured Actor. Staller was nominated for the Drama League's Distinguished Performance Award, and the production was nominated for the League's Distinguished Revival of a Play.
In 2019, Perth Theatre staged a production of "Gaslight" as part of their Winter/Spring season.
The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson opens his 6 December 1941 review with this observation: “Although Patrick Hamilton writes his thrillers within a small compass, he writes them with infinite craft and dexterity. Angel Street, which sent a chill up the spine of the Golden Theatre last evening, comes off the top part of the theatre's top shelf.” Atkinson praises Straube for matching “Hamilton’s skill in a tingling performance that fills the theater with an ominous and terrifying illusion” and commends all the actors, observing that Leo G. Carroll had his best role in years.
In his review of the 1948 City Center production, Louis Kronenberger wrote: "(It) remains one of the better thrillers ... let's call it one of the best. All the same, though it holds up nicely for three acts, it seems to me outstandingly good for only one."
Reviewing Traube's 1975 Broadway revival, Clive Barnes asked: “Whatever happened to the good, old‐fashioned melodrama? It probably drifted over to television and died. Just about 35 years ago...Patrick Hamilton's English thriller, Angel Street, opened on Broadway with resounding success. It was directed and produced by Shepard Traube. Last night, at the Lyceum Theater, Mr. Traube attempted an encore. It was not called for... The trouble with this play is not the trouble with this particular play—it is the trouble with this play as a particular. The theater cannot afford the luxury anymore of wilting heroines, villains making out as if they were Vincent Price (35 years ago it was Vincent Price!) or detectives detecting with the solidity of a basset hound... Nothing is quite clever enough in Angel Street, and the atmosphere is so rarefied that the play is artistically in dire need of oxygen.”
On 24 May 2007, in her review of the Irish Repertory Theatre revival, The New York Times' Ginia Bellafante observed that Gaslight "established the blueprint for a kind of domestic-peril thriller... Every time an actress..portrays the sort of wife who discovers that the greatest threat to her mental and physical safety is the man sitting in her breakfast nook, Mr. Hamilton’s estate ought to receive some type of remuneration....David Staller plays this undesirable husband as a man whose lust exempts nothing. Every time he appears onstage, you think: keep this person away from my babysitter and Rolex. Mr. Staller's rogue posture modulates his character's cruelty, leavening the play's potentially stifling mood. Mr. Hamilton believed our most dangerous enemies were always in the room with us ..., and his work can feel claustrophobic. Ms. Moore is aware of this, providing the proper ventilation to clear much of the Victorian must. Brian Murray, playing the detective who uncovers Manningham's plan, is her greatest asset in this regard. He appears onstage with the red cheeks of a Santa Claus, an ageing imp who hides out in nooks and corners, showing a benevolent sarcasm that teases Bella out of her dimwitted complacency".
- The 1940 British film Gaslight, directed by Thorold Dickinson.
- The 1944 American film of the same name, directed by George Cukor. It was released in Britain as The Murder in Thornton Square in order to avoid confusion with the earlier film.
- The cast of the original London production recreated their stage roles for a 1939 television presentation directed by Lanham Titchener and performed live on BBC Television.
- On 20 January 1946, NBC broadcast the complete play. The following Sunday, a long piece by New York Times critic Jack Gould examined the production and its implications for the future of television.
- A version was produced for Australian television in 1958.
- Polish television aired a live stage play on 28 September 1961, under the Polish title Gasnący płomień. This was a part of its ongoing series of televised stage plays under the name Cobra Theater (Kobra – Teatr Sensacji). It is the oldest episode of the Cobra Theatre series that is known to have survived in its entirety on tape.
The story was dramatized as a half-hour radio play on the 3 February 1947 broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater, starring Charles Boyer and Susan Hayward. A 1946 one-hour radio production on Lux Radio Theatre featured Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, stars of the 1944 film adaptation. A 2019 podcast adaptation starred Chloë Grace Moretz, though it was set in the modern day, and the plot was significantly modernized. It was sponsored by Talkspace.
Denominalization of the play's title
In 1965, twenty eight years after the stageplay was written, writers began denominalizing the film's title and using it as a verb; "gaslighting". Gaslighting, in this context, is a colloquialism that loosely means to manipulate a person or a group of people in a way similar to the way the protagonist in the play (Bella) was manipulated.
The term "gaslighting" does not appear in any of the stageplays or screenplays.
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- The New York Times blurb credits Pollak with writing for The Daily Times, i.e., The Chicago Sun Times.
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- Kronenberger, Louis. "Victorian Villainy at the City Center" fultonhistory.com, 25 January 1948
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- According to New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante, "Hamilton wrote Gaslight during an especially grim decade in an unhappy life, six years after he was struck by a drunken driver in an accident that left him permanently disfigured, and four years after his mother killed herself." https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/24/theater/reviews/24gasl.html
- Bellafante, Ginia. "Theater Review. 'Gaslight'" The New York Times, 24 May 2007
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