From the works of Edgar Allan Poe to Hollywood's The Fly, classic American ghost stories indulge our fascination with the decay of the body. They're overrun with maggoty cadavers, telltale hearts, and monsters that stalk us through dark alleys, graphic reflections of our fear of inexorable death. European tales, on the other hand, trade on the notion that tiny suggestions of terror can go a long way. Leave it to Henry James -- the ultimate American abroad -- to connect the two traditions with a sophisticated story about spirits that haunt the emotional terrain of a troubled protagonist.
In fact leave it to James, the prolific 19th-century novelist and brother of William James, founder of modern psychology, to create a tale, The Turn of the Screw, so strewn with fantastical imagery and convoluted states of mind that we're left scratching our heads and wondering, "Just what is a ghost, anyway?"
Ambiguity pervades James' most popular novella, a story that ultimately is less about ethereal visions and more about the power of the mind to create its own reality. For that reason The Turn of the Screw remains, a century after its 1898 publication, one of the scariest books ever written.
No ectoplasm (or its theatrical equivalent) puts in an appearance on stage in Jeffrey Hatcher's flawed adaptation, now getting a better production than it deserves at Coral Gables' New Theatre under the direction of Rafael de Acha. Actually, ghosts aren't the only things without corporeal presence here. The show features only two actors, yet there are a half-dozen characters in the story.
The talented Lisa Morgan (in good form here) plays the unnamed governess hired at the story's outset by a bachelor to care for his orphaned niece and nephew at Bly, his remote English estate, while he conducts business elsewhere.
Heath Kelts (a whirlwind of versatility) plays the bachelor uncle as well as the narrator who sets up the story, the female housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and ten-year-old Miles, the elder of the governess' two charges. That's no easy task, of course, and the great fun to be had from this production is watching Kelts change roles without changing costumes, transforming himself from the housekeeper, a stooped older woman who scurries around like an animated Disney character, to the impetuous Miles, a youngster who seems to be growing out of his clothes as we watch.
This chamber-size adaptation invites us to imagine more than is really there, an illusion of which James would surely have approved. For example, we are asked to "see" Flora, Miles' younger sister, when she "appears" in scenes as others talk to or about her. (The author, who died in 1916, must be turning the screws in his own coffin, however, upon hearing Hatcher's dialogue, some of it cobbled together from the novella but great portions of it invented in such a way as to undermine the intention of the story.)
The two-actor structure, in which the governess is always alone at the big estate, or with just one other person, emphasizes the emotional isolation that makes her vulnerable to the apparitions that begin to appear as soon as she arrives at Bly. Her solitary state -- she has no social equal amid the household of children and lesser servants -- is cemented by the promise she has made to her employer never to contact him. (Stephen King's The Shining is a watered-down version of this tale about a person who encounters ghosts after experiencing extremes of loneliness.)
The New Theatre's black-box performance space, designed for this production by de Acha himself, is hung with funeral crepe. A wooden platform, set underneath a candle-lit chandelier, serves as the rooms of the estate, while the grounds are suggested by a vacant area to the side. Smaller spaces, such as the governess' writing desk, are implied by a single upholstered chair off to the other side, behind which fall the shadows of casement windows.
Morgan and Kelts, outfitted in green velvet and butler's black, respectively, follow de Acha's blocking so deftly that their movements are not only choreographed down to the tiniest flourish, they actually anticipate the play's most identifiable themes. For example, no one who watches the governess and the bachelor uncle interlace their hands in the manner of bride and groom after settling the terms of their business deal will miss the implication.
As James fans will recall, the governess, having been given only sketchy details about the demise of Miss Jessel, the woman who preceded her in her position, allows the shadows and sounds in the strange mansion to assume the identity of Jessel and Peter Quint, the valet who seduced Jessel and possibly corrupted the children before he also died under mysterious circumstances. (If we are to believe Hatcher, Quint tainted Miles and Flora by exposing them in some fashion to adult sexuality.) Eventually the governess comes to believe that the ghosts have returned for the souls of the children, and she begins to see herself as their only hope for salvation.
Do Jessel and Quint actually exist? If they don't, then what is the meaning of their power over the governess? Through clunky double-entendres and a series of sexually suggestive riddles he has the characters ask each other, Hatcher practically tells us outright that the ghosts are manifestations of the governess' repressed sexuality. The clumsiness of this revelation is bad enough; worse is Hatcher's decision to single out repressed sexuality as the play's principal theme. In James' book it is only one of several subtle threads weaving through the story.
Subtext aside, Hatcher appears to have little sense of how to build a story of psychological terror on stage. (If you think the novella's stream-of-consciousness technique curtails the story's dramatic possibilities, let me give you a nudge in the direction of The Innocents, the 1961 movie based on The Turn of the Screw, which is downright chilling.) One way not to do it is to telescope several months of action into a mere week. Another is to ignore James' genius for artful evasion of the obvious.
In The Turn of the Screw, for instance, James employed a handful of literary tricks in order to avoid explicitly articulating the story's underlying meanings, sleights of hand that engage our minds as well as our emotions. The most deft of these was his decision to narrate the story from the point of view of a character twice removed from the action, a man who met the governess some years after the events had occurred and who recounts the story from her letters.
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As readers our imaginations can fill in what James intentionally left out. But as viewers we need more information in order to draw conclusions about what is really going on. Is the governess someone whose perceptions we can trust? Do the ghosts exist in her mind or in the dark shadows of the mansion? And given a choice between ghosts in the head or ghosts in the hallway, which is truly scarier? Rather than subtly guiding us, however, Hatcher's adaptation grabs hold of the story's psychosexual motifs and shoves them in our faces.
What he doesn't put before us is the variety of clues that James provides about the governess' state of mind. Yes, she is alone in a strange house in which two people have recently died, and her feelings for her employer certainly include elements of romance and sexual desire. As written by James, however, The Turn of the Screw is something more complex and emotionally compelling than a melodrama or a mere ghost story. The book is a close reading of one person's troubled psyche, with profound implications for the rest of us.
While the thoughtful New Theatre production has considerable power to hold a spell over us, in the end the play reduces James' masterpiece to something much smaller and less consequential than it ought to be.
The Turn of the Screw.
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novella by Henry James. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring Heath Kelts and Lisa Morgan. Through November 15. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.