The Woman in Black Exam Revision
SPOILER ALERT ! This essay is to be used by those who are studying the play, or want to think about the work after having seen it. In discussing the drama, It does contain spoilers that may ruin the suspense for those who have not yet seen it.
The Woman in Black Revision Notes
Susan Hill’s novel ‘The Woman in Black‘ has inspired both a successful stage adaptation and now a blockbuster movie. The success of the tale is largely based on its simple nature, combined with the horror and Gothic elements that have the ability to scare and create suspense. Many students have to study either the play or the novel in school for a variety of different creative exams. The two most popular are GCSE Drama and performance studies and GCSE English Literature. The Woman In Black Revision Notes is designed to get you thinking about the play in relation to both of these exam specifications. Please note however that different exam boards require different levels of information. This guide is designed to be a generic accompaniment for a variety of different courses, and should be used alongside the play the stimulate relevant questions, either before seeing the play or after.
Background and Context
Looking at both the play and the novel it would be wise to first consider the context of the piece, in both the theatrical and wider literary context. Susan Hill’s novel was inspired by Henry James’s short story ‘The Turn of the Screw’ which she makes clear in her introduction. She aimed to write a short ghost story for which there would be no clear explanation, evoking the rules of classical ghost stories by having a humane figure appearing at regular intervals. Hill wanted to keep the gothic tradition firmly in mind throughout, which she achieves due to the setting and isolation of many of the key places, such as Eel Marsh House. In a literary context, elements of other Gothic novels such as ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ are evoked – both works written by the Bronte sisters in the mid Victorian period. Isolationism, especially within the countryside is a typical setting for a Gothic story, and Hill uses this to her advantage throughout most of her work. Rather than creating an epic novel along the lines of Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’, Hill stayed true to the novella form used by Henry James. The piece achieves recognition as a short story as the suspense is drip fed to the reader for maximum dramatic potential.
- Consider the time period of the play/novel. Would the piece be as effective if it were set in the modern day? What elements of the stage production let us know which period the play is set?
- Analyse where the action is set. Eel Marsh House is isolated. The theatre where The Actor meets Kipps is isolated. The causeway is isolated. How does the play maintain this sense of atmosphere with just two actors onstage?
- What other plays/novels does ‘The Woman in Black’ remind you of?
- What makes the play ‘Gothic’?
The style of the play in particular is an interesting area to consider. Many essays will ask you to analyse HOW the author creates tension rather than WHY so it is important to look at what methods are used throughout. Always analyse the methods used by the actors/author along with their effects, as this will show that you understand the conscious decisions behind every element. On stage ‘The Woman in Black’ is heavily stylised. This means that instead of appearing thoroughly realistic or naturalistic, the piece asks you to use your imagination to add certain elements to the drama. For example, rather than having a lot of actors playing each of the roles, Hill chooses to just use two actors who each play a number of different roles throughout. Characters are introduced and maintained through slight changes to costume, accent and posture, and it is always clear which character is being portrayed. Props and set are used in the same way; the trunk becomes the horse and cart for example, and the audience suspend their disbelief and imagine much of the surroundings. One of the most effective uses of this is with the dog, who does not exist in any form. Both actors effectively mime its presence, and the audience believes they can see it onstage.
Much of this style is created throughout the long opening scene where much of the story is set up. Hill uses META-THEATRE to create and sustain the show, which is a key factor of its style. Meta-theatre reflects the theatricality of the situation onto the audience, allowing them to be aware of the creation of drama within the piece. Arthur Kipps asks the Actor to put on the play by reading his memoirs and sharing his story at the beginning of the piece, making the audience aware that it is a piece being presented for the stage. What we then watch as an audience is two characters in a play putting on a performance for themselves, and so it is the performance aspect as well as the plot itself that we are examining. This convention takes a while to set up, and drifts in and out in the first Act. Once the story develops, we forget we are watching a ‘play-within-a-play’, until the end and the narrative form is concluded. This additional layer to the play (which isn’t present in the novel or the film) prepares an audience for the artificiality of what is to come, instructing us to use our imagination and leave our realistic eyes at the door. This style is of paramount importance to the theatricality of the piece as a whole, and is necessary for the theatrical effects to be achieved.
- Would the play be more effective with more actors portraying each of the parts? What do you think would be lost?
- How does the piece engage us using only two actors?
- What is meta-theatre and how is it used within the play?
- Does the initial ‘set up’ of Kipps and the Actor get in the way of the story? If you were adapting the novel for the stage, what would you do?
Once the play has set up the narrative frame, the ghost story plot begins to unravel. Sticking firmly within the conventions of the short ghost story, Hill drip feeds information to the audience, allowing suspense to be created. We discover each new piece of information at the same time as Kipps, so we feel part of the overall journey. Many more characters are spoken of than appear within the play, which is a feature of the short ghost story. Attention has to be payed to the names and locations mentioned in order to fully grasp the world that Kipps is entering into. Alice Drablow is one of the main protagonists, as it is her death that sends Kipps to Eel Marsh House in order to settle the estate. The Woman in Black features throughout the play in both spoken and physical form, and her appearance acts as an omen for the death of a child. The townspeople are ever present, although rarely make an appearance onstage, but their fascination with the legend helps build the dramatic tension throughout. Each of the characters in Crythin Gifford have a different story to tell that adds to the patchwork of information Kipps and the audience comes to know. His initial scepticism is continually challenged, until the end of the play where he himself falls victim to the curse.
- Highlight the significant plot details, and how each one is related to the audience.
- Which character(s) hold most of the information? How much is known by Mr Jerome, Keckwick and Mr Daily?
- Hot seat each of these characters and quiz them on particular plot points.
Within the GSCE drama syllabus, one of the most common questions to ask is how tension and suspense are created onstage. We have already looked at the style and form of the play in relation to how the story unfolds, so it is important to look at the specific elements of theatricality and effects used to create and maintain the atmosphere. The play is over 25 years old, and rather than using modern technology to create effects, the play remains simple and true to the original style. With audience members more accustomed to big-budget films which have many more tools at their disposal, the play is still able to create suspense in a live environment.
Lighting: Lighting plays a key part in creating suspense within the play. The use of Gobos project different locations onto the stage, such as Eel Marsh House, which moves the action effortlessly from one location to the next. The stage is always kept at a minimum level of darkness, so the whole playing space is never fully visible. Lighting then controls what can and can’t be seen by the audience, so quick reveals and vanishes can be used for The Woman in Black throughout the action. The use of tight spotlights focus the audience on particular objects, such as the rocking chair or door handle, and the audience become aware that something is about to happen. The frequent use of blackouts again controls the suspense, as at times nothing at all can be seen onstage directly after a moment of heightened drama. Coloured lighting is rarely used within the play, creating a realistic atmosphere for each location.
Sound effects: Horror relies a lot on things that go bump in the night, and this play is no different. Loud noises and screams happen frequently, often as if from nowhere. Although this tends to instill nervous laughter in many audience members, the sudden loud noises enhance the experience for both the characters and audience. Slamming doors is a repeated theme, along with the sound of the rocking chair. The director uses the sound to build up throughout a scene, getting louder towards a climax. In most cases, the audience are aware that the sound has something to do with the Woman, and as Kipps begins to follow it the source of the sound is slowly revealed. Echoes and reverb makes the sound louder than natural, echoing around the theatre to create effect. The sound leads much of the action, and is used to create different atmospheres, such as the village pub or the horse and cart. Sound is used to both scare and create atmosphere, adding to the overall effectiveness of the play.
Set: The set is surprisingly simple, and as already discussed, uses small items to play a variety of different things. The house set is only revealed halfway through the play, as Kipps begins to explore Eel Marsh House. The use of a scrim or gauze is prevalent to this effect, as it allows the set to vanish and appear when necessary. Made of a light translucent material, this curtain hangs in front of the set, making whatever is behind it only visible when light is brought up behind it. When light shines on the front of the curtain, anything behind it cannot be seen. This is used to great effect to reveal the staircase and nursery scenes quickly and efficiently, appearing as if from nowhere.
Surprise: Many surprising elements keep the audience on the edge of its seat, never allowing them to relax. The Woman in Black appears regularly as if from nowhere, at different areas of the stage. The actors regularly break the ‘fourth wall’ and enter the auditorium, taking the action directly out to the audience. In doing so, the audience immediately feel part of the action, and feel constantly aware that someone may be behind them. The Woman never appears slowly, it is always in a flash, creating a ‘blink and you miss it’ effect, which the audience wants to be apart of. Just as the secret is only revealed towards the end, the surprises continue right until the final scene, maintaining suspense and interaction.
- How do the production elements come together to create suspense and drama?
- Which element, if any, is the most important?
- If you were directing the play, what more could be done to make it feel scarier?
For information on the Movie version of The Woman in Black, click here to be taken to the official website.