The Women in Black
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.
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, which is cut off from the mainland 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.
The plot remains faithful to Hill’s book, but adds an extra dimension of a play within a play.
The play opens in an empty Victorian theatre, where an old Arthur Kipps is reading aloud from a manuscript of his story. A young actor whom he hired to help dramatise the story, enters and criticises him for his poor delivery. After an argument, they agree to perform the story, with the Actor playing a younger Kipps, and Kipps himself playing all the other characters and narrating the play. When they run through the play, however, things begin to go terribly wrong.
Young Kipps learns of the death of the elderly and reclusive widow Mrs Drablow. He travels to Crythin Gifford to sort through her private papers. On the train, he meets a local landowner, Mr Samuel Daily, who tells him a little about Mrs Drablow. Upon their arrival at Crythin, Mr Daily drops off Arthur at the local inn where he is to stay the night.
The next morning, young Arthur meets with a local man enlisted to help him, 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 is. Mr Jerome is visibly terrified and hurries Arthur away from the church, insisting that there was no woman.
After their return to the inn, Mr Jerome recovers somewhat, and says that a local man will arrive presently to escort Arthur to Mrs Drablow’s house.
The local man, a villager named Keckwick, arrives a few moments later. To Arthur’s delight, Keckwick drives Arthur in an old-fashioned pony and trap out to the house. Arthur spends the day sorting through Mrs Drablow’s papers, and is 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. He tries to return across the causeway on foot in the fog, but quickly becomes lost and is forced to retrace his steps to Eel Marsh House. Before he gets there, he hears the sound of a pony and trap on the causeway. Assuming that it is Keckwick returning, he turns back into the fog. It soon becomes apparent that the pony and trap are in trouble, and he hears it drive off the causeway onto the marsh. Arthur listens helplessly as the pony and trap get stuck in the mire and 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. Due to his emotional state, he becomes distressed when he is unable to open it. He is surprised when Keckwick returns a few hours later.
Act I ends with a monologue from old Arthur in which he explains that he is sure, although he does not know how, that the sounds he heard were from neither Keckwick nor any living thing, but from things that are dead.
Arthur seeks the help of Mr Jerome, either to accompany him back to Eel Marsh House or to send him someone else to help. Mr Jerome becomes profoundly terrified, and insists that nobody in the village would willingly accompany him to the house. Arthur later meets Sam Daily and tells him of his experiences. Sam is concerned and invites Arthur to his house, where he gives Arthur his dog, Spider, as a companion. (The dog, though real within the plot, is imaginary and is not portrayed by either actor.)
Returning to Eel Marsh House, Arthur finds that the locked room is a child’s nursery, abandoned but in perfect condition. Later that night, he hears a knocking sound in the nursery. He and Spider investigate. The nursery has 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. Arthur fearfully returns to his bedroom.
The next day Arthur finds correspondence from almost sixty years ago, between Mrs Drablow and a mysterious woman who is apparently her sister. The woman, Jennet Humfrye, unmarried and with child, was sent away by her family. A son was born to her in Scotland, and her family immediately pressured her to give him up for adoption. Despite her strong resistance, Jennet ultimately relented and gave the child to Mrs Drablow and her husband.
Unable to bear being parted from her son, Jennet returned to Crythin Gifford after a time and stayed with her sister. She was allowed to see her son provided that she never reveal her true relationship to him. The child became attached to Jennet. She planned to run away with him, but before she could manage it, a tragic event occurred.
The child, his nursemaid, and his dog went out onto the marsh one day in a pony and trap driven by Keckwick’s father. A fog suddenly descended upon the marsh and they became lost. Riding blindly, they became stuck in the quicksand, and all were drowned. Jennet, driven mad by grief, contracted a terrible wasting disease and died several years later. Immediately after her death, she returned as the Woman in Black.
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. He is 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 explains that many of the local people he has met (Jerome, Keckwick and Daily himself) have all lost a child after seeing her.
Kipps returns to London and marries his fiancée, Stella. At a country fair, Stella and their infant son Joseph go for a ride on a pony and trap. Arthur sees the Woman in Black. The Woman jumps out in front of the pony. The pony careers and crashes into a tree, killing Joseph and Stella. (This scene is depicted through recorded sound and narration.)
Having come to the end of their rehearsal, Kipps and the Actor sit down to rest. Kipps wonders if performing the play for his family will exorcise the Woman in Black.
A twist is added at the end of the play; the Actor asks Kipps about the actress playing the Woman in Black. Mirroring the earlier scene with Mr Jerome, Kipps, terrified, denies that anyone else had been in the theatre, implying that the real Woman in Black had been present. The play ends with the rhythmic knocking of the rocking chair as the lights fade to black. An image of the face of the Woman in Black lingers behind the gauze for a few seconds.
The play premiered in 1987 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough as a “Christmas ghost story”.
The play opened in the West End at the Lyric Hammersmith in January 1989, then moved to the Strand Theatre in February 1989 and subsequently transferred to the Playhouse in April 1989 and finally the Fortune Theatre in August 1989. 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. In publicity literature, the actress in the title role is surreptitiously listed as ‘Vision’. 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.
- Top 10 Longest-Running London Theatre Shows Londonist.com. Retrieved 19 February 2012
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- 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
- Church, Michael. “Theatre. ‘The Woman In Black’ – Strand.” The Independent, 22 February 1989, p.28
- (no author). “‘Woman in Black’ Celebrates 10th Anniversary”. whatsonstage.com, 7 June 1999
- Dalglish, Darren. “‘The Woman in Black’”. londontheatre.co.uk, 29 January 2002
- Bosanquet, Theo. “‘Woman in Black’ Embarks on Tenth Tour in 2010”. whatsonstage.com, 23 December 2009