By Tony Adler
Henry James was born in 1843, the year Charles Dickens published one of the more successful ghost stories this side of Hamlet: A Christmas Carol. By the time James came up with a ghost story of his own, 55 years later, Dickens's assumptions about the genre no longer seemed tenable, so James gave them a significant twist.
Basically, what James did in The Turn of the Screw was make wonders cease. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens insists on the supernatural reality of his apparition; when Ebenezer Scrooge dares to doubt that reality (“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”), the ghost harrowingly sets him straight. But doubt is the whole point of The Turn of the Screw. An unnamed young woman, a parson's sheltered daughter, accepts a position as governess at an English country estate called Bly House. Almost as soon as she arrives she starts seeing dead people. Not just any dead people, either, but the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her evil/sexy lover, Peter Quint. The new governess is convinced that her charges—lovely little Flora and her rather more mysterious ten-year-old brother, Miles—are locked in unholy communion with Jessel and Quint. But are they? Or is it all a product of her increasingly wild imaginings?
In between A Christmas Carol and The Turn of the Screw, of course, hangs the development of psychology—pioneered in America by none other than Henry James's big brother, William. Where Marley's ghost is purely and unambiguously a spirit at work in the material world, the ghosts of Jessel and Quint may be the fantasies of a hysteric. We don't know. We can't see what the governess sees or get independent verification of it. Suddenly reality's been relocated to some inaccessible spot behind her eyes.
This is a big deal for literature as well as for science. You can blame Derrida and a lot more on the governess of Bly House. James's novella is a masterpiece of insinuation. Told mostly by the governess herself (in a written memoir), it constantly plays with point of view, dancing around the question to which you find yourself desperately wanting an answer: What's going on here, really?
Jeffrey Hatcher's 1997 stage adaptation is a smart but, perhaps necessarily, blunter instrument. Uncertain of holding our interest with Jamesian formal experiments alone—after all, we've had more than a century to get used to psychology—Hatcher exploits the erotic subtext that James was content to treat as, well, subtext. Miles in particular is sexualized: he has (the governess says) behavior problems that are linked (the governess supposes) to his having witnessed intimacies between Jessel and Quint—to his having been, in fact, Quint's protege in depravity. Hatcher takes these suppositions a grotesque step further, introducing the notion that Jessel and Quint want nothing less than to take over the children's bodies so that they can resume their physical relationship by proxy.
Bizarrely, sadly, it's this last bit of overkill that connects the story to our present moment. From priestly pedophilia to chat room liaisons to this year's Halloween controversy over preadolescents dressing up like Britney Spears, what's more 21st-century than fetishizing children?
If Hatcher's content gets coarse, though, his telling stays wonderfully smooth—especially in this Writers' Theatre production, directed for maximum momentum and creepiness by Jessica Thebus. The play is performed by just two actors: a Woman, who plays the stressed-out governess, and a Man, who's responsible for everyone else, including Miles, the governess's increasingly weirded-out colleague, Mrs. Grose, and the absent, enigmatic lord of Bly House, whose primary instruction to the governess is that she never, ever, under any circumstances bother him. (In a gesture both clever and kind, Hatcher spares us the embarrassment of watching the Man attempt to impersonate little Flora: we're given to understand that the child's been struck dumb by her traumas, even though she's perfectly normal—linguistically, anyway—in the novella.)
Hatcher's two-actor conceit not only intensifies the mystery of what is and isn't real, it also provides an opportunity for 90 minutes' worth of bravura performance. Attractive in an open-faced, pink-skinned, corn-fed way, Kymberly Mellen maintains the delicate balance required to keep her audience off balance, giving us a governess whose enthusiasm, courage, apparently boundless love, and stalwart dedication to duty may be either admirable traits or manifestations of pathology. LaShawn Banks, meanwhile, is quietly astounding as everybody else—but especially as Miles, whose somewhat sullen gravity may be taken to suggest either a boy's shy attempt to seem older than he is or a manipulative knowingness beyond his years. When he gives the governess a certain kiss, you're like to die of the ambiguity.
Thebus and her collaborators pack a tremendous amount of suggestion onto the Writers' Theatre's tiny second stage. In particular sound designer Andre Pluess generates a powerful uncanniness by means of his simple, vivid use of rain. The production serves the horror of its ghost story but doesn't stop there: it also opens out into the greater, much more unsettling horror of its psychological mystery.