The Dark and Foggy Ghost Story That Goes Woof-Woof in the Night

There was something in the air that fateful night, most gentle reader, something heavily, horribly muggy, as if the impossibly stifling atmosphere of the seething metropolis had filled me with the haunting, strange foreboding of a wild furred beast at my back, when at nigh on 8 o’clock I made my lonely, ever-hopeful way to the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village to peruse a Victorian ghost story from across the foggy, swamp-like waters of England entitled The Woman in Black whose pleasures, I must confess with all reluctance, passed me by, whose essential, eternal ghostliness, if I may say so, fell, alas, like a lead balloon, but which nevertheless–and here, most patient sir or madam, is the miracle that brought me to such a state of excited emotion that I must share it with you at all cost–which nevertheless contained within the ghostly hackery of its wretched drama the root and heart of all theater and indeed the very reason for the existence and the glory of theater itself.

And by now, dearest incredulous reader, I can only imagine what you are thinking. You are thinking, “What a long and clumsy and boring sentence that was–and he so full of pith, too.” Yeth thiree! But it’s how the leaden Victorian-speak of The Woman in Black sounds across the sea of time, and this fog don’t help.

“This fog don’t help,” says Tomes, the clerk, who’s a bit of a character, sniffing loudly as Kipps, the wide-eyed solicitor from the bespoke London firm of Bentley, Haigh, Sweetman and Bentley, looks up from his desk to address the audience. “The thickest of London pea-soupers,” Kipps confirms. “A yellow fog. A filthy, evil-smelling fog pressing against the window like a furred beast at my back ….”

Listen to Kipps later on in the play as he searches restlessly for the source of the mysterious howling in the remote haunted house with “every door open, every room orderly, dusty, bitterly cold and damp yet also somehow stifling.” He’s just seen a black-robed ghost in a graveyard “scoured pale by the salt wind, stained by years of driving rain.” The black-robed one is the Woman in Black. “That the woman by the graves had been ghostly I now–not believed, no knew , for certainty lay deep within me,” Kipps recalls at nigh on two in the foggy morn. “And I began to suspect that the pony and trap, the pony and trap with the child who had cried out so terrible and which had been sucked into the quicksands, they too had not been real, not there, present, substantial, but ghostly also. What I had heard, I had heard as clearly as I now heard the roll of the cart and the drumming of the pony’s hooves, and what I had seen–the woman with the pale, wasted face, by the grave of Mrs. Drablow and again in the old burial ground–I had seen. I would have sworn that on oath. Yet, they had been, in some sense I did not understand, unreal, ghostly; things that were dead.”

Still with us?

My goodness, it’s testing enough just reading this stuff. What must it be like to perform? Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that only two actors are required. The fine, veteran actor Keith Baxter plays Arthur Kipps with the gravity of King Lear, as well as impersonating a number of stock characters, such as the clerk, the landlord and the pony-and-trap man, all of whom Mr. Baxter seems content to portray with no discernible differences save a ginger wig. The talented Jared Reed is the young fellow and actor who invites Kipps to exorcise his demons by acting out his ghostly nightmare in a theater. Do not ask why Kipps agrees to do this. No appearance, no play. (Also, no fog, no thriller.)

But the real actor acts Kipps, and Kipps plays an amateur actor learning to be a real actor. It adds to the theatricality, I guess. Kipps also plays himself from time to time. So we have two Kippses. But not always. It depends how it’s going. And none of this would matter one jot if The Woman in Black scared us witless. There’s only one golden rule of Gothic ghost stories. A ghost story has gotta be scary. One must be afraid. This antique drama for two is like the Fat Boy in The Pickwick Papers saying, “I wants to make your flesh creep.” But despite the usual ear-splitting thunderclaps, the shrieking cries in the night, the monstrous haunted graveyard, the spooky, deserted mansion by the misty marsh–the fog –our flesh just refuses to creep, though it’s willing.

Yet The Woman in Black , which has been adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, is now in its 13th year at the Fortune Theatre in the West End. Mexicans love it, too. It’s in its eighth glorious year in Mexico. In fact, it has been performed in 41 countries at the last count. So what do I know? I didn’t even know there were 41 countries. I thought there were about seven. Maybe eight, tops.

“Whether it will work in New York, I just don’t know,” Susan Hill told The Times from her home in the Cotswolds. “New York is so sophisticated, and people there may feel the play is not sophisticated enough. Maybe they’ll just sneer.”

It’s a wee bit defensive, yes? But it’s less a question of sophistication, more one of a tired old creaky genre that died a lingering death about 30 years ago with Sleuth (which Keith Baxter appeared in on Broadway). I remember taking my godson, then age 9, to see it in the West End for a birthday treat, and after 20 minutes he cried out delightedly for everyone, including the stunned cast, to hear: “Got it!” He’d solved the mystery, and he wasn’t sophisticated.

Today the old-fashioned thriller, ghost story or country-house murder lingers on in the West End like a foggy nostalgia for a sentimentalized, lost Eden. For all seems well there, and innocent. And at intermission, you can still get tea in a real pot on a tray with chocky bickies. One still goes to the theater for tea, as it were–for the known, for the comforting.

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap , now in its thousandth year in the West End, is a special case. The renowned country-house mystery–the granddaddy of them all–is essentially about a homosexual coven. As Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright shrewdly point out in their new book on the modern history of British theater, Changing Stages, all the murder suspects consist of an “arty” young man who’s really a hysterical queen in a stripy sweater; a young dyke in a man’s suit; an old dyke in mannish sensible shoes, with a deep voice and hearty strides; a dubious army major (on loan from Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables ); and a camp foreigner dressed like Noël Coward in rouge makeup.

To be gay is therefore to be suspect. However, I see no such undertones in The Woman in Black in the relationship between the older man (Kipps) and the younger man (also Kipps), though clearly there’s a narcissistic connection. I boldly claimed at the outset that the play nevertheless goes unexpectedly to the root and heart of all great theater, and here’s why.

“There are so many things we cannot represent,” says the old man, learning the ways of acting. “How do we represent the dog, the sea, the causeway? How the pony and trap?”

“With imagination, Mr. Kipps,” the young man replies. “Ours and our audience’s.”

Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.

Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth.

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings …

(Prologue, Henry V )

The theoretical premise to The Woman in Black is therefore Shakespearean, the appeal to the power of imagination paramount. But, alas, it wasn’t to be. The “proud hoofs” of its pony and trap are conveyed via prerecorded clippety-clops and cracking of whips. Nothing, in fact, is left to the imagination. There’s an invisible dog, curiously named Spider, though the dog is sweetly companionable–more a Spot than a Spider. But Spider is given a soundtrack, which goes, “Woof.” Or “Woof-woof.” Or “Woof-woof-woof.”

“Who is it, Spider?” the troubled Kipps calls out on the misty marshlands.

“Woof-woof.”

“Who is it, girl?

“Woof!”

“Good lass!”

And so the invisible Spider scampers off to the sound of “Woof-woof,” unless he’s scampering on.