The Yellow Wallpaper
Disclaimed, blah blah. The cover art is William McGregor Paxton's oil, Girl Combing Her Hair. Adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper, so of course Charlotte Gilman as well.
ROBERTHA—a woman of twenty
GRACE—a young nurse
RICHARD—Robertha's older half-brother
MITCHELL—a renowned physician, late-forties
EDWARD— Robertha's husband, a businessman
The play takes place at an isolated property in Derbyshire, England. The year is 1879.
The setting is a confined bedroom. The room has a high ceiling, disproportionally so, and by comparison the room seems elongated upwards without much space near the ground. There is only one window, overlooking a courtyard with hedges and a locked gate. There is a broken greenhouse, giving the place an unkempt look. Across the courtyard, at the same level, is a tower attached to the house, which appears to be an old, ancestral mansion of sorts, the sprawling English kind. There is no road in sight. The window is barred. The walls are a dulled, unclean yellow, sprawled with strange, illogical curls and angles, slops and lines. It seems faded where the slow turning sunlight touches it. Odd rings protruding from the walls in no discernible pattern. There are is a large bed in the center of the room, its legs have marks on them. A desk sits near the window. The rest of the space in the room is empty.
The large, softly pillowed bed has sheets listlessly thrown together for the day, the owner obviously not caring too much for neatness. The smaller bed by the door is completely clean and neatly cornered that it appears to not have been slept in. ROBERTHA is sitting by the desk. She is in her early twenties, in a white silk indoor gown for resting. Her yellow hair is in a thick braid running down her back. She is not dressed for going outside. She is hunched over, her body half obscuring her hand writing something on a nondescript notebook.
ROBERTHA hastily put away the notebook.
ROBERTHA: (standing up and moving away from the desk) Come in.
GRACE, a young woman opens the door. She is dressed in white nurse attire, holding a tray. She has trouble balancing the two bottles and the cup on top. One glass bottle has a red sticker that reads 'Moxie' in cursive. It holds some sort of liquid. The other is a flask-shaped glass bottle, it says 'Vodka'.
ROBERTHA: (pleasantly) Oh hullo, I hadn't been expecting anybody.
GRACE: (comes in, curtsies. She has a faint cockney accent.) Grace, milady.
ROBERTHA: What are you here for?
GRACE: (briskly) The Master sent me.
ROBERTHA: He didn't say that we were to hire anybody new. (Beat. Then slightly defensively) I've been here long enough without anybody.
GRACE: The Master had put a posting in the papers.
GRACE: It called for a helper with—(she catches herself and stops abruptly.)
ROBERTHA: What did it say?
GRACE: You need not trouble yourself with it. ROBERTHA: It hardly matters, I'm glad you're here
Pause. GRACE puts the tray down on the desk.
ROBERTHA: You needn't be so quiet.
GRACE stays silent, does not look at her.
ROBERTHA: I know what you are thinking—but please, it's only a general nerves, sensitive nerves. We all have nerves.
GRACE: Certainly, milady.
ROBERTHA: And some people are more receptive of stimuli than others. It's just nerves, the Doctor and Edward calls it diathesis, but it's just nerves.
ROBERTHA waits for agreement or at least acknowledgment from GRACE. She does not receive it.
ROBERTHA: Personally, I feel like a vacation ought to do some good, but Edward insisted that we come here at once. I do miss the salty winds, but when one's husband thinks one is sick, what is one to do?
GRACE: The Master would know best.
ROBERTHA: (with some force) Yes, he has called for you so that I might have somebody to talk to.
GRACE: Milady, no—
ROBERTHA: Come now, talking isn't hard, I am not a monster.
GRACE: (with more force than is suitable for her station) I wasn't hired to talk.
ROBERTHA: Of course not. (Beat.) But I think some society and stimulus would do me good. Of course, Edward laughs at me for it, but one expects that in marriage. He says nothing could be worse for my…condition, but truth be told I think that he's wrong. But Doctor Mitchell says so as well, and he is in exceptional good standing with the Duke and the Marquis.
Silent pause. ROBERTHA goes to the table, looks at the bottles, and takes the Moxie soda. She goes to the window, looks out.
ROBERTHA: (as she is sipping the soda) And when everybody says so, what is one to do?
GRACE: I must leave now, there's much to do. (Beat.)
ROBERTHA: (with a note of defeat) Then I will ask nothing more of you. Leave the soda here, I will call for you when I'm done.
GRACE: As milady wishes. (She curtsied and is about to exit.)
ROBERTHA: Wait, just—I have a request… a favor really—
GRACE stops. ROBERTHA looks as if she has trouble speaking.
ROBERTHA: (hopeful) Could you, could you ask my husband—could you ask Edward to let me see my brother? He hasn't visited our new home yet, and I think he'd like to. (Beat.) Tell him I was very reasonable about it.
GRACE: It is not my place, milady.
ROBERTHA: Very well—
Knock on the door.
MITCHELL: (off) Doctor Mitchell here.
ROBERTHA: Oh! (She puts the empty Moxie soda bottle onto the desk again and climbs into bed. Her white nightgown blends in with the bed sheets and she seems indistinguishable from the bed.) Come in please, doctor, come in at once.
DOCTOR MITCHELL enters. He is a man of around fifty, with gray hair in limp clumps at the top of his head, and keeps a triangular beard that covers part of his light gray tie. He wears a dark gray vested suit and has an air of importance. GRACE retreats to the corner of the room.
MITCHELL: How are you doing, my dear?
ROBERTHA: Very well, Doctor.
MITCHELL: No more sick-headaches?
ROBERTHA: No more.
MITCHELL: And no sleeplessness?
ROBERTHA: (hesitates) No.
MITCHELL: (softly chiding) Robertha.
ROBERTHA looks at him, speaking with her eyes.
MITCHELL: Come now, my dear, I can only help you if I know the symptoms.
ROBERTHA: It's just—it's just that I sleep an awfully lot, Doctor. And when I lie down so much, sometimes—sometimes it takes me a while…
MITCHELL: Of course, of course. I do not expect you to have nothing wrong, just as long as you do not experience hay fevers, we should be at ease.
ROBERTHA: No fevers.
MITCHELL: Do you exercise often?
ROBERTHA: Yes, I sit at the desk thrice a day, as you prescribed.
MITCHELL: And you have been taking the phosphates and soda tonics regularly?
MITCHELL: And air, what is the schedule for air?
ROBERTHA: (slightly bitter) Edward does not allow me to go outside.
GRACE: (hastily covering up ROBERTHA's words) The Master has ordered the window to be open for five minutes every day.
MITCHELL: (slightly startled at GRACE's voice, as if discovering her presence in the room just now) Very wise of the man.
ROBERTHA: He is very careful about my condition.
MITCHELL: Yes, he said that he came here strictly on your account, so that you might rest.
ROBERTHA: Do you know what he is engaged with lately? I have not seen him at all since leaving Cat Island.
MITCHELL: Riding and shooting mostly—a successful businessman has many sports associates. He is a very busy man.
ROBERTHA: Yet I can hardly stir without him knowing.
MITCHELL: He is a very careful man as well.
ROBERTHA: Doctor, is it possible for me to travel? I would like some more air.
MITCHELL: That would depend on your condition entirely.
ROBERTHA: It's just that—there's something queer about this place.
MITCHELL: It must be a draught.
ROBERTHA: The winds here are different.
MITCHELL: It must be very hard for you to grow accustomed to here.
ROBERTHA: I—I do miss my home terribly.
MITCHELL: I wouldn't recommend revisiting the Bahamas. Some sea air is extremely good for fatigue from the city, but stay in it too long, and it induces neurasthenia almost certainly.
ROBERTHA: I suppose.
MITCHELL: You will grow to like it here. Once you are well, you may ask Edward to take you somewhere in the mountains—the Duke and the Duchess go there in the summer for a fortnight.
ROBERTHA: Can you make the suggestion to Edward?
MITCHELL: As soon as you are well.
ROBERTHA: And then I can write?
MITCHELL: (in a voice that adults make empty promises to a sick child) Yes.
ROBERTHA: As much as I want?
MITCHELL: Yes. (Beat.)
ROBERTHA: Will it be soon?
MITCHELL: Don't worry; I assure you there is nothing wrong with you—not much, just a temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency, if you will. (Beat.)
ROBERTHA: I am glad my case is not serious.
MITCHELL: It is not.
MITCHELL (looks about the room, notices the empty Moxie soda and the full vodka) Is there a reason why you are not taking your vodka for your tonics?
ROBERTHA: Oh doctor, I don't like the way it burns. It has no taste, not spiced like rum back home.
MITCHELL: My dear, medicine is not meant to be consumed leisurely; it serves a purpose, and that is to treat your symptoms. So do take care to follow your regime.
ROBERTHA: Yes, doctor.
MITCHELL: (getting up) Now, I must not exhaust you. Good day, madam.
Lights out as he bows, rises, and exits. Out of the darkness, ROBERTHA speaks.
ROBERTHA: Good day.
ROBERTHA is hunched over in her white nightgown, writing in her notebook in a rushed manner. The door opens quietly, and GRACE enters. ROBERTHA does not notice the entrance and keeps on writing. GRACE at first walks slowly into the room, then she sees ROBERTHA's posture.
GRACE: Milady? What are you doing?
ROBERTHA: (startled) Oh! I didn't see you there! (Hurriedly closes the notebook and tries to shove it into a drawer, unsuccessfully, and instead hits her hand on the corners. She makes a noise indicating pain.)
GRACE: (walks over, ignores ROBERTHA, takes the notebook) What is this? (Flips through it.)
ROBERTHA: Nothing! Please don't—
GRACE: (reading) I remember the white gulls spreading out wings as far as the horizon, the young cotton flowers shying away from the ablaze paper flowers…
ROBERTHA: (continues) The redness that melted into the hot-baked grounds, the currants hanging in ripples of polished red, the trees' shadows pooling all the grass into one dissolved green mound, and I hide in our fields, trembling in the zone of furred green stalks, listening to the waves crash and make atoms of blue air, falling like great beasts stamping. I was always the most beautiful, when I faced the sea. (ROBERTHA stands and faces out of the window, into the distance.) When I faced the sea, the entire world was a globe in my hands, and I could hatch it and turn it, I could go beyond east of the sun and west of the moon, on the white road in the sky, go wherever I wanted, and make a story out of my life.
GRACE: (closes the notebook) The Master will have this.
ROBERTHA: (she turns back) Please, Grace.
GRACE: I will take this.
ROBERTHA: (pleading in a way unfamiliar to her) It takes a kind heart to take pity upon one's mistress, you are a kind person Grace, I know it; you are kind at core.
GRACE: You aren't allowed work, milady.
GRACE: (matter-of-factly) Writing exhausts you. Even reading it is exhausting me.
ROBERTHA: It does…rather exhaust me a good deal, if only for all the secrecy.
ROBERTHA climbs into bed.
GRACE: It is good sense to follow the Master's instructions; his schedules for you are based on the Doctor's directions.
ROBERTHA: His schedules are what make me tired.
GRACE: We are all here to help you regain your strength.
ROBERTHA: That reminds me, gather the remains. (Points to the empty Moxie soda bottle and the full vodka flask.)
GRACE: Certainly. (She slips the vodka flask into her pocket and takes the Moxie soda.) I will bring the evening round in an hour.
ROBERTHA: Oh, is it only four?
GRACE: Four eleven.
ROBERTHA: Time seems to have grown slow lately.
ROBERTHA: It doesn't pass unless I write.
GRACE: Milady, get some rest.
ROBERTHA: But what is one to do in such a hideous room?
GRACE: It's a beautiful house.
ROBERTHA: I was talking about the room. Do you not see the walls? It's a bad, sulfuric yellow; the sunlight bounces right off it and makes the whole place seem arsenic. It smells too, a yellow smell, it seeps through my hair, hovers in the air, everywhere, every corner. No wonder whoever was in the room ripped the papers off.
GRACE: You should try to not rip it more for your guest.
GRACE: Yes, the Master said he will allow a Mister Richard to visit.
ROBERTHA: Richard? Richard Mason, my brother?
GRACE: If that is who the Master was talking about.
ROBERTHA: Oh he would allow it? Wonderful, wonderful. I haven't seen any of my family members since…since the wedding…
GRACE: The Master is very thoughtful.
ROBERTHA: (to herself) I don't think Richard will like this house much. The lack of space would confine him. My family own cotton plantations, lots and lots of them, and I used to run around the beaches during the day and hide in the cotton plants at dusk, until my brother came looking for me. (Beat.) He always came for me.
ROBERTHA: We have nothing like this on Cat Island in the Bahamas. I used to plant paper flowers around the cotton fields, and it drove everybody crazy, but I loved them. Do you know what they are?
GRACE does not respond. ROBERTHA takes her silence as a 'no'.
ROBERTHA: They are little clusters of white flowers that are surrounded by flaming red leaves. They're called paper flowers because they're so thin and papery. I love how they burn. Everything there is blue and green and white and red—there is no sick yellow where I come from.
GRACE: It is only yellow in this wing, milady.
GRACE: The wallpaper.
GRACE: I have indulged you for too long. Now I shall leave.
ROBERTHA: Don't leave me to suffer!
GRACE: There is no reason to suffer.
ROBERTHA: (repeats her words listlessly) No reason.
GRACE: So you don't suffer.
ROBERTHA: No, I don't.
GRACE: You are tired now. I shall go.
GRACE exits. Lights out. The bed sheets make a shuffling noise, and it sounds like ROBERTHA has gotten out of bed and is walking slowly in circles, dragging her feet.
ROBERTHA is in bed. RICHARD's voice booms through the door as he opens it without a knock.
RICHARD: Bertha! I have come to see the house!
RICHARD enters. He is a handsome young man with dark hair. His features differ from ROBERTHA's significantly. He comes in, and pauses slightly at the state of the room. ROBERTHA rises out of bed with some trouble to greet him.
ROBERTHA: Brother! I'm so very happy to see you, so very, very happy!
She does not get a response as he kisses her on her cheek in greeting. She watches as he scrutinizes the room more.
ROBERTHA: It's an awful room, isn't it?
ROBERTHA: I keep saying, 'Either that wallpaper goes, or I do', but Edward refuses to tear it down.
RICHARD: Nonsense, this is high-grade Lincrusta wallpaper. Just look at the gold, it's heavy. Must be made by Bigelow, Hayden & Co—why, Napoleon's bedroom on Saint Helena was painted just this way.
ROBERTHA: It's such sick looking, arsenic yellow though!
RICHARD: Although you should really be stationed in a larger room, much larger—Oh dear Lord! What happened to the bed legs!
He is horrified that the beg legs are damaged as if a dog or bear had been gnawing on them. ROBERTHA touches her mouth unconsciously.
RICHARD: This is not becoming of our wealth at all.
ROBERTHA: (hopeful) Perhaps—perhaps you can take me back? My old room was very spacious.
RICHARD: You must not give way to your fancies.
ROBERTHA: I miss the sea.
RICHARD: There's nothing worse for a patient of nervous exhaustion.
ROBERTHA: I wish I had all my books, that I might continue writing.
RICHARD: Mother always hated your pastime.
ROBERTHA: Mother hated a lot of things.
RICHARD: She only wanted the best for you.
ROBERTHA: For you.
RICHARD: Now, Bertha, I thought we were past all of this. Mother treats you as if you were her own.
ROBERTHA: That's the problem.
RICHARD: And you know that Edward doesn't approve of your writing and running barefoot.
ROBERTHA: He doesn't like that.
RICHARD: No, no man would.
ROBERTHA: Father did.
RICHARD: Father did not have an opinion over anything. Besides, you cannot expect to carry everything into your new life. You must be as Edward wants you to be.
ROBERTHA: But then what am I supposed to do with myself?
RICHARD: To do nothing. You must not exert yourself.
ROBERTHA: I am to do Nothing.
RICHARD: That is what Doctor Mitchell says, is it not?
ROBERTHA: He says that I should rest all day, all night, every day, every night.
RICHARD: The Doctor is of extraordinary good standing. He has many patients who are powerful—we are lucky that money had brought us him.
RICHARD: He is an excellent physician.
ROBERTHA: (quietly) Perhaps—perhaps that is why I do not get well.
RICHARD: Don't be difficult.
ROBERTHA: It's easier for Edward if I do not get well.
RICHARD: Edward loves you dearly.
ROBERTHA: He used to think he loved me.
RICHARD: One can't blame him for being unhappy with a sick wife.
ROBERTHA: It was not the sickness that he disapproves of, it's me. He had only loved the thought of a beautiful, wealthy girl, to whom he could show the great, wide world, and then showcase like some exotic specimen. This love quickly fell away when he realized that what he found exotic, some found eccentric and repulsive.
RICHARD: At least your hair looks pretty.
ROBERTHA: He orders it to be dyed biweekly.
RICHARD: It's a good color on you.
ROBERTHA: It's not natural.
RICHARD: You find something wrong in everything, just like mother.
ROBERTHA: I'm better than her.
RICHARD: Of course. (Beat.) I rather like this country. I think I shall stay here.
ROBERTHA: Here? Does Father and Mother know?
RICHARD: They will.
ROBERTHA: But why? I only left Cat Island because they made me.
RICHARD: The Bahamas has no real opportunity for me—I want to make a career, a name for myself here. Everybody respects a somebody from England.
ROBERTHA: (gloomily) You sound just like Edward. A fortune is not enough for you.
RICHARD: A wise man.
ROBERTHA: Well, when I get better, can we go back—just for a short while?
RICHARD: (suddenly realizing that he had not inquired after her) Oh right, are you feeling alright?
ROBERTHA: I will be.
ROBERTHA: So can we?
RICHARD: This is your home now, and Edward the Master.
ROBERTHA: At least you shall come visit often? Once a week?
RICHARD: You know that both Edward and I are too busy for that kind of frivolous behavior.
ROBERTHA: Once a fortnight?
RICHARD: (condescendingly chiding) Dear Bertha.
ROBERTHA: Once a month?
RICHARD: We shall see. I fear we have talked too much, you look pale. Rest.
ROBERTHA and GRACE are in the room. GRACE is standing by the window, near the desk. There is a tray of Moxie sodas and vodka again. The Moxie bottle is empty, whereas the vodka is mostly full. ROBERTHA is on the bed, facing the wall. Only her yellow hair is visible, as once again her white silk nightgown melts into the bed sheets. GRACE slowly reaches out to the vodka flash.
ROBERTHA: (suddenly) There are roses now.
GRACE: (startled and drops her extended arm) Milady?
ROBERTHA: The roses. There are roses on the grounds.
ROBERTHA: They were just planted last month.
GRACE: Why, yes. How did you know?
ROBERTHA: They're beautiful. Red.
GRACE: (looks out the window, perplexed) You can't see them from here.
ROBERTHA: I wonder if Edward knows about it.
GRACE: The Master commissioned it.
ROBERTHA: Oh did he? Well this place does direly need some color.. Where I come from, there were the sapphire seas and coral sands and dark people. You don't see any of those here, and it's a crime to talk about them.
GRACE: You shouldn't talk so much.
A longer pause.
ROBERTHA: But I have to talk. Otherwise the wallpaper makes noises.
GRACE: The wallpaper?
ROBERTHA: Yes. Do you not hear it? There. (She points to a spot in the room without looking.) That spot, where the lines stop at a broken neck and those protruding eyes that are unblinking. It makes noises at night.
GRACE: No, paper does not make noise.
ROBERTHA: (ignoring her completely, she raises her arm slightly, and touches the wall with her hand, fingers tracing the patterns) And the streaks—these streaks that go round and round and round the room, it's so dizzying. I wonder who made them?
GRACE: It must be / the previous inhabitant.
ROBERTHA: It must be the woman who lives behind the paper.
GRACE: (shocked) Woman? What woman?
ROBERTHA: (impatient at having to explain the obvious) The woman! She's trying to climb out, she runs around in circles around the room, trying to find a way out, she's always circling and climbing. Except when she dies. Then her head rolls to there. (She points to the same spot as before) But then she grows another and tries again.
GRACE shakily takes a drink from the flash. ROBERTHA does not notice.
ROBERTHA: I feel very sorry for her. It must be quite humiliating to be skulking about in such a manner. I hope she climbs out one day. Then I can show her the garden and the greenhouse and the roses down in the hedges.
GRACE: Yes, the roses.
ROBERTHA: When they bloom.
GRACE: Yes, when they bloom.
ROBERTHA rises from her bed.
ROBERTHA: (a forced whisper) I am out, I have climbed out!
She begins to skulk around the room in circles, her shoulders touching the wallpaper.
ROBERTHA: I have to get behind it again when the day comes, the light comes, and makes this room yellow again. They will put me back. I won't, I won't go back.
She stops at the window, grabs the bars, jumps like a monkey against it, but it doesn't budge. She tries to bite it, but it apparently hurts her teeth and she gives up. She then continues to skulk.
ROBERTHA: My shoulder fits perfectly in a long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.
Suddenly, she shudders.
ROBERTHA: Oh Lady Purity, you have climbed out! Your white wool brows and hair of driven snow freezes me. You cover all things frail or dark or doubtful, begone, begone! Lady Chastity, I shall chase you next! You freeze me with your diadem of icicles, and your glance turns to stone, avaunt, avaunt! Lady Modesty, you come with your face of thin and sickle shaped young moon, and freezes me to the bones, freezes the waves as it falls, away, away! It is now time for Truth, and nothing but the Truth! The trumpets are pealing Truth! I am fast, so fast. I must get to work, work, work…
She stops in front of the desk. Keeping a shoulder against the wall still, she opens the drawer, takes out a flint stone, and lights it. She watches it burn for a few seconds, before putting it against the section of the wallpaper that peeled off the most, a wide, fanatical grin on her face, illuminated by the fire.
The door opens slowly. GRACE enters, carrying an empty vodka flash, sees the room and screams.
GRACE: Ah! Fire, there's a fire!
GRACE runs out shrieking. ROBERTHA giggles at her, then continues to skulk in circles around the room where the fire has not touched yet. GRACE can be heard from off stage.
GRACE: (off) Master, Master Edward! Fire!
EDWARD: (off) Calm yourself.
GRACE: The lady! Fire!
EDWARD: The woman's bedroom? There's a fire there?
GRACE: She is still there!
EDWARD: Go get the rest of the staff, tell them to come with water.
Hurried footsteps. The doorknob to the bedroom shakes with tremendous force.
EDWARD: Open the door!
ROBERTHA: (without pausing her skulking) I can't, I can't.
EDWARD: Open the door, I didn't bring the key.
ROBERTHA: You will put me back in the yellow.
EDWARD: The yellow? I won't put you in anything, darling Bertha, just please open the door.
ROBERTHA: (chants) You will, you will, you will.
EDWARD: I'm going to axe the door.
ROBERTHA: You will, you will, you will.
A loud crash. An axe comes through the door, making a hole large enough for EDWARD to step in. He is dressed in a black night robe, with dark hair.
EDWARD: (upon seeing her skulking) What is the matter? For God's sake, what are you doing!
ROBERTHA: I've got out, in spite of you and Jane! I lighted le papier peint on fire so the ladies can't freeze me, and you can't put me back!
EDWARD: (about to faint) Bertha!
ROBERTHA: (as she jumps into the fire) I've got out at last, Rochester! You can't put me back!
Author's Note: Well it certainly takes all the surprise out of the ending by posting it in here... but it can't be helped, I suppose. Just pretend that you didn't know Robertha was Edward Rochester's mad wife in the attic in the beginning.
Inspired by the eponymous story's author Charlotte Gilman's interaction with Silas Mitchell's resting cure treatment, The Wide Sargasso Sea, and of course Virginia Woolf's Professions for Women. To kill the Angel in the House is to be a monster, and a woman cannot escape being one or the other.