Women in Mind Play Critique:

After a very long career as a playwright and stage director, Alan Acyckbourn came out in 1986 with Woman in Mind, a work which is consistent with his other works in many ways, but at the same time, different in such a way that makes it a turning point. In consistence with Ayckbourn’s previous works, Woman in Mind is a black farce or comedy. It combines both comedy and tragedy in the character of Susan who is on the verge of insanity due to the distresses she lives in her marriage. She is another of Acyckbourn’s agonized women, trying to assert themselves amidst the pressures of a boring marriage, and an unhappy misunderstanding with the rest of the family, especially male members. Woman in Mind is a typical Ayckbourn production because it deals with the unfair and unhappy lives that women in the middle class society in Britain live, especially as they are unable to identify the exact causes of their agony. The same applies to Susan who is unable to deal with her marriage, since she is not even able to define what exactly is making her marriage collapse. For example, she admits that the lack of sex in her marriage is a big problem causing her unhappiness, but she is not able to really define the elements that led to such a change. Also in consistent with previous plays by Ayckbourn, Woman in Mind aimed in the end at entertaining the audience, especially through comic situations and funny events, making the audience laugh, ironically at what makes them feel painful and unhappy in real life. Besides, the audience feel that laughter in this black comedy in optional; those who do not want to laugh can very well cry instead.

On the other hand, Woman in Mind constitutes a turning point in Ayckbourn’s career because it involved the usage of a new technique that has not been applied in drama before. As the audience discover for themselves, the play is a camera-eye follow up of what is going on inside the protagonist’s mind. Ayckbourn has not only taken the perspective of a female protagonist going insane under certain circumstances, but he has also followed up every moment of her agony and deterioration, resulting in a very vivid and rich reflection to the audience. By applying this technique, Ayckbourn has done what is usually adopted by a filmmaker but avoided by a playwright due to the difficulty and challenges involved in applying the technique on stage.

Traditionally, Ayckbourn has established for himself a very strong reputation in Britain, especially as he has long been able to address the middle class audience, that is, conservative families living in urban areas and suffering in their marriages as a result of social conscription. Ayckbourn has also succeeded in building a strong reputation for entertaining his audience with black comedy, which makes his works very highly appreciated by the British community. Abroad, however, the situation is different, especially in the United States where the audience do not share the same sentiments or problems that Ayckbourn’s characters reflect. Ayckbourn has always been considered to be Britain’s Neil Simon who has also built a reputation for himself as a writer of black comedy in the United States. Both writers share the fact that they are well appreciated at home, but neither of them has succeeded in addressing the audience in each other’s country.

The title itself, Woman in Mind, is ironical, because the audience do not need much time to realize that Susan is a woman out of her mind, a woman who is losing her sense of being and who is becoming detached from her reality. At the same time, the title also signifies Ayckbourn’s objective of describing what is going on inside the mind of a woman in crisis. The title is therefore serving two goals at the same time, firstly giving the audience an idea of the writer’s objective, and secondly, adding to the play’s quality as a black farce through the irony that it reflects.

Woman in Mind is the title, but the subtitle is “December Bee,” which serves a totally different goal from Woman in Mind. At first, “December Bee” has nothing to do with a real bee in the play; it simply stands for “Remember me” but as said by Susan in a state of hallucination right after she receives the blow on her head when she steps on the rake in the garden. Susan is trying to say “Remember me,” which is perhaps a tragic appeal to the audience. As soon as the play opens, the audience will be faced with a woman who has just struck her head with a blow, and there she lies on the ground, uttering with words that have no meaning, more likely coming out from a person who is becoming schizophrenic. Eventually, however, the audience will be watching a normal woman who in an abnormal situation. They will start to forget about her initial schizophrenic situation, thinking of her as a normal woman, and even when the audience become aware that she is mixed up in her mind, they need to be related to her initial state of insanity where she utters the words “December Bee.”

Ayckbourn’s talent is very apparent in the way he presents his characters as victims, even those who are not well appreciated by the audience. Susan, Gerald, Muriel, Bill and even Rick; they are all victims in one way or another. Susan is not a twentieth century heroine, for she has no heroic traits, except perhaps her struggle with insanity and the situation surrounding her. Apart from her insanity, Susan is nothing but a typical middle-class woman trying to assert herself in a boring marriage and within the social cycles of conscription and repression. She is there, well aware of her problems but unable to do anything about them, because she is victimized by her marriage. Susan is very typical in many ways: she is the unhappy wife; she is the disgruntled woman who has to bear an unbearable sister-in-law; she is the wife of a vicar but who does not have much belief in the religion her husband stands for; she is a woman who is so sexually repressed to the extent that she does not mind sleeping with the Devil as she can no longer cope with her deprivation. In spite of all these realities about Susan, she is by no means a cliché. On the contrary, Susan is unique in many respects, and despite this quality, the audience are still capable of identifying with her easily. Susan is unique in at least three aspects. First of all, she is openly criticizing her situation, and with a lot of logic, something which is astonishing for a woman who is in the final phase of becoming insane. Secondly, she is struggling against her fate and discontent by creating imaginary figures and worlds in her mind in order to fix her situation. Even though such a choice is not new, the novelty in it is that she mixes between the real and the imaginary, resulting in comic situations, but at the same time, with tragic insinuations. And finally, Susan is unique in the sense that although she is well aware of her victimization and even degrading mind, she still insists on getting what she deserves, whether this is in her real world or in her imaginary world. In the real world, she finally asks Gerald for a divorce, whereas in her imaginary world, she insists on getting the wedding she was promised. These are not hallucinations, as the other characters think, but rather, these are her real intentions which she insists on reflecting in spite of her insanity. Susan is perhaps not a perfectly round character, especially with her flaws, but she certainly is not a cliché. Although she is becoming insane, she is aware of what is going on around her, at least to a certain degree, and her reactions are under control, at least until shortly before she finally collapses. She is a woman who is trying to change her situation, but faced with so much conscription and so many restrictions, and for a very long period of time, she is finally destroyed. Susan, is a woman who is also fighting against misunderstanding. She is misunderstood by Gerald, Muriel, Rick, and later by Andy, Tony and Lucy.

Gerald on the other hand, is a perfect cliché. He is a clergyman, representing the failure of religion in addressing modern problems of man and family. He is totally ignorant of what is going on inside his wife’s mind, totally detached from their problems, and instead of trying to apply his spiritual methods to treat the situation, he simply escapes to his study room and the manuscript he has been working on. At first, Ayckbourn, presents Gerald as the appropriate scapegoat for the audience to blame for Susan’s problems, but then, Ayckbourn cleverly rotates the table to show that Gerald is also a victim of marriage. Symbolically, the ghosts inside Susan’s mind personify on Gerald’s garden, that is, on the premises of a religious clergyman. This is a subtle challenge raised by Ayckbourn against the ineffectiveness of religion and against its inability to cope with modern man’s awes and pains. Gerald is not necessarily the incompetent man; he is simply the incompetent spouse, that is, the other half in a marriage which is like the first half, unable of enjoying satisfaction or self-assertion.

Andy, on the other hand, is a more controversial husband. At first, he appears to be what a wife like Susan would like to have, that is, loving, caring, interesting, and understanding. Despite the sharp contrast at first between Andy and Gerald, Ayckbourn leads the audience in the end to discover for themselves that neither is better than the other. Andy’s positive qualities are exaggerated, making the contrast appear to be funny rather than realistic. Besides, the audience are aware that Andy is Susan’s creation and that his behaviors and actions are all the product of her control over her imagination. However, what happens eventually is that Susan becomes more mentally deteriorated, which inevitably makes controlling Andy impossible. When this occurs, Andy becomes a nightmare worse than Gerald, especially when he becomes too deeply involved in other activities such as horse-racing, making him ignore Susan. Ironically, Susan is ignored by a husband she had created and inside her own imagination. The contrast between Andy and Gerald is like trying to make a preference between two possible husbands, but the result is disappointing in the end, because neither of them is appropriate. For Susan, this simply means that having a husband is in itself a wrong idea, and for the audience, the idea is clear too, that Ayckbourn is criticizing marriage and attacking it openly. The message clearly means that even if a woman imagines an ideal marriage, such a marriage will not be much better than a real one, and the nightmare created will not be less terrifying.

Of the significant characters in Woman in Mind, Rick is perhaps bears symbolic values and inferences. Rick is the product of the real marriage, a modern son, and a young individual who is looking for independence and happiness away from his home. He is a cliché in many ways. First of all, he is the young energetic boy who has grown up fighting and quarreling against the power of his parents and their interference in his affairs. Secondly, he has, like many others in his generation, joined a religious cult, an incident whose ironical implication led to preventing him from talking to his parents for years. Rick is that only young son of his parents who thought at the age of sixteen that his bed got wet at night because the ceiling was leaking, or got red round the ears whenever he spoke to a woman. And in the end, he got married and agreed to compromise in order to follow his wife’s career. However, again, Ayckbourn makes the analysis of this character difficult by making him break out of the cliché he made for him, especially when Rick defends his marriage and his relationship with his wife, and when he insists on protecting his marriage from the influence of his parents, especially his mother. Nevertheless, the audience begin to wonder whether this marriage was altogether logical, for if it were strong in the first place, why would Rick want to protect it so shrewdly, to the extent of preventing his mother from seeing his wife for at least two years?

Rick is the product of his parents and their inconsistencies in child rearing. His attitudes are the result of their incompetence in teaching him how to deal with life and how to look at things. He is, therefore, reacting accordingly, that is, as a member of a lost generation who is looking for shelter and security anywhere. His parents remain at the center of his decisions. Even when he tries to keep them off his life, he is actually thinking of how to deal with or without them, which means that they still form a major aspect of his life.

In contrast to Rick, Lucy is the imaginary daughter, one which can be described as her mother’s pride and joy. If Rick had been anything to Susan, he had been a source of pain and guilt. Lucy, on the other hand, is a sweet image, too good to be true, to the extent that her wedding turns out to be a horse-race. Of all the imaginary characters in Susan’s mind, Lucy is the only one whom the audience cannot think of as real. She is the sweet sheep of the family, but she is not independent, strong or even real. She is just part of the crowd in Susan’s mind, which probably reflects Susan’s confusion about what an ideal son or daughter should be like. Susan’s confusion about what a perfect son or daughter should be reflects on Lucy’s behaviors, especially when Lucy praises Susan about what the newspaper had written about her, saying that she was the best woman heart surgeon ever. The confusion of Lucy’s mind makes the audience realize that Susan herself is confused about Lucy, although at first she is happy with her. Lucy is hurt by Susan on several occasions, but she does not react negatively. She just receives the blows in silent, and leaves with tears in her eyes. She is unlike Rick who has his blows ready before his mother attacks him.

It is important to notice that both Rick and Lucy are dealing with a marriage situation. Rick comes back home with a marriage already behind him, and apparently, it is a very strange if not comic form of marriage. Susan is very confused about the realities of this marriage and the character of the wife. Susan considers this marriage as a revenge by Rick against her and Gerald, which is an indirect attack by Ayckbourn on marriage. Lucy’s marriage, on the other hand, is a farce which turns out to be a horse-race, an incident of great pleasure for the imaginary family, but of total confusion and unhappiness to Susan. This marriage is also directly related to Susan’s mental collapse, making it the product of insanity, which renders marriage another attack by Ayckbourn.

Mise-en-scene in Woman in Mind is very simple. The play is made up of two acts, and it is not further divided into scenes. The division between the two acts is very significant. Act I ends with arrival of Rick, a very important event, since it represents the beginning of Susan’s final stage of confusion and mental collapse. Throughout Act I, the members of Susan’s families were introduced, and only Rick was yet missing. The two acts can be seen as phases in Susan’s mental problems. In Act I, she was already in trouble, but she was still in control of her imagination, and in her real world, she was still able to raise arguments and defend her points of view very strongly. By the time Rick arrived however, she had begun to lose hope and to mix up things, losing control over both her real and imaginary worlds. Act I ends with two significant events simultaneously; Rick’s arrival, and Susan’s collapse from dizziness. Emphatically enough, Act I starts with darkness accompanied with Susan’s moans after she had received the blow on her head, that blow which started (but not caused) the whole thing. Similarly, Act II starts with darkness accompanied with Susan’s groans as she wakes up from her black out. Both acts take place in the same place, namely, Susan’s back garden.

As a comedy and a tragedy at the same time, Woman in Mind was aimed at entertainment. Violence is not very present in this play, except on certain incidents, and although it directly deals with a case of insanity, logical discussions are more predominant. The first violent incident is Susan’s receiving a blow on her head by mistakenly stepping on the rack. This accident itself is funny, because dumb people are more likely to step on racks and have their heads bashed. This incident, although violent and funny at the same time, signifies that Susan is the type of person who is not capable of taking care of herself, and who is not able to watch over herself very well, at least not alone. Violence is then absent from the play until Susan’s imaginary brother Tony is introduced. He is a man in love with hunting, and who does not have a problem shooting the noisy dog next door, and then pretending that he had shot nothing but a rodent. Violence among this family continues when Lucy complains to her father about Bill teasing her mother, so she says, “Daddy, that man’s been saying awful filthy things to Mummy. You must get rid of him.”[1] Tony immediately decides to shoot Bill despite Susan’s protests, and he has no problem in shooting and killing others as a solution, especially when he says, “Look, I’ll go and fetch the twelve-bore. It won’t take a second …”[2]

Tony, Lucy and Andy are not sure how violent they should act with Bill, whether they should punch him for his manners, hang him for poaching rabbits or simply get rid of him by shooting him. Andy makes the final decision, coldly, funnily and without a sense of guilt, “Oh, just chuck him in the lake for the time being.”[3] The last manifestation of violence in Woman in Mind is burning Gerald’s manuscript, the one had been working on for years about the history of the parish. It is not clear who might have set the manuscript on fire; it could have been Susan while she was absent-minded or even one of her imaginary fellows, since they have begun to act like demons and devils. It is not matter much who actually committed the act, in as much as it matters for the significance of the act itself. Burning the manuscript simply means that all those nights spent on the manuscript and making Gerald and Susan’s marriage unbearable have been wasted in vain, and so has been their marriage.

Sounds are richly used in Woman in Mind, especially in Act II. In Act I, the only sound effect used is the howling of the dog next doors. The effect is used three times and its function is mainly to create confusion in Susan’s mind whether she was imagining things or whether she was actually living real events. In Act II, sound effects are used thoroughly, especially the claps of thunder which may signify the confusion inside Susan’s mind and her fast mental deterioration. Claps of thunder are used four times, especially whenever the tension arises in a conversation or an event. Rain effects are also used, giving a gloomy effect. On the other hand, the pipe band and the brass band exchange playing music several whenever there is a change in mood or in action, not only to change avoid monotony, but also to influence the moods of the audience. The dog  howling is totally absent in Act II, logically because the dog had been shot by Tony, and instead it is replaced by birdsong whenever Susan feels better and asserted. This is especially noticed when Susan is well-taken care of by Tony, when he opens the umbrella to prevent her from getting wet under the rain, and the weather immediately changes to sunshine.

Lights are more vividly used in the play. Both Act I and Act II start in darkness, reflecting Susan’s blackouts. More blackouts are used when Susan collapses the first time, then when she falls under the dizziness of drink, and finally when she makes love with Andy.  The most frequently used lighting is dreamlike light, mainly to reflect the mental deterioration in Susan’s mind. As Susan begins to lose control on her speech and thoughts, the lights on her begin to fade, and then the lights of the ambulance appear, giving the audience a hint of what is going on and what will happen shortly afterwards, and then, Act II ends with a blackout.

The costumes in Woman in Mind are not given much attention, except for a few important elements. For example, it is important that Susan wears a dress with a belt when she makes love with Andy so that when she is discovered lying on the grass, she appears as if she were wearing he sleeping gown. Susan also wears her wedding ring throughout the play, whereas Gerald wears his glasses all the time. Bill, the General Physician, on the other hand, wears a wrist watch throughout the play, and in Act II, he carries a bottle of pills and holds a handkerchief in his pocket. In Act II, Andy wears his binoculars round his neck and a pocket watch, signifying that he is at the races not in a homely environment. At the wedding, Lucy wears her bridal head-dress, but ironically, she also wears animal ears and a winner’s rosette to signify that she has turned into a horse.

The setting differed in Susan’s imagination from that in reality. The garden in imagination is expected to be large, vast and reflecting wealth and space. There are six trees throughout the play, but every time Susan was in her dream, the part of the garden where she stood changed as the topiary arches, rose arch, swing and statue were added.

Finally, since Woman in Mind is an entertaining comedy, it is impossible to imagine it without slapsticks, particularly that Ayckbourn was famous for his ability to make his audience laugh continuously. When Tony comes over to make sure that Susan is alright, he tells her, “We just want to get you fit so you can carry on slaving for us as usual,”[4] which mocks the way society looks at a housewife.

[1] The play, p. 47.

[2] The play, p. 47.

[3] The play, p. 49.

[4] The play, p. 5.

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