The Yellow Wallpaper

Written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Thursday 14th July and Friday 15th July 1983

Directed by John Scadding

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's eerie 19th-century novella 'The Yellow Wallpaper' became a classic of feminist fiction, a pioneering portrait of the trauma of postnatal depression. Adapted from her autobiographical short story, the play portrays with chilling authority, the powerlessness of an American woman, stifled by her marriage.

This play was staged (free of charge) on two occasions after the performance of The Threepenny Opera, as part of a new Bench initiative called Late Night Theatre.

AuthorCharlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860 - 1935)

Writer and women's rights activist Charlotte Perkins was born in 1860 in Connecticut to Mary and Frederic Beecher Perkins. She was the youngest of three children born over three years; the first died at birth, the second was a son, Thomas, and Charlotte followed just over a year later. Her mother was advised not to have any more children and her father subsequently left the marital home. This loss together with the absence of affection shown to her by her mother had a profound effect on Charlotte.

After marriage to her cousin, George H. Gilman, she gave birth to her own first child in her mid 20s, but soon after she experienced what she later called 'a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia - and beyond'. After the birth, Charlotte found herself weeping while breastfeeding her baby. "Even motherhood brought no joy", she remarked. She sought help from famous neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, who treated her with his celebrated rest cure. Gilman responded rapidly and gained weight quickly. Mitchell advised her to return to her family, focus on her responsibilities as wife and mother, and stop trying to be a writer. Instead, Gilman divorced her husband, moved to California, and wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper', a chilling short story about the rest cure.

Gilman spent her life working with feminists and social reformers. Her non-fiction, notably the bestselling Women and Economics (1898), earned international acclaim. She founded The Forerunner magazine in 1909 and published and edited it over the next seven years until its demise in 1916. Within this forum Gilman continued to explore, explain, and denounce women's and men's roles as prescribed by society. While her novel 'Herland' received scant attention when published in 1915, it has been recognised since its first book publication in 1979 as a benchmark of Utopian and feminist fiction. Charlotte committed suicide in 1935, with an overdose of chloroform after fighting breast cancer for several years. She remains celebrated by feminist writers and artists worldwide.

PlayThe Yellow Wallpaper

Although it was not the first or longest of her works, without question Gilman's most famous piece is her short story 'The Yellow Wallpaper' which became a best-seller of the Feminist Press. It was published in 1892 in an issue of The New England Magazine. Since its original printing, it has been anthologised in numerous collections of women's literature, American literature, and textbooks. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is often described as a masterpiece. Since its rediscovery in the 1970s by a new generation of women, it has become a cult classic, even passed on by word of mouth.

When Gilman wrote this novella in 1890, fictionalising her own nervous breakdown after the birth of her daughter, and her treatment by a leading physician (Dr S Weir Mitchell) she had to battle to get it into print. The editor of the Atlantic Monthly gave it a curt rejection, which Gilman recounts in her memoir. "Dear Madam," he replied, "I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself." When Gilman's novella was eventually published in The New England Magazine, in 1891, it elicited a number of angry letters, including one from a doctor who protested, "The story can hardly, it would seem, give pleasure to any reader... such literature contains deadly peril. Should such stories be allowed to pass without severest censure?" More than a century later 'The Yellow Wallpaper' has lost nothing of its unsettling power - the kind that troubled its early readers, and enthrals many more of us now.

The narrator is suffering from what she describes at the start as a 'temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency'. This is the label her illness has been given by her husband and her brother - both doctors. The treatment prescribed is rest, and with this aim, she is confined to the top-floor room of a large country house that has been rented for the purpose. The terrible, stifling prescription is that she must do nothing - she must not write, cannot see friends, her baby is cared for by a nursemaid - and soon she finds the only freedom allowed her is to examine the peeling yellow wallpaper around her. Before long the narrator has begun to perceive the figure of a woman behind the sinister pattern, and then more women - some beneath the monstrous Gothic design, others creeping in the landscape beyond her barred windows - until eventually, driven mad by her confinement (quite literally, bored out of her mind), she peels the wallpaper away from the walls and joins the shadowy figures around her.

The story illustrates how women's lack of autonomy is detrimental to their mental, emotional, and even physical well being. The narrator in the story must do as her husband, who is also her doctor, demands, although the treatment they prescribe to her contrasts directly with what she truly needs - mental stimulation, and the freedom to escape the monotony of the room to which she is confined. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' has been adapted for radio, television, film, stage and dance.

The Bench Production

The Yellow Wallpaper programme image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977. It was produced as part of 'Late-night Theatre' - a free occasional performance of shorter or experimental works introduced by Bench Theatre at this time to follow their regular staged productions.


CharlotteNicola Scadding


Director John Scadding
Stage Management David Graham
Lighting Paul Francis

Programme Notes

Shortly after The Threepenny Opera has ended on Thursday and Friday, Bench Theatre will present this play-for-one-woman.

'The Yellow Wallpaper' is as American story written in 1890 and first published two years later. It is largely autobiographical. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was primarily a lecturer and prolific writer of non-fiction works on the subject of women. Overlooked for almost forty years, the story has been rediscovered by the feminist movement. It is presented tonight in its entirety.

The performance is given free of charge and runs for about 40 minutes.

Late-night Theatre is a new departure for the company and we hope it will be of interest to our regular audience to see work which it would be impossible for us to include in our main season. We aim to present short pieces by established writers as well as more experimental material, such as adaptations of work not originally created for the stage.