In 1938 the play “Gas Light” debuted in London. The curtains open to a cluttered domestic scene in the salon of an 1880’s Victorian townhouse. A nervous woman, through the course of the evening, is variously berated, ignored, mocked and belittled be her self-assured husband who also flirts with the pretty maid who attends his wife. When the wife complains of his too-familiar attitude toward the staff he accuses her over being oversensitive, irrational and controlling.
As the scenes unfold, the other source of her anxiety is revealed; inexplicably the glowing gas lights which illuminate the house periodically flicker and dim and when she observes this, her husband assigns this to her imagination as well, not noticing any change in the lamps on the walls. She also claims to hear noises from the upper floors of the house – more evidence of her failing mental capacity, according to her husband. Slowly, the situation erodes her confidence in her own perception and the whole cast call into question her sanity.
Whilst her husband is out of the house on one of his undisclosed errands, a visitor is introduced – a police inspector has come to visit. He explains that the house so recently occupied by the couple was previously the residence of a woman murdered for her jewels by a man who was never caught but who also never found his prize as he ransacked the house after the murder. During the inspector’s visit, one of the gas light moments occurs but for the first time the wife is validated in her perception – the inspector sees it too! This is the pivotal moment for our heroine.
The inspector reveals his belief that the woman’s husband is the aforementioned murderer who leaves the house to secretly return through the neighbouring house to search the upper floors for the unclaimed jewels, covering his noisy exploits with a smoke-screen of behaviours and tricks which confuse his wife and make her too unsure to challenge him properly.
The play Gas Light appears to have been well received by both critics and audiences. In fact, it struck a chord so resonantly that the script has been performed consistently since 1938, as far a-field from London as the Philippines and as recently as this year.
The play was also adapted into various movie versions of the same plot (the black-and-white Ingrid Bergman version is particularly good). And most significantly, the name of the play has been used to brilliantly capture the special type of relationship dynamic that many women (and some men) experience at the hands of a certain type of partner – ‘gas-lighting’. Gas-lighting is the term used to describe the way some people manage to convince their partners that any concerns they have are imaginary, exaggerated or irrational, even being able to make some clueless or trusting types question their own perception and sanity.
Gas-lighting is most often done to smokescreen inappropriate romantic behaviour but can be applied to draw attention away from any behaviour the perpetrator couldn’t justify if scrutinised, like selfish financial choices. In essence, gas-lighting is a weird combination of a refusal to disclose information or negotiate decisions which should be jointly made, affront at being questioned, implicit or explicit questioning of the mental capacities of the other person, and unpredictable emotional withdrawal. In the susceptible partner, these tactics create confusion and anxiety which serve to dissempower and heighten dependency (more on that in another article).
What typically ends this psychological torture is either the ‘gas-ligher’ ending the relationship having satisfied their need for proof of their power by way of a complete break-down of their partner, or, some third party intervenes and provides the partner with enough validation of their ‘irrational’ perceptions that the smokescreen begins to clear and the naked truth is revealed. Such is the case in the original play – the inspector arrives to put the pieces of the puzzle together in such a way as the wife can see the sense in what previously made no sense.
Rather gratifyingly, the wife has her revenge for nearly being sent to the asylum. The inspector makes his suspicions known to the husband who tries to enlist his devoted and ‘irrational’ wife to help him escape justice. She obediently complies with her loathsome husband’s demands but manages to orchestrate his escape right into the clutches of the knightly inspector. As her husband threatens her one last time, she places the cherry on the rancid cake of his deception by claiming that he cannot hold her accountable as she is, of course, not responsible for her actions.
It will be the rare women who has not experienced some version of this treatment, from a man who exploits the stereotype of the irrational, emotional women in order to undermine her confidence in her own perceptions, as a way of disguising unacceptable behaviour. Some women have endured such well executed gas-lighting for such extended periods that their mental health is permanently damaged by the scars of anxiety and self-doubt. Now you have an alternative to doubting yourself – believing in your own perceptions and realising that such a trick could be played on us.