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Gaslighting as a Plot Device

The 1939 play that gives us the term ‘gaslighting’ is set in a building in which several floors of apartments share the same gas supply for their lights. Gas jets were widely used for indoor lighting at that time. Like water pipes, gas pipes have only so much supply and if lots of lights are on at the same time, individual lights might get less gas, and look dimmer. But what if you are just imagining that the lights are dimming? And that you hear footsteps above you in a vacant apartment? Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re losing your mind.

Or maybe someone wants you to think you’re losing your mind!

That is the plot device in this interesting play. Bella wonders where her husband Jack goes at night—and she also worries about the footsteps she hears and the dimming of the gas lights. He bullies her into thinking she’s crazy, or at least he tries to. (See the handout or go to Wikipedia for a more detailed synopsis.

It’s a classic plot and fun to play with, perhaps by recreating something like it in a more modern setting. Maybe Jack is hiding a mermaid in the empty basement apartment, and it’s the water that he keeps running in order to refill the large tub down there. Okay, if that’s too silly for you, work out another plot device, and wrap a story around it. Time to get creative:-)

Another option is to rewrite the synopsis of the original Gas Light play by Patrick Hamilton, but keep it set in the same building in the 1930s. What if it’s not the husband who’s searching for stolen jewels hidden in the upstairs apartment? What if it’s the wife, Bella, and she’s framing her husband to get him arrested. Wait, what if there are no jewels, that’s just a story she made sure Jack heard, to get him to start searching. She gets him arrested in order to go off into the sunset with the police detective, who’s in on it too. So now gaslighting takes on an even more sinister twist: Jack was tricked into thinking he could trick Bella, but actually, the ultimate trick is on him!

The concept of gaslighting and the play itself make for a wonderful jumping-off point for any workshop or writing session focused on plotting. I spun a couple of off the cuff ideas for new plots based on the old, but I’m sure your students can come up with many more. Ready, set, plot.

– Alex Hiam, author of Silent Lee and the Secret of the Side Door Key are available on Amazon.

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