In 1855, a youthful Wilkie Collins (author The Woman in White and The Moonstone) wrote his first drama, The Lighthouse, setting it on the Eddystone Rock. In the preface he wrote
‘Two men were in charge of maintaining the light at the top of the Lighthouse…These keepers lived on an utterly bleak rock, at the mercy of the elements, for all regular communication with the main land, that is to say, for all contact with the rest of the world and for the renewal of provisions essential to their survival. This singular situation struck me as full of potential for a dramatic situation never before exploited.’ Collins goes on to describe the terrifying perils facing the keepers, including the risk of starvation. He describes how, in order to give the drama more depth, he established a strong relationship between the men, ‘as distinct from those between other men’, by linking it to a crime committed long ago, ‘It is thanks to these circumstances that I hoped to be able to show the most violent emotions between men’.
The drama opens with the keepers cut off by a storm, wondering how many weeks they have been there for. Hunger and alcohol induced hallucinations take hold and the older keeper confesses to a murder that guiltily haunts him. Confessing in a moment of confusion, he then ‘gaslights’ the younger into believing it is he who is going mad.
In Robert Eggers’ latest film, The Lighthouse, on general release this week, the plot eerily mirrors Collins’ narrative in its claustrophobic depiction of isolation, madness and violent masculinity: two lighthouse keepers, one old and one young, are sent to mind a lighthouse on an isolated rock in the middle of the sea. Cut off from civilisation, tensions rise as the manipulative old keeper forces the younger into a relationship of servitude and submission. Both have secrets to hide and as the storm blows and the seas rage, preventing any escape, hidden truths and forbidden fantasies are soon revealed. As provisions are exhausted, the keepers’ sense of reality, time and identity is lost, merging in hallucinatory confusion with mermaids, sea-gods and the ghosts of dead sailors.
Robert and Max Eggers wrote the role of the old lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, for one of the USA’s greatest actors, Willem Dafoe, an actor with experience in both cutting edge theatre and film. Wake’s protégé keeper is played by Oscar-nominated Robert Pattinson. Dafoe and Pattinson give outstanding performances that the nineteenth century stage would have been proud of. Dafoe’s handling of the archaic sailor’s dialect and heightened text, declaimed in a terrifying monologue in which he summons the sea gods’ curse, leave one with a sense of the great psychological acting that Collins had envisaged in his own lead actor, the novelist, Charles Dickens, who ‘literally stunned’ the audience as the old keeper, Aaron Gurnock, by becoming a ‘living, palpitating reality, a completed picture in which the greatest tragic effects were obtained without betraying the most exact and scrupulous truth.’ Dickens was by all accounts an incredible actor.
When Collins presented Dickens with The Lighthouse, the novelist immediately knocked down his drawing room in order to build a theatre for its performance. Surrounded by a circle of visual artists second to none, Dickens commissioned the marine artist and scene painter, Clarkson Stanfield, to paint a front cloth for the production. Stanfield was familiar with Turner’s paintings of Eddystone and produced a painting reflecting his unsettling seascapes. Eggers’ has a background in visual production, demonstrated in the stunning compositional artistry of the film. Turner, Stanfield and Eggers each give a sense of the elemental forces that cannot be survived. Eggers is a director who exploits sensation – Collins, arguably, the founder of sensation fiction. Both Eggers and Collins’ Lighthouse plays upon the audiences’ senses, visually, aurally and viscerally reflecting the intermedial nature of the Victorian theatre. Aaron Gurnock’s confessional monologue is punctuated with the ominous sounding of the lighthouse gong, Damian Volpe’s uncanny sound design for Eggers’ score builds tension by intermittently sounding the foghorn. Where Dickens’ sons stood in the wings of their father’s theatre rolling pebbles across wooden boxes, throwing handfuls of salt across the stage and operating the wind and thunder machines with all their might, the constant lashing of wind and waves relentlessly permeates each of Eggers’ scenes.
The unapologetic theatricality and period detail of Eggers’ film may not be for everyone but although Dickens and Collins were harsh critics of imitation (even the unlucky seagull features in each) I suspect they might have relished Eggers’ re-telling of a universal story that keeps returning to haunt us.
The Lighthouse, dir. Robert Eggers is on general release in the UK; The Lighthouse by Wilkie Collins, edited, with an introduction by Caroline Radcliffe & Andrew Gasson, Foreword by P. D James, is available from Francis Boutle Publishers, £9.99p.