Rebecca's secrets

As a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel comes to the stage, Rhoda Koenig asks the playwright Frank McGuinness how he set forth on the road to Manderley
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Never out of print since it was an international bestseller in 1938, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca has exerted nearly as strong a pull on readers as the vengeful spirit of the title does on its heroine. It's not surprising that yet another stage adaptation (starring Nigel Havers) is about to hit the boards, but it does seem odd that its author is Frank McGuinness. The story of obsessive love in an English upper-class family's stiflingly conservative home is an unexpected choice for an Irish playwright known for dramas about war and the working class, such as The Factory Girls, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. But McGuinness's interest in the book began a long time ago.

Never out of print since it was an international bestseller in 1938, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca has exerted nearly as strong a pull on readers as the vengeful spirit of the title does on its heroine. It's not surprising that yet another stage adaptation (starring Nigel Havers) is about to hit the boards, but it does seem odd that its author is Frank McGuinness. The story of obsessive love in an English upper-class family's stiflingly conservative home is an unexpected choice for an Irish playwright known for dramas about war and the working class, such as The Factory Girls, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. But McGuinness's interest in the book began a long time ago.

"It has the reputation for being a girls' novel, but I think you'll find that a lot of boys read it in secret, that it fascinates them as much as it does the girls who read it at the age when they want to learn what goes on between men and women. I came to it when I was a bit older, though. When I was a University College, Dublin, I specialised in the Brontës and Jane Austen, and my tutor suggested I read Rebecca as a modern example of a Gothic romance. I had a real passion for it." Returning to it 30 years later, at the suggestion of the producer David Pugh, he found it "a real eye-opener to see what a consummate storyteller Du Maurier was - all the twists and turns, the voice of the narrator, the ending going against the morality of the time. Very daring."

Narrated by a woman whose name we never learn, Rebecca begins in Monte Carlo, where the drab, timid girl is a paid companion to a wealthy shrew. Soon after they meet, the handsome, wealthy widower Maxim de Winter, 20 years her senior, marries her and brings her back to Manderley, his mansion by the sea. But she feels inadequate in her new role and fears that her aloof, withdrawn husband is still in love with his first wife, Rebecca, whose glamorous, bewitching presence pervades the house. Rebecca's former bedroom is kept intact, as a shrine, by the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who makes plain her contempt for the second Mrs de Winter. But, as the heroine penetrates the secrets of Manderley, she finds the truth far worse. She discovers evil, corruption, and murder.

McGuinness has been wary of reading too much of the literature about Rebecca. He has not, for example, read John Sutherland's essay "Where Was Rebecca Shot?", which proves that Maxim is lying about the nature and circumstances of Rebecca's death, but readily agrees with its conclusions. Nor has he looked at any adaptation of the novel apart from one that Du Maurier did herself, in the Forties. "It's not very good. She loses some major characters and takes liberties with her own wonderful dialogue in order to turn the story into a Noël Coward type of drawing-room mystery."

In remaining faithful to the book, McGuinness faces the major task of recreating its disturbing atmosphere. "My mantra was always that famous opening sentence, 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.'" He wants the entire play to have the swift and eerie nature of a dream. "There will be very clean staging. The setting will be kept to an absolute minimum, with the dialogue and lighting doing as much of the scene-setting as possible."

That problem was much easier for Alfred Hitchcock to solve in his 1940 movie, with Laurence Olivier as Maxim and Joan Fontaine as the wife. The other main character, said Hitchcock, was the house. He intensified its other-worldly quality with darkness, mist, and Franz Waxman's music, and by making the miniature used for exterior shots resemble an old woodcut. The new wife's tormentor was terrifying to a supernatural degree. "Mrs Danvers [Judith Anderson]... was rarely shown in motion," Hitchcock said. "If she entered a room in which the heroine was, what happened is that the girl suddenly heard a sound and there was the ever-present Mrs Danvers, standing perfectly still by her side... To have shown Mrs Danvers walking about would have been to humanise her."

McGuinness admires the film but not Fontaine: "I remember watching it and thinking, 'What a drip'." What Hitchcock did, he says, is what many readers have done - he took the heroine at her own valuation. Most people read it when they're too young, he says. Those who read it later in life discover a festival of psychopathology.

There's fairly general agreement that the two Mrs de Winters, the vixen and the doormat represent two sides of Du Maurier - the dutiful wife of a strait-laced career soldier and the mother of three who was the author of morbid, passionate novels and who came from a sophisticated, cosmopolitan background. Feminist critics see Maxim's praise of the heroine's innocence as the male desire to prevent a wife from becoming an equal, even at the cost of driving her mad with feelings of worthlessness. Others take his frenzied denunciation of Rebecca as not "normal" to mean that she was a lesbian, a suspicion enhanced by the creepy devotion of Mrs Danvers. (Who can forget Anderson reverently sliding open a drawer and caressing Rebecca's lingerie?) "I'd say Rebecca was bisexual, like Daphne du Maurier," says McGuinness. But I think Mrs Danvers' love for her was maternal. Rebecca to her was a goddess."

Another interpretation is that Max's relationship with his much younger second wife is symbolic of incest. He treats her with the affectionate condescension of a remote parent, and tells her, "A husband is not so very different from a father." McGuinness doesn't buy this one. "I don't believe any of that. I think the father-daughter thing is a little game they're playing because she knows he likes it."

McGuinness thinks the narrator is "not nearly as mousy as she makes herself out to be. She wants to give the impression that she's a sweet goody-goody, but she's capable of thinking up very nasty comments ... She's a very clever woman as well. When she finally learns the truth, she knows exactly how to deal with it." If the wife is stronger than she appears, Maxim de Winter is much weaker. "He's attracted to strong women. That's what he needs. But what we need is not always what we like."

Among all this psychology, however, McGuinness thinks we should not lose sight of the political allegory of this pre-war story. "Remember that Manderley is portrayed as a little island - fertile, safe, set apart. And remember also that the ship that goes down in the harbour, and brings the truth to light, is a German ship ... The novel is full of references to the First World War and to the need to prepare for the next one. Like Rebecca, the world is full of powerful, malignant forces. They may be seductive, but they have to be destroyed."

Perhaps the most radical interpretation is a scepticism regarding the "facts" about Rebecca. After all, Maxim, our only source, is a liar. "He's lying about hating Rebecca," McGuinness agrees. "I've invented a scene in which Mrs Danvers confronts Max and says, 'You loved her, but she didn't love you.'" It's certainly odd that, given Maxim's purported hatred of his first wife, he should have shared a bed with her. By contrast, he and the prim second wife, with whom he seems to have no physical relationship, have single beds. If his attraction to his first wife was a sadomasochistic one, could Maxim's loathing and shame apply not only to Rebecca, but to what he could not resist doing with her? "I think," says McGuinness, "you're on to something there."

'Rebecca', Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne (0870 905 5060; www.theatreroyal.co.uk) from 20 January

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