A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
After Mrs. Rochester

Polly Teale’s “After Mrs. Rochester” is a theatrical tour de force based on the troubled life of novelist Jean Rhys, a white Creole who identified with the West Indian madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  Onstage all at the same time, impressively acted, are the disheveled older Jean, drinking in her cottage in Devon, her remembered beautiful younger self, and mad Bertha Mason, her alter ego. For Shared Experience, Ms. Teale has done a brilliant job of weaving into a theatrical whole the life of Rhys from her autobiographical novels and incidents from “Jane Eyre. Alienation, isolation, and incarceration become themes of the play as under Ms. Teale’s expert direction, Rhys’s life unfolds, interspersed with scenes from Bronte’s novel.  Economically depicted, the action takes place before a cyclorama that changes from Caribbean pinks and oranges to British grey, in Angela Davies’ imaginative set, with the chairs, wardrobe, trunks, and piles of manuscripts serving for the many locales.

Diana Quick is brilliant as Jean, grey-haired and disheveled, drinking in her paper-strewn room, refusing to admit her daughter, who knocks at the locked door.  When not center stage, Ms. Quick never stops acting and reacting, watching the progress of young Jean (Madeleine Potter) from frisky girlhood in Dominica in the Caribbean to sexually awakened teen-ager, to a beautiful but promiscuous woman deserted by a series of men.  On the floor a ragged heap comes to life, groaning, dancing, or laughing hysterically. This is Bertha (Sarah Ball), Bronte’s madwoman whom Jean sees as her savage side, locked away but at times bursting forth. Like Bertha, Jean bit a man (when his loud music interfered with her writing) and went to jail. In the play, Jean struggles to break away from Bertha so that she can be a “normal” mother to her daughter.

Ms. Potter is impressive as young, carefree Jean, beaten for her antics by her mother, who is struggling to maintain dignity in the colonial outpost where their near-poverty is scorned by the better-off black majority.  When sent to school in England, Jean is again an outcast, her Creole accent derided and leading to her discharge from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she hoped to train as an actress.  She winds up in the chorus line of a seedy Edwardian touring company, as an artist’s model, as a “kept woman.”  Reminiscent of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she worries about her looks, and seeks solace in drink and safety in relations with men.  Ms. Teale notes that Rhys’s novels capture “the deep insecurity and anxiety that comes from never somehow feeling solid,” a feeling that is “particularly feminine.”

  When Jean’s first lover ends their affair, she spends four days writing him a long letter; “once it’s written down, it doesn’t hurt so much,” she finds. Among her subsequent marriages and affairs is a marriage to a journalist who is jailed for fraud, while she, poverty-stricken and pregnant; must leave the baby in a clinic. Simon Thorp creates two dominant males, dictatorial Ford Madox  Ford, Jean’s mentor who changes her name from Ella Rees Williams to Jean Rhys (“more modern”) encourages her writing, loves her, and then deserts her.  Mr. Thorp also is impressive as Mr. Rochester in the scenes with Amy Marston, who finds the perfect quiet strength for Jane Eyre.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is the best-known of Jean Rhys’s novels, described as a “prequel” to Jane Eyre in telling of the earlier life of the first Mrs. Rochester, unknown to Rochester when he marries her in the West Indies as an impoverished young man, encouraged by both families and tempted by her large dowry.  In the novel, Jean identifies with Bertha, like herself an exile from the warmth of the Caribbean and the “wide Sargasso sea” to the cold of England, and like her, subject to fits and violence.  Her other novels, about alienated women living on the edge of society, include After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight.