Issue 194 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1996 Copyright Socialist Review



It takes two to tango

Voyage in the Dark
by Joan Wiles

The loneliness of restless nights

This play, adapted from the Jean Rhys novel, is the story of Anna, fresh from Dominica, very much the innocent abroad. Having grown up as a white estate owner's daughter, she finds London gloomy and oppressive. She constantly mourns the loss of her sun and fresh breeze but also misses the carefree lifestyle, as she sees it, of the black people she grew up alongside, particularly that of Francine, her best friend.
Earning her living as a travelling showgirl with no family to answer to, she is free to live a fairly unrestrained life but at 18 Anna is a lot more naive than her workmates. They nickname her 'the virgin' and mock her naivety. She in turn mocks their hypocrisy for their attempts to 'act like ladies' but at the same time comes to understand that their way of life is their only means of survival. Anna meets Jeffries in Southend while out walking during a tour and is in awe of his obvious wealth and charm. He in turn is captivated by her innocence and beauty.
He attempts to seduce her and eventually she is persuaded by his gift of 25 and his promise to take care of her. She doesn't see this money as his plan to keep her as his mistress--instead she sees it merely as a gift to buy some new dresses with. But although she falls deeply in love with him he treats her more like a luxurious plaything. She is slow to understand the precarious nature of her relationship with him and even slower to understand its inequality.
Initially she seems to really believe that she is exploiting Jeffries as much as he is exploiting her. It is only after spending a weekend in the country with Jeffries, his nephew and his nephew's French mistress that she realises how insecure her own future is. She understands her situation but refuses to accept it. When Jeffries abandons her, she is desperate not only because she must find a new way of earning a living but also because she truly loves him and doesn't believe he means to hurt her so much.
She meets up with her old chorus girl friends and so begins the seemingly inevitable slide from kept woman to paid prostitute.
The tempestuous affairs of the characters are played out by the passionate dance of the tango. It reflects the sexual tension--the pain and frustrated love of the play. Set in the sort of smoke filled cocktail bar/cheap hotel that most film noir is renowned for, it looks great. But the glamour doesn't conceal the reality of the lives of the women it portrays, whether it's Anna's slide into prostitution or her friend's ill fated attempt to provide for herself by setting up a manicuring business.
Throughout the play Anna reminisces about Dominica through the idealised vision she has of it. Although this is an image of a magical paradise--a stark contrast to the gloom of London that Anna finds herself surrounded by--the author is quick to remind us of the fate of the Carib Indians, the original inhabitants of the West Indies, at the hands of the colonialists.
This is a story of survival. The original ending of the novel which the play comes from had to be changed as it was seen as being too depressing. The new ending could hardly be seen as being more uplifting than the original. It places working class women's position in society as right at the bottom yet the characters earn some dignity and respect for their non-acceptance of the sexual role laid down for women. If you don't see the play, read this or Jean Rhys's other novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, and you will see a view of women 'who know the loneliness of restless nights in one night cheap hotels'. This is the voice of the marginalised and the oppressed, and 60 years after it was written Voyage in the Dark continues to challenge the values of our time.
Judith Lyons
Voyage in the Dark is touring throughout the country.

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