The Old Hollywood Origin Story of the Term “Gas Lighting”

While the term gas lighting subject to occasional inaccuracies these days, its definition is a little more complicated than simply lying to someone. To gaslight a person is to psychologically manipulate them into distrusting their own memories or even their entire sense of reality. Its often-overlooked origin story features appearances from Vincent Price, Ingrid Bergman, and, most importantly, real gaslights.

In December 1938, the Richmond Theater in London premiered Patrick Hamilton’s last play: gas lamp, a psychological thriller set in the 1880s. In it, Mr. Manningham blames his wife, Bella, for a series of missing belongings, despite her having no recollection of having done anything with them. She then begins to hear noises coming from the attic at night, which coincide with the flickering of gas lamps.

As lighting a gas lamp can interrupt the flow of gas to other lamps already lit, the implication is that someone lights one in the attic, causing the others to go dark. Bella is led to believe that she also imagined these observations. When a former detective reveals to him that a former resident of the house has been murdered, leaving behind as yet unlocated jewels, it becomes clear that Mr. Manningham was involved in the crime and is now on the hunt for the hidden riches. . Worse still, to keep his wife in the dark, he slowly tries to convince her that she is crazy.

The play was a hit and adaptations quickly proliferated in the entertainment industry, starting with the British film gas lamp in 1940. The following year, a Hollywood theater staged a three-person production of the play, titled Five Chelsea Lane, which Vincent Price and Edith Barrett caught up with. The couple were so captivated that they decided to take the story to Broadway. Barrett dropped the project, but Price did not. The show, renamed street of angels, debuted at the John Golden Theater on Broadway on December 5, 1941, with Price playing Mr. Manningham and Judith Evelyn as Mrs. Manningham. Although Pearl Harbor was attacked two days later, this tragedy – and America’s entry into World War II – did not spoil the flow of the play. It remained on Broadway until December 30, 1944.

A few months earlier, audiences had discovered another version of Hamilton’s stubbornly popular psychodrama: gas lamp, an MGM film directed by George Cukor starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer as the central spouses. Their maid was played by 18-year-old Angela Lansbury, making her screen debut.

This gas lamp in particular is probably why the term gas lighting basically means “what happened to the woman in gas lamp.” Hamilton’s original play had a significantly smaller scope, and its Broadway counterpart wasn’t even called gas lamp. The 1940 British film was, but MGM set out to erase it from cinematic history by destroying as many copies as possible. Moreover, the years 1944 gas lamp was a smash hit, earning a handful of Oscar nominations and a “Best Actress” win for Bergman.

According to the 1994 edition of Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slangthe general public was already using gas lamp as a verb at least as early as 1956. By the 1960s it had entered the academic sphere. “It is also commonly accepted that it is possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting their own behavior as symptomatic of serious mental illness,” anthropologist Anthony FC Wallace wrote in his book. from 1961. Culture and personality.

Thanks in part to the current reality-distorting and misinformation-filled social media landscape — not to mention the movement for better mental health literacy and support — the term gas lamp comes back a lot. And while people don’t mention its entire melodramatic history so often, the subject does occasionally find its way into the mainstream. Saturday Night Livefor example, spoofed 1944 gas lamp in a recent sketch, which might illustrate the concept of gaslighting better than any written definition could hope to.

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