Terrance Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea provides profound comments on love and the role of gender in our perception of mental instability. This play explores themes of desperation, failure, and blind love, and while it is a painful story to watch, its presentation is powerful.
Hester Collyer is found in her living room by her neighbors after a failed suicide attempt. the reason? Her lover has forgotten her birthday, the last straw. Her husband, William Collyer, is phoned, and we discover that he has not granted her a divorce because of his reputation and occupation that invites a public eye. Hester boasts for her alcoholic lover, Freddie Page, pledging her love for him even in her heartbreak. When Freddie leaves to take a new job in South America, leaving Hester behind, she is forced to face the new reality of being an individual.
Hester is one of the great female characters of contemporary theater. She seems to know what she wants and has very strong convictions, even deciding to commit suicide on a whim, something that rarely, if ever, happens in real life. However, with all of this will, there is a still a great weakness for love housed within her. She allows her lover to walk over her, disregarding her feelings. She left a stable life with a husband of repute for this man, who in return, gives her almost nothing. Hester states in one of her conversations with William that when they were married, she felt that he constantly had the need to remind her that there was nothing that Hester could offer him; not money, not a baby, not a family who enhanced his status. This choice to reverse her role by stepping into a new relationship speaks to Hester’s need to be needed.
Her choice to attempt suicide is answered by an amateur doctor, Mr. Miller, one of the neighbors that lives in Hester’s building. When another neighbor asks if Hester is mentally sound after her brush with death, Miller’s answer is, “She has no remaining symptoms of psychosis that warrant a certificate of insanity.” I found this response to Hester’s actions one of the most devastating of the entire play. Not only is psychosis not a symptom of depression, which Hester clearly suffers from, but it is also not that only thing that would drive one to suicide. Furthermore, to label someone insane is to stigmatize someone for a condition that they cannot help.
Miller’s comment may have also been a mere testament to the time period. Certainly the 1940’s did not afford the same knowledge of mental illness that we know today, but there is still of the question of the “inherent linkage” between women and mental illness. This is an informed association to make, but it is one that has been made since ancient times, since the coining of the word ‘hysteria,’ which literally refers to the idea that a woman has gone mad because of her “wandering uterus.”
No one seems to react to Hester’s act by reaching out and loving her. Not her husband, not her lover, not her new found friends. In fact, at the end of the play she ends up completely alone, just where she started. Would the ending of this play have been different had the protagonist been a male character? I think yes.
The play was presented in a very powerful way. Dynamic scenic, light, and sound design added to the intensity and function of more abstract moments, and heightened the tension in Hester’s moments of clarity. I believe that this is a play worth seeing, as it does provoke very deep and essentially human questions.