There lived three maids up high on a hill
Wind and wuthering rain and chill
There lived these maids they were sisters three
Charlotte, Emily, and Ann Brontë
— LipService Theatre’s “Withering Looks’” performed by Cygnet Productions
Almost everybody who has attended ninth-grade English class in the United States knows the tragic love story of Wuthering Heights, the 1847 novel by Emily Brontë, often considered the second-most famous of the Brontë sisters. Originally published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, which Emily occasionally shared with Charlotte and Anne Brontë, Wuthering Heights depicts the lives of two prominent families living on the West Yorkshire moors and the tempestuous relationship between protagonist Heathcliff and his heart’s desire, Catherine.
Portland’s Cygnet Productions flips the story on its head with Withering Looks, a humorous radio-hour satire developed as a stage play by Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding of England’s LipService Theatre. While heavily focused on the lives of the Brontë sisters and their works, this vivacious rendition, streaming free of charge through Jan. 31, is both relatable and easy to follow for fans and novices alike.
Withering Looks satirizes and anatomizes the story “in the name of both feminism and fun,” making the obvious even more obvious and thereby bringing hilarity to some otherwise overly melodramatic plot points.
A controversial book considered outdated and sexist by some scholars, the Victorian classic continues to ruffle feathers, polarizing its audience into categories of emphatic fans and harsh critics. “Brontë was no romantic child of nature but a pragmatic, self-interested Tory. Why is she still adored for her ‘screeching melodrama’ of a novel?,” argues The Guardian in a 2018 critique.
The book originally received little praise, due to its style of psychological realism, the characters’ unapologetic thirst for societal revenge, and depictions of overindulgence. One early review claimed the novel “strongly shows the brutalising influence of unchecked passion.” Nevertheless, Wuthering Heights today has literary cult status, despite some contemporary calls to reconsider.
Rather than shirk the brooding and toddler-like qualities of Brontë’s romantic hero (or anti-hero, depending on point of view) in the name of patriarchal dissent, it is perhaps our responsibility as readers to dive head-first into the phantasmagoria that Brontë delivers in the neatly wrapped Wuthering Heights package. From uniquely anti-Victorian feminine acts by Catherine to the claustrophobic fogginess of the moors and over-embellished, labyrinthine, antique rooms that house the women, Brontë asks us to consider not only the emotional trials that beset her characters but also the corrosive atmosphere in which she wrote them, surrounded simultaneously by 1800s luxury and the decay of her desirability as a thinking woman. In the words of moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “we must ourselves confront the shocking in Wuthering Heights, or we will have no chance of understanding what Emily Brontë is setting out to do.”
With Withering Looks, Cygnet Productions understands the assignment. The radio hour begins with two historical “hosts” with exaggerated Yorkshire accents: Audrey (played by Luisa Sermol) and Olivia (played by Vana O’Brien), who work for the National Institute for Bringing History to Life. A series of gaudily narrated withering looks takes place in the introduction, immediately inviting the reader into the mindframe of humor.
“Why was the writing of the Brontës so similar?” asks one host. The Brontë girls are then narrated through a scene involving peering at each other’s work to draw inspiration in a simple and funny – yet likely – portrait of three women living closely together. We are notified that hosts Audrey and Olivia will play the roles of Charlotte and Emily Brontë in a historic re-enactment for the “visitors” (listeners) of the institute. Anne Brontë is obviously missing from the play and her absence is explained as “going out for sugar.” “Anne is a puppet wearing a bonnet,” the narrator (played by Sarah Lucht) says plainly, foreshadowing the lesser-known third sister as the consistent punchline of the joke, with jabs at her lack of prolificacy and shorter books.
Later, Charlotte and Emily Brontë decide they must become rich and famous at once in order to bring themselves out of poverty and ill health, and they write about their neighbors, Mr. Morcock (aka Heathcliff) and his sister. Emily concocts a story about a secret he harbors and a forbidden relationship he has with his secretary. In her story, Mr. Morcock asks Emily for her hand in marriage and she rejoices until she learns that his mad wife is locked in the attic. “She contradicted me at the dinner table,” Mr. Morcock announced sadly. “Oh, you brave, brave man!” exclaims Emily. After a casually gruesome end to the wife, the story concludes with a “happily ever after.”
“Heathcliff is a little bit horrid, isn’t he?” asks Charlotte. “That’s the whole point!” shouts Emily, “Oh, I’m so ahead of my time!”
The sisters then play out the story with figurines. Catherine is depicted as a Barbie doll; her father, a wooden soldier; her brother, a G.I. Joe; Heathcliff’s foil Edgar Linton, a Ken doll; Linton’s sister, a Polly Pocket; and Heathcliff, a troll doll. Hearing Wuthering Heights acted audibly through the use of familiar childhood toys brought a smile across my face.
Ridiculous, choppy, unlikely, fun, and exaggerated, Withering Looks not only examines the narrative behind Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, but also the personalities of the Brontë family members. Their housekeeper, Nelly, retells the same tale of seeing souls rise from the dead bodies of tuberculosis victims and walk across the moors. Their brother, Branwell, pawns a portrait done by the sisters and uses the money to finance his “weak habits” including drinking and gambling. There are unhappy singing ghosts, bickering sisters, a party, general disillusionment about men, and sudden death.
“With the Brontë sisters, everything seems all right on the surface, but deep down it’s all unfulfillment and longing,” says one host.
After listening to the production, don’t miss director Louanne Moldovan chatting with LipService Theatre’s Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, the writers of Withering Looks. Fox and Ryding realized they had a gift for comedy, they tell Moldovan, when a serious Bristol University production of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea went awry. They soon began performing as the only female act in an alternative cabaret circuit, later satirizing great literature through live sketches.
Fox and Ryding describe their humor as “flopsy bunny” – different from the ranting humor common to male comics of the time. Withering Looks was born, they said, from their interest in the British Heritage industry, the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and how “you always end up in a gift shop that prioritizes purchasing trinkets over understanding the history of the literature.”