Perhaps it was inevitable that a major British performance group should eventually decide to reenact the lives of the Brontë sisters. Featuring only four performers, as Charlotte, Emily, Ann and Branwell, Scars by Hesitate and Demonstrate was staged at the I.C.A. in a crammed portmanteau area which, by dint of clever lighting, became by turns a railway waiting room, a dining room, a bedroom, a seaside restaurant, a church, a box at the theatre, a tropical hut, a graveyard and a railway line. Cluttered, ludicrous, fascinating, the entire design resembled a Victorian interior. Like the soundtrack, with its children’s songs and brass band music, fire and water and noises of the heath, it formed a mental landscape astonishing in its heights and depths but also dull, pent by the boredom of daily chores. Ann cut up meat for the dog, while Charlotte washed dishes. As if imitating the repetitions they sensed in the Brontë household, the group improvised within the time-slots of the soundtrack, changing spaces, sets and props from one performance to the next and reworking the relationships between family members. (For a time after Branwell lost his job with the railway sisters and brother all lived together.)

If Scars began with biographical facts, it extended to include the private histories of each character, mythologizing them as they mythologized themselves and each other in their work. The line between fiction and reality was lost; Charlotte became Grace, the mad woman in Jane Eyre; Branwell turned into his father and gave a fire and brimstone sermon; he also became the foreign schoolmaster killed off at the climax of Charlotte’s Villette.

Scars was conceived as sublime pastiche, a form of mimetic criticism in which impact is everything. The Brontës, unlike Dickens, have no hotline to the reading public; apart from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights they are probably unread. There are fanatics, to be sure, like Winifred Guerin, the biographer of all four Brontës, who long ago bought their home and walks the moors daily. Yet the strangeness of three totally ordinary, totally crazed women has always been somehow repellent. Marxist critics are still trying to fit the sisters back into Victorian society. As feminists, then, Hesitate and Demonstrate picked their subject with care, and their treatment of it should be compared with Terry Eagleton’s Myths of Power or Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. It doesn’t matter which; criticism has been “defined” for long enough.

Performance can veer toward dance, music, mime or just talk. At first an event like Scars seems close to traditional theatre, though words are used only once during the evening. Geraldine Pilgrim and Janet Goddard, the mainstays of Hesitate and Demonstrate, were both “fine artists.” It shows. If the use of known material and the reliance on a dense underpinning of “nonfiction” serve a purpose, it is precisely as an anchor, like a dramatic plot, to prevent the viewer from becoming besotted by single images, like the stuffed tiger rising slowly to attack Charlotte, or Emily’s expression, as if she is writing the entire work as it happens.

At the heart of the matter was Branwell, for he served most of all as the fantasy figure who inflicted the invisible “scars.” At the start he smoked and thought in darkness as a jukebox played “Only the Lonely.” His sleep disturbed, his youthful promise blighted, his head filled to bursting with Napoleonic paraphernalia, he resented his sisters’ fictional manikins; why should they find release from mental turmoil while he was left with his lead soldiers, alone and angry. Privately seething with frustration, publicly his appearance seemed a cipher for masculinity incarnate, the women’s dreams of a date who would dance and arm them into carriages, a flirt who would prefer them and jilt their sisters, a demon lover . . . And naturally, for one of them, a Titan, standing at the portals of death, bearing his ecstatic bride proudly aloft as lightning filled the sky and thunderstorms raged over the moors.

Stuart Morgan