The Woman in Black: Synopsis

Cast: 2 male / 1 male or female
Running time (approximate):
2 hours - not including the interval.
Acting Edition: The Woman in Black is published by Samuel French.


Arthur Kipps
The Actor
The Woman
Note: This synopsis is taken from the original manuscript for the 1987 world premiere of the play and may differ from the version which transferred to the West End. Please note, this synopsis contains SPOILERS for the play.

The Woman in Black is set in a small Victorian theatre over several rehearsals. The two actors are helped by light, sound and their own imaginations and skills to portray the events including the dog, Spider.

Act 1

In a Victorian theatre, Arthur Kipps is reading aloud from a manuscript of a script he has written. He has hired the Actor to help him dramatise and deliver the script so he may tell as troy which has affected his whole life. Despite the Actor's initial trepidation about the idea and Arthur's limited acting talent, they agree to continue. The action takes place over several rehearsals with the Actor informing Arthur, sound, light and imaginations will be all the tools needed to tell the story.

As the story begins properly, the actor playing Arthur Kipps assumes the roles of all the subsidiary characters whilst the Actor takes on the role of young Kipps.

Kipps is sent by his law-firm to sort through the private papers of the late Alice Drablow, an elderly recluse living in the inaccessible Eel Marsh House. Leaving his fiancée, Stella, he travels to the town of Crythin Gifford where he meets Sam Daily, a local landowner who begins to hint at the unnatural events surrounding Alice Drablow and the house where she lived.

Arthur attends the Drablow funeral the next morning with Mr Jerome from the local solicitors. There, he glimpses a young woman, dressed in black, who appears to be suffering from a dreadful wasting disease. When Jerome is asked who she is, the terrified man hurries Kipps away and insists he saw nothing.

A local villager called Keckwick agrees to take Kipps to Eel Marsh House and, in pony and trap, they head over the causeway which leads to the desolate house. He is warned the causeway is only accessible at certain times and to beware the mist which can quickly envelope the surrounding marsh and dangerous quicksands.

At the house, Kipps believes he glimpses the woman again on the marsh, but sets to work. Later, believing the weather good enough to walk back to the town, he decides to leave before Keckwick returns for him. As he crosses, the sea-mist descends and he becomes lost and confused. He hears, through the mist, the sound of a pony and trap and presumes it is Keckwick returning for him. However, helpless, he hears the pony and trap drive off the causeway and into the lethal marsh and the screams of the passengers. Terrified he returns to the house where he discovers a locked door which no amount of effort will open. Keckwick finds him distraught and returns him to the inn with Kipps wondering whether he has encountered something returned from the dead, despite not believing in ghosts.

Act 2

Within the theatre, as rehearsals continue, Arthur informs the Actor he has a surprised prepared for him. The story then continues.

The next day, Kipps seeks help with the papers, but is strongly warned by Jerome that no-one will help him or accompany him to Eel Marsh House. He meets Daily and tells him of his experiences at the house and of the woman. Daily advises him not to return, but Kipps will not listen and Daily gives Kipps his dog, Spider, as a companion much to Kipps' delight. Returning to the house, Kipps continues his work and, later, walking in the grounds with Spider, discovers a grave marked for Jennet Humfrye. Later, he sets up a bed for the night.

He is awakened by a persistent, knocking which can be heard throughout the house and goes to investigate. Afraid to try the locked door, he hears a child's scream from the marsh, but sees nothing. As he works, he begins to uncover the mystery of Alice, Jennet and the house in correspondence. Jennet, unwed and pregnant, was sent to Scotland by her family where - having given birth to a daughter - she is pressured into giving it up for adoption. Despite her protestations - even threatening to kill both herself and the boy, Nathaniel, the child is given to Alice and her husband to raise in Eel Marsh House. But Jennet warns Nathaniel can never be theirs.

As Kipps reads this, he hears a steady thumping and goes to explore. The previously locked door is now open and behind it is an abandoned, untouched nursery. He feels a sense of grief and desolation in the room. Curious, he leaves the room but the house is suddenly hit by a wind which extinguishes all light and a child's desperate cry is heard. As he relights a lamp, a whistling is heard and Spider darts off out of the house, Kipps follows and - despite the fog - discovers Spider trapped in the quicksand. He manages to rescue her, but as he and Spider recover, exhausted, the woman appears again as the sound of a pony and trap approaches.

It is Daily, worried about and come to find Kipps. They return to the house to pick up the papers, where Kipps discovers the nursery is now in chaos. He runs in fear to join Daily and return to the mainland.

As Kipps continues searching the papers, discovering deaths certificates for both Nathaniel and Jennet, the true tragedy of the woman and how it has affected the town for fifty years is revealed.

Despite agreeing to give her son away, Jennet returns to the town desperate to see her child. Eventually - after threats of violence - Alice agrees to let Jennet occasionally visit the boy providing the truth does not emerge. As a relationship develops though, Jennet decides to take the boy away with her. However, her plan is interrupted by a tragedy.

The boy and his nursemaid are riding in a trap being driven by Keckwick's father when sea-mist descends on the causeway. Lost and with the horses in a panic, the trap is ridden off the path into quicksand where all drown. Jennet, at the window of the house, hears everything but can see nothing or help. Driven mad by grief and blaming Alice, she contracts a terrible wasting disease which causes her to appear like 'a walking skeleton - a living spectre'. Several years later she dies in hate and misery and the hauntings begin.

Daily reveals that, whenever the woman is glimpsed, a child dies in violent or dreadful circumstances. Kipps doubts there is a connection, but Daily insists that one thing unites the town: 'we know.'

Kipps returns home, marries Stella and a year later, they have a son - to whom Daily is Godfather. One day, the family visit a park and Stella and her son take a ride in a horse and trap. As he enjoys the scene, Kipps sees the woman a final time. Horrified and helpless, he sees the horse bolt and crash, throwing his son, who is killed instantly and fatally injuring Stella, who dies months later.

The manuscript comes to an end with Kipps saying: 'I had seen the ghost of Jennet Humfrye, and she had had her revenge. You asked for my story, I have told it. Enough.'

The story told, Arthur thanks the Actor for all his help, convinced he has exorcised the ghost of his past.

SPOILER WARNING (highlight to read): The Actor enquires about the surprise and where she came from. Confused, Arthur informs him the surprise was he had learnt his lines. The Actor though is referring to the actress Arthur had obviously brought with him - ' a young woman. With a wasted face….'

To which, a horrified Arthur can only remark, 'I did not see a woman.'

"What could I be afraid in this rare and beautiful spot? The wind? The marsh birds crying? Reeds and still water?"

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd, all rights reserved 2022. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.