Sep '03 [Home]


Sylvia Plath and the Only Truthful Act

by Elaine Schwager

. . .

Edge, Paul Alexander's one-woman show at the DR2 Theater based on the life of Sylvia Plath, opens with the poet's announcement that this is the last day of it; within hours she will be dead. Angelica Torn coolly, matter-of-factly echoes Plath's words:  "The moon has nothing to be sad about/ Staring from her hood of bone./ She is used to this sort of thing." The difference between the onstage way of speaking them and the poem's exemplifies the shortcomings of this play.

Its conceit is an investigative, whodunit murder mystery that asks:  Is this death a collaborative effort, the work of many evil, destructive forces or the result of one woman's madness, fate or self-destructiveness? Such a framework inevitably leads to reductionistic answers, whether psychoanalytic—pointing fingers at parenting and a traumatic history—or societal or moral, and veers from the genuine mystery and complexity of how Plath transformed the pain and anguish of her life into beautiful, truthful, often luminous poems, and from the tragedy of that life expiring when and how it did.

In our culture, it is more common for suicide to be contemplated with a moral tag—What went wrong? Why did this person perform this ignoble action?—in the lead than with the question:  What is it about souls that hug death like a warm teddy, embrace its possibility of ending falsehood, traps, betrayal, the limited possibilities they see for their life in the moment? What is it about that yearning?

For some, the suicidal act is the only truthful one possible. While this playwright presents the facts of the poet's life, he seems too little immersed in the contradictions and nuances of her creative mind to fully illuminate that mystery she touches in her poems. Yet, the performance that follows the straight, factual path becomes a virtuoso unwinding of the emotional intensity and range of his protagonist's dark, steamy psychic landscape.

The playwright does not engage the facts with his own reflection and probing, nor with Plath's creative genius as manifested in her poetry, to lend more complexity and depth to a well-known biography. Emotionally tormented and abandoned by her father, she repeated this in her marriage to Ted Hughes; she fell into incompetent hands after her suicide attempt; she was a woman whose genius could not flower in the still male-dominated, pre-Liberation soil of her times. Mr. Alexander answers quite clearly the question posed in his play:  Is a suicide just the work of the person who commits it or do many people create this death? The suicide is a cumulative, collaborative effort of Nazi father, well-meaning but unenlightened and passive mother, incompetent doctors, evil husband, and a sexist society.

This question makes the mind work in a logic very different from that present, for example, in these lines from "[The?] Paralytic":

I smile, a Buddha, all
Wants, desire
Falling from me like rings
Hugging their lights.

The claw
Of the magnolia,
Drunk on its own scents,
Asks nothing of life.

Here we have a releasing from life, luminous with a despair that is also a surrender, a withdrawal from life that is sweet with an inner fullness. In these lines, one is not left asking the question Plath asked of her father—"How could a man, a doctor of Biology, be so stupid?"—and which the play leaves us asking of her: How could a woman, so intimate with the workings of her soul, so insightful, be so stupid as to let forces less than her control everything?

Daddy managed, rather than loved her, and she yessed him. Mother wanted her to be perfect, and she blindly let that be her motto. Ted wanted to choke her and cast spells and hypnotize her into wanting him and wanting her to die for lack of him, and she did. The shrinks made her believe that, like a broken TV, she just needed to be kicked to work again, and she let them. But her poetry, Plath declares, unlike her husband's, who fawnishly wrote for approval and adoration, spills blood on the page and indicts the world. The mystery in this contradiction is not sufficiently engaged.

I hoped to come away from Edge understanding more of how a woman who has enough confidence to wake at four every morning and write for four hours before her children stir and to be so in love with the forces that create her art (" the blood jet is poetry,/ There is no stopping it.") can so easily lose this confidence to the hypnotic demand of a father or a husband to hate and destroy herself. I wanted the Black Magic which Plath attributed to Ted and his mother to be probed for how its need to possess—incestuously and sexually—destroys soul. This struggle with the perceived evil is perhaps closer to where the deeper drama is.

We sense the bell jar around Plath, see how bravely she struggles in her poems for clarity and for contact with herself and with others. In the play, she is at one moment victim of the evil other, her husband, and in the next sees lucidly how she has picked him to resemble her father, the Nazi beekeeper, to a tee. One moment she is full of hate and revenge and, in the next, pining to have him near. But this deeper drama within her is not the one played out.

Surely she agonized as to whether she transferred to the man she loved as husband some of her expectations of a "Nazi" father. So keen to how her childhood repeated itself in her marriage, did she not also acknowledge her capacity to recreate the horror even as she tried to escape it? Was not this victim of bad parenting, bad psychiatry, and a husband's Yorkshire spells also a Medea, who killed a part of her children as a part of her had been killed, and who killed "a bag full of God" her own destroyer? It is this inner struggle that was missing for me in Edge and which let me emerge from it without the illusion of Greek necessity.

What does shine in this play is Angelica Torn. She fully inhabits Plath with her emotional intensity and expertly takes us beneath the icy tone of the opening to reveal Sylvia's layers of vulnerability, passion, humor, and intelligence. She illuminates the discrete shards of Plath's Psyche:  bitterness, rage, jealousy, blame, self-pity, the passion of creating and of loving as a wife and mother.

What the play needs is a stronger sense of the tension between the forces within and without that led to her demise:  short-sightedness, sensitivity to oppression, to betrayal and to Nazi figures, as confronted by the ruthlessness, crass opportunism, and control that overpowered her. The material is there, and so is the actress who can bring it to life. Perhaps one more revision will launch us out of the explanatory into the unexplainable realm from which Plath wrote and struggled with reality.

(A practicing psychotherapist, Elaine Schwager, is a Regular Contributor to the magazine. [Masthead] Her latest poetry collection is I Want Your Chair, reviewed in the Jan '01 issue with an accompanying interview. She wrote on grief counseling victims' families in the Dec '01 issue.)

The DR2 Theater's production of Edge, runs until September 20 at 103 E 15th St. Tele-Charge: (212) 239-6200.