A portrait of the artist as a dead woman

It was a place of force--
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.
--from "The Rabbit Catcher" by Sylvia Plath.

Uttering nothing but blood--
Taste it, dark red!
And my forest
My funeral,
And this hill and this
Gleaming with the mouths of corpses.
--from "Childless Woman," also by Plath.

By the time I attended Smith College in the early '80s, VIP alumna Sylvia Plath was firmly established as the school's macabre mascot. Hundreds of women had already mimicked her poetry and many more had worshiped her persona.

I remember listening in the college library to recordings Plath had made of poems like "Daddy," "Lazarus" and "The Rabbit Catcher." Beyond turning my friends and me on to the heights and depths of formidable manic depression, the poems took my breath away with their extravagant beauty and brutality.

Of course members of the truly elite Plath cult were on the dormitories' unofficial suicide watch, and they had the scars to support their terrifying tales. (Plath finally took her own life after repeated--albeit sometimes half-hearted--attempts.) Still, Plath spoke to us all, even the guileless and the emotionally healthy.

In life, she was the quintessential superachiever who masked a classically female inferiority complex and impostor syndrome with a male-sized ego and a burning gift. The chasm-size difference between Plath and every other kilted, pre-Prozac (hell, pre-Lithium) college student with a tidy bob cut is that she spun her mad ravings and unadulterated self-hatred into glorious art.

Like other prolific artists who killed themselves with a gruesome flourish (Anne Sexton, Mark Rothko, Jean Michel Basquiat, to name a few), Plath has gained huge notoriety since her death in 1963. Ironically, relatively few know the vivid, excessive, and excruciating images from her poetry. Rather they know her (or think they know her) from The Bell Jar, her own less brilliant take on her first breakdown, and the myriad books, biographies, a bad TV movie, and Janet Malcolm's masturbatory New Yorker series on the poet and the nature of biography.

And they know her from the book her mother, Aurelia Plath, published, entitled Letters Home. Amazingly, Sylvia Plath wrote almost 700 letters to her family between 1950 and 1963, and they are extraordinary for their show of ebullience and humor as well as the better-known netherworld of her despair. The letters offer some insight into her personality--at least the one she tried to present to the outside world.

Oddly enough, Plath never wrote about her poems. Much of the time she was determined to become a short story writer, but in fact she didn't write about writing in her letters. She wrote of balls, big bands and boys, highs and lows, and later her diffuse pain, longing, and sense of futility despite an almost constant barrage of literary prizes, including a Fulbright scholarship.

Verit Actors' Theatre is currently presenting Letters Home, a play based on Sylvia Plath's letters written by Rose Leiman Goldemburg, at the Addison Centre Theatre's Old Stone Cottage. It serves as an intriguing, well-paced and moving introduction to Plath's tumultuous life.

But who doesn't already know too much about her life? The play comes up short because it is, in the end, Sylvia and her mother reading those letters, which doesn't leave a tremendous amount of room for a dramatic build or climax. Everyone in the audience knows all too well where this is heading as Plath yearns for oblivion to stanch the loss of perfection, the accumulation of pain.

More disappointingly, the reiteration of Plath's most intimate letters doesn't illuminate why. She doesn't express that kind of self-reflection in the missives, so the audience is left with the same old questions. Why does a young, hugely intelligent girl gash her own legs? Why does a woman who is the envy of all her peers overdose on sleeping pills and hide in the crawl space of her mother's house to die? (Her brother discovered her days later.) And why did Plath finally stick her head in the gas oven while her gorgeous children took tea in another room? Even Plath is without words when it comes to reasoning out her own bottomless, self-nourishing pathos. Her rich, provocative interior life became smaller and darker and caused her demise. For all the hype, that process is largely unplumbed here.

That said, Verite does a lovely job with the limited material at hand, and the cottage is the perfect space to evoke both a modest home and a Smith dorm room. Both actors, Jamie Austin as Sylvia and L'illette Raley as her mother, bring a strong and often riveting presence to the production. It is also a handsome directing debut for Shannon Phipps: the work is often musical in its approach, and she demonstrates a handle on that musicality as well as the drama that does exist. The most affecting moments are when the two characters speak over each other, reading from the same or related letters in harmony, dissonance or canon, and those occasions are nicely performed and directed.

I had some trouble with Austin's faux English accent and high-pitched, fevered tone. I remember Plath's voice as being deeper and huskier, her expression slightly laconic. And Aurelia comes across as a one-dimensional care-bear of a mom who is desperately, dangerously naive about the gravity of her daughter's condition.

Overall there is a luster to the performance I wouldn't have expected from this work, but, still, I wanted more--more about Plath's art, more about how she worked and why. Enough already on her summer in New York as a Mademoiselle guest editor, her Fulbright scholarship, and her devastating marriage to Ted Hughes.

If only she had written about her creative process the way she wrote about clothes, dances, men, the life she wanted and the beautiful children she bore. Then we would have something to go on. After all the details of her life and illness finally settle into the background, where they belong, it is her poems that shine in clear relief, edgy jewels worth obsessing over.

Letters Home runs through December 3 at The Stone Cottage. Call 821-4529 for more information.

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Nora Fitzgerald

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