Agony and the Ecstasy
A review of 'Letters Home - a Life of Sylvia Plath'
Venue: Falmouth Centre of Arts, May 17th
'Never commit suicide, because something always turns up.'
Plath) Cue: knowing laughter from the audience. Such black humour
might be an unexpected inclusion in a play that takes as its subject
Plath, infamous for her tragic suicide at the age of thirty. The
nature of Plath's demise served to mythologise her; but as a wandering
spirit haunting literary and, to a certain extent, popular consciousness
she has all too often been stripped of her humanity and manipulated.
A heroine for feminists; Plath exemplifies the wronged woman, a
victim oppressed by patriarchy. To others she represents a pathology
- her work fuelled by her sickness rather than her intellect. And
perhaps to the majority she has become a joke; synonymous with self-destruction,
depression and the admiration of self-absorbed teenagers.
But where this play succeeds is in its ability to show us other, less
publicised, facets of a personality which had a natural fluidity of
nature that allowed Plath to assume a myriad of roles. And the way it
does so is by using Plath's own words. But this is not the vengeful
and despairing voice of her most famous collection of poems, Ariel,
but that of a dutiful daughter in letters written to her mother.
From her college years to her death in February 1963, Plath wrote 696
letters to her family. A selection of these letters were collected together
by her mother who added her own commentary to produce the volume, Letters
Home, published in 1976 by Faber and Faber. Every word of the play comes
from this book.
The ensuing production in consequence is rather abstract. Plath's mother
Aurelia (played by Virginia Stride) is the main narrator who opens and
ends the play. In both acts she came on to the stage early and sat facing
the audience for some time before the lights would go off. Plath (played
by Rosalind Blessed) would then make her entrance, just visible in the
darkness. This served to stress her ghostly presence in a piece of theatre
which was simple in its premise - Sylvia's mother reading the letters
from her daughter and expanding on them if necessary. Sylvia would sometimes
voice the letters or fragments of them. Generally the actresses remained
on opposite sides of the stage and at first it was disorientating to
watch - you didn't know who was going to speak or which way to look.
What this unusually distinctive technique allowed for was the juxtaposition
of words from letters with the intention of revealing something of the
characters involved. For example, whilst Plath's mother described her
husband's death, Plath voiced her emotions concerning a depressed college
friend. She emphasised and repeated her feeling of being 'inadequate
and responsible'. These were feelings that plagued Plath as she alternated
between believing herself to be in some way responsible for her father's
death and blaming her mother for it.
Later the device also made it obvious how vicariously Plath's mother
lived through her daughter. The actresses joined hands and danced around
stage as they both spoke words from a letter in which Plath describes
a college dance. This part of the play was a little overdone but it
was an important point as it clarified the idea of Plath's overwhelming
desire to reach perfection for her mother's sake - and the resulting
resentment when she failed.
And to this effect the performances were superb. Blessed was not perfectly
cast to play Plath superficially, but she was spot on as the bright
and brash voice of the letters. The set itself was sparse as not to
distract from the words, but a table was a simple device for Blessed
to speak from when executing some of the relentless enthusiasm of the
letters. When representing Plath's frequent bouts of depression she
would often crouch down. This method of speaking from high and low positions
was an obvious indicater of the heights and depths from which Plath
constantly ricocheted between. The fact that her the audience could
laugh frequently in the play, even regarding her throwaway remarks regarding
suicide and her breakdown, proved that Blessed had triumphed in bringing
her words alive. Although the Plath in her letters was to some extend
a idealised version which she had honed to please her mother, the humour
and vivacity often missed in her poetry is also present - this Blessed
depicted with energy.
Stride's performance as Aurelia Plath was brilliantly understated. Calm
and quiet, she contrasted to Blessed's realisation of Plath in all her
drama. Many of Plath's fans may regard her as some sort of villain -
as she is a focus for a certain amount of demonisation within her poetry.
However, this production reveals a woman who was endlessly self-sacrificing
for the good of her children. Plath's anger was the consequence of guilt
- which was all of her own making. By describing Aurelia's married life
it reveals that the two woman were similar in many ways. One of these
was their shared tendency to submit and become subservient to the men
they loved, resulting in a loss of creative independence which was distressing
So in many ways this play succeeds in redeeming both its protagonists.
There is however someone else involved and he doesn't emerge smelling
so sweetly. Which is hardly surprising but a little unfair, as Ted Hughes
is hardly in the position to complain. What the device of the play does
allow in its choice of fragments and design of juxtaposition is the
option to swing the balance. We hear of Plath's miscarriage and straight
away of Ted's attempts to distract her by giving her his poems to type.
After she gives birth to her second child they both feast on the 'apple
pie I[Plath] made to tide us over'. Hughes's visits to London, revealing
the opportunities arising from his up-and-coming career, are all described
in quick succession with both Blessed and Stride using his name in unison
- this is clearly intended to represent his freedom and Plath's domestic
This is one truth ( it is after all subtitled a life of Sylvia Plath)
and although it is certainly murky territory, it made compelling viewing.
Some of Blessed's performances of letters surrounding traumatic periods
seemed a little melodramatic. Or perhaps it was the case that they were
just a little too difficult to watch - it felt voyeuristic, it felt
overly intrusive to hear her describe Plath's breakdown of 1953 and
the devastating demise of her marriage ten years later. But anyone who
previously perceived Plath as a little woman destroyed by the desertion
of her husband, were given a glimpse of a very different Plath. A woman
who responded with humour and joie de vivre to the world with
a tendency to regain her faith in and love of life, by staring into
the face of death. I admit I cannot see why anyone other than those
interested in Plath would want to see this play, as it was in many ways
disturbing. But those who love her poetry were rewarded with a depiction
of Plath which was unusual in its humanity and in its defiance of the
attempts of millions of critics to reduce her to an argument. Both devastating
and surprisingly uplifting; Letters Home is compulsive theatre.
AURELIA PLATH: Virginia Stride
SYLVIA PLATH: Rosalind Blessed
DIRECTOR: Hildegard Neil in association with the One from the Heart
© Jess Wynne 2001
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