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By Mark Peikert
Truman Capote once described a sheet of paper he spied in a young woman’s typewriter. It read, “Sylvia Plath, I hate you/ And your damn daddy/ I’m glad, do you hear/ Glad you stuck your head/ In a gas-hot oven.”
That brief poem summarizes many people’s feelings about the suicidal poet. Sylvia Plath has long been remanded to the pop culture bin for angsty teen girls, the kind that wear black and sigh meaningfully over their scrawled-upon copies of Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, about an aspiring writer named Esther Greenwood who suffers a nervous breakdown. But this month, theatregoers will get another glimpse of the writer when Elisabeth Gray brings her one-woman show Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath to 59E59 Theatres.
“I was living in L.A., and a professor of mine from Oxford, a Plath scholar, asked if I would write a play about Plath for a Plath symposium,” Gray said recently, over a bottle of sparkling water. “And I said no, because I didn’t know much about Sylvia Plath, but I knew of Plath as a symbol of oppression. And she said, ‘But Elisabeth! You have so much in common with her!’ So I decided to go back and read Plath, just to see.’”
The result is Gray's play, a riotous comedy about a woman torn between being a perfect writer and a perfect housewife and not really succeeding at either.
Unable to secure the rights to Plath’s name or autobiography, Gray turned Plath into a character named Esther Greenwood (a nod to The Bell Jar) and Plath’s infamously philandering husband, poet Ted Hughes, into Ned Pews. As the show begins, audiences find Esther already shoulders-deep in her oven, until she emerges, hallucinating in the final ten seconds of her life, to relive her past. The trip down memory lane involves everything from witty stories to over-the-top, black-and-white film clips from Esther’s imaginary cooking show called Better Tomes and Gardens.
Discussing her light-hearted vision, Gray says, “Essentially, this is sacrilegious. Academics boycotted the symposium. There’s this possessiveness, this clubby feel. Plath has become the trophy wife of the feminist movement, as the damage men can do to women. But it diminishes her to suggest that a man was responsible for her actions. One element that I hope comes across is that a sense of choice was involved.”
In writing the show, Gray sidestepped the conventions of many solo shows. Disregarding the pro forma structure of One-Woman Celebrity Biography, in which the celebrity chatters about her life to the audience while planning a dinner party or sitting at a late-career press conference, Gray has made her play into something more fantastical—one with a talking oven. “I went to a cabin in the woods to write it,” she recalls. “And after six weeks alone, you start to think, ‘Gee, it’d be nice if that stove could talk. And to me, it’s a much greater suspension of disbelief to have a dead person stand and talk for an hour and a half than to talk to an oven."
Of course, no matter how the furniture talks, Gray's play, which won the Fringe First Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, could have been dismissed as just the latest hysterical show from a woman obsessed with dreary old Sylvia Plath. That's partly why she chose to write it under a male pseudonym, Edward Anthony.
The decision has had some odd consequences. “Agents reached out to ‘Edward,’” Gray says, “but disappeared when they found out. But men feel much more comfortable attending because a ‘man’ wrote it.”
Gray appreciates the irony of agents backing away when they discover that a woman wrote this show about Plath. “She shouldn’t be a writer for women,” Gray asserts. “She should be relevant to everyone. And it’s important in universalizing Plath that [the show] transcends gender agendas. I hope that you don’t know anything about Sylvia Plath and still enjoy the show. It’s a very funny show! You even forget it’s about suicide until the last five or seven minutes!”
Fierce-lady writers are Mark Peikert’s bread and butter. He is the theatre critic for New York Press.