Edge at [email protected]: Why Sylvia Plath's story pisses me off

Set on the last day of her life in the kitchen where she will eventually commit suicide, Sylvia describes her life growing up with a domineering father (“He would have made a good Nazi”) who instilled in her the drive to be perfect.  The lesson we learn about people who strive for perfection is that when you fail, you fail big.  It’s “the bigger you are, the harder you fall” theory.  When her father fell ill, he self-diagnosed himself with cancer.  Realizing the inevitability of his death, he chose to let the cancer run its course.  He actually had diabetes which, left untreated, causes gangrene and, eventually, a painful death.  In a scene mirrored in The Bell Jar, Sylvia attempts suicide by an overdose of pills.  Rather than taking just enough to do the job, she methodically polishes off the whole bottle, passes out and vomits, effectively pumping her own stomach.

The love of Sylvia’s life is [image-1]Ted Hughes (pictured with Plath, left), also a poet.  A dark, brooding, bite-able poet.  If Ted loved her in the beginning, it faded as the competitive Brit realized that Sylvia could write as well as, perhaps better, than him.  And if they began their life together as a “new version of the Brownings,” he soon was having affairs and eventually left her and the two children for another woman.  Edge allows Sylvia to draw the parallels between the two men in her life she tried so hard to please, and there are many.  However, this is when the script runs into problems.  In much the same way a comedian tells a joke and then explains the punch line, the audience is reminded repeatedly that Sylvia married a man just like her father. Instead of letting the words tell the story, less and less subtle signposts are waved until finally Sylvia tells us “I married my father!”, and the audience wonders “Are you just figuring this out on the last day of your life? Cuz we picked up on it waaaaay back in Act I."

Script issues aside, Savastano owns the part of Sylvia Plath. She appears onstage in the sweetest white cardigan, pencil skirt and Mary Jane pumps, with a flipped-up hairdo and a head band — just the cutest suburban housewife you ever saw.  Her story is full of longing and love, desperation, solitude, cruelty and pain.  Yet if there is humor, Savastano finds it.  It is a remarkable performance, never “acting like” a character, rather giving the person a voice. [email protected] is a fun place to see theater like this.  The intimate space puts you right in the kitchen with Sylvia and the simple set frames the piece beautifully.

There is one nugget that had me pissed off the whole drive home and even now raises some bile.  At her death, Ted Hughes left Sylvia for another woman, a one-time friend of hers.  If she hadn’t been physically and mentally tortured enough in her marriage, the new couple took turns tag-teaming her with abuse.  But when Sylvia died, she was still legally married to Hughes.  Which meant that, as her husband, he retained the rights to all her work.  As a poet, he never made any significant contribution as Ted Hughes.  As Sylvia Plath’s husband, he made millions.

But, as Sylvia said herself: "Not that I'm bitter. Not that I'm vengeful. Not that I'm a keeper of slights."

For girls who read The Bell Jar in college, Sylvia Plath became part of our trifecta of female poets: Sylvia, Anne Sexton and Dorothy Parker. The dark heroine, Esther, a sort of female Holden Caulfield, seems to have everything going for her.  She’s smart, working as an apprentice writer at a magazine in New York, and has a handsome medical school student as a beau.  All this and her perfect outfits mask the depression that she is hiding until her suicide attempt leads her from the hospital, complete with electroshock treatments, to sanatorium to (almost) sanity.  Or at least acquires the skills at which to fake it.

The Bell Jar is labeled semi-autobiographical and was originally published under a pseudonym.  As Sylvia, played by Marcy J. Savastano (pictured), unfolds her life to the audience in Edge: The Story of Sylvia Plath at [email protected], it seems a little less “semi” and more “names have been changed to protect the innocent”.

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