I was a huge Sylvia Plath fan in my late teens through to my late twenties. The visceral passion of her poetry mixed with her tragic story made compelling drama in my mind. I read The Bell Jar and wept, feeling as though she’d stepped into my head. As I grew older and more settled in myself, I lost my obsession with Sylvia and moved on to healthier role models.
Just out of college, I joined with three close friends to write a play about Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rice. We composed it from their poems and it was a homage to women, to poetry and to passion.
So, today’s play brought back lots of memories. Letters Home was written by Rose Leiman Goldemberg from Sylvia Plath’s correspondence with her mother Aurelia Schober Plath (also available as a book with the same title). Goldemberg has relied entirely on the letters and, surprisingly, not used any of Sylvia’s formidable poems.
It makes for a fairly one-sided play. A play about a relationship between a mother and daughter where we hear, almost solely, the daughter’s voice. But the voice we are hearing is the voice she wanted her mother to hear. There are moments of despair as she battles depression, but also plenty of euphoric, girlish excitement at college, boyfriends, clothes and writing.
What is particularly telling about the letters is Sylvia Plath’s constant putting men before herself. She writes about meeting Ted Hughes:
AURELIA: The most shattering thing is that I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt.
SYLVIA: The strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet, whose work I loved before I met him, a large, hulking, healthy Adam, half-French, half-Irish,
AURELIA: with a voice like the thunder of God! – a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop.
Later, she writes:
SYLVIA: Dearest, dearest Mother,
If only you could see, wherever Ted and I go people seem to love us.
My whole thought is how to please him.
The joy of being a loved and loving woman; that is my song.
When Ted’s book wins a major prize, Sylvia writes: “I am so happy Ted’s book is accepted first! Genius will out!” Followed by, “I can rejoice much more, knowing Ted is ahead of me!” This is a product of the times (the letters were written between Sylvia’s college days in the 1950s and her death in 1963) but also symptomatic of the fault line that runs through their relationship.
I wanted more of the rage that pulses through the poems, like ‘Lesbos’, which finishes with these lines:
Now I am silent, hate
Up to my neck,
I do not speak.
I am packing the hard potatoes like good clothes,
I am packing the babies,
I am packing the sick cats.
O vase of acid,
It is love you are full of. You know who you hate.
He is hugging his ball and chain down by the gate
That opens to the sea
Where it drives in, white and black,
Then spews it back.
Every day you fill him with soul-stuff, like a pitcher.
You are so exhausted.
Your voice my ear-ring,
Flapping and sucking, blood-loving bat.
That is that. That is that.
You peer from the door,
Sad hag. “Every woman’s a whore.
I can’t communicate.”
I see your cute decor
Close on you like the fist of a baby
Or an anemone, that sea
Sweetheart, that kleptomaniac.
I am still raw.
I say I may be back.
You know what lies are for.
Even in your Zen heaven we shan’t meet.
Publisher: Methuen (published in Plays by Women: volume two)