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Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Three Women

An interesting news item in The Guardian this morning: Three Women, a play by Sylvia Plath never performed on stage before has opened at The Jermyn Street Theatre, London and is due to run until Feb 7th. It was performed on The Third Programme as a radio play for voices six months before Plath's death and was published posthumously as a poem, but that is all anyone has seen of it.

Here are some extracts from the play in its poem incarnation. First the opening verses:

Setting: A Maternity Ward and round about

I am slow as the world. I am very patient,
Turning through my time, the suns and stars
Regarding me with attention.
The moon's concern is more personal:
She passes and repasses, luminous as a nurse.
Is she sorry for what will happen? I do not think so.
She is simply astonished at fertility.

When I walk out, I am a great event.
I do not have to think, or even rehearse.
What happens in me will happen without attention.
The pheasant stands on the hill;
He is arranging his brown feathers.
I cannot help smiling at what it is I know.
Leaves and petals attend me. I am ready.

And, same setting, some verses from the Second voice:

And the man I work for laughed: 'Have you seen something awful?
You are so white, suddenly.' And I said nothing.
I saw death in the bare trees, a deprivation.
I could not believe it. Is it so difficult
For the spirit to conceive a face, a mouth?
The letters proceed from these black keys, and these black keys proceed
From my alphabetical fingers, ordering parts,

Parts, bits, cogs, the shining multiples.
I am dying as I sit. I lose a dimension.
Trains roar in my ears, departures, departures!
The silver track of time empties into the distance,
The white sky empties of its promise, like a cup.
These are my feet, these mechanical echoes.
Tap, tap, tap, steel pegs. I am found wanting.

This is a disease I carry home, this is a death.
Again, this is a death. Is it the air,
The particles of destruction I suck up? Am I a pulse
That wanes and wanes, facing the cold angel?
Is this my lover then? This death, this death?
As a child I loved a lichen-bitten name.
Is this the one sin then, this old dead love of death?

And the third voice:

I am a mountain now, among mountainy women.
The doctors move among us as if our bigness
Frightened the mind. They smile like fools.
They are to blame for what I am, and they know it.
They hug their flatness like a kind of health.
And what if they found themselves surprised, as I did?
They would go mad with it.

And what if two lives leaked between my thighs?
I have seen the white clean chamber with its instruments.
It is a place of shrieks. It is not happy.
'This is where you will come when you are ready.'
The night lights are flat red moons. They are dull with blood.
I am not ready for anything to happen.
I should have murdered this, that murders me.

Its theme, obviously, is pregnancy, but more generally than that, the emotions engendered in having or not having children (no surprise then, that it has been dubbed a feminist text), but the theatre director, Robert Shaw, maintains that it is even broader than that, that it has a universality that puts it above such limiting definitions. There is something magical about it, he says, that he has not tried to analyse too carefully.. People respond to it and find things in this piece that they understand and relate to; things that perhaps Plath was able to express in a way that no one else has.

I have to say that reading the poem version I find it hauntingly beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful of all the writings she has left.

The First Voice is the mother character, speaking at first as during the early part of pregnancy, but then later when the baby arrives. The Second Voice describes the horrors of miscarriage, while the Third Voice (the voice of the mother who gives up her baby) expresses the feelings that come with her conviction that she is not ready for motherhood:

I thought I could deny the consequence, but it was too late for that. It was too late and the face went on shaping itself with love, as if I was ready.

Plath has long been tagged with being a feminist writer, of course, but there is an interesting rebuttal of that title here

The lower picture is a scene from the play.


soulbrush said...

i must try and see this one. you live in london too?

Shadow said...

the poems are truly beautiful, i agree.

Rachel Fox said...

I'm not even really sure what the phrase 'feminist writer' really means when applied to fiction and/or poetry. I would use it when talking about political theory or some related subject but with creative writing...I'm not sure it works. You can have writers who are also feminists but feminist writers..? I don't think it's ever that clear-cut and even some writers who start off identifying themselves in that way change their minds after a while and want to just be writers in the end.
Some feminists were big fans of Plath but that's something altogether different. These days feminist means something different to almost every person who uses it and that doesn't help either!

willow said...

What a fabulous idea to bring this haunting and powerful piece to the stage! Plath was a genius. Are you going to see it, Dave?

Dave King said...

Used to live in London. Live out in the wilds of Surrey now. Miss the greater proximity to London.

Thanks for the visit. Glad you thought so.

I think its the gender opposite of a male chauvenist writer - i.e. there aren't nearly as many of them about as folk think, and they are a lot less important than some folk think. Getting back to serious, though. I do agree with your comments. I was definitely not suggesting that Plath was either a feminist or a fenminist writer. Quite the reverse. In he case I think it all got confused with the Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughs thing.

I'd love to go, but at the moment I am not holding my breath.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I love Plath's work as a poet - I think my favourite poem is Blackberrying - but the trouble is that now we know her history, it is difficult to read anything of hers without applying her history to it. I find the work you have written about very depressing - I am also filled with sadness that she found it impossible to live in the world. It was all such a tragedy and I think it reflects in all her work. I do enjoy your posts Dave - they always make me think.

Cloudia said...

Interesting & great pics!
Aloha, Dave!

Lyn said...

Beautiful indeed, and overflowing with hopelessness, always being deprived, always afflicted... the victim. Who does the depriving? Perhaps the self.
Incredible phrase "face that went on shaping itself with love"...but never accepting the other, the outcome. Beauty does live in the darkest places. So we have art.

Conda V. Douglas said...

I must confess I don't often read Plath as I find she has the power to hurt too much. But I would find it fascinating to read the poems and then go see the play, or perhaps vice versa. The translation into another format can be revealing or obscuring, or both.

JOY said...

Dave - Love the information you share. Am getting a book on Ahkmatova from the library. Read Three Women quite a while ago by Plath. Fascinating poet.

Leon Basin said...

I really love your poet, pictures and your blog in general. Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne said...

I read The Bell Jar years ago and loved it. Thanks for bringing this other side of Plath to my attention.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I would love to see this. Thanks for printing a bit of it. I find her poems lovely, but like Weaver, always find that her history plucks at my mind when I read them.

Dave King said...

Weaver of Grass
There is sadness is in the work, undeniably, but I do think there is beauty in it too. I agree that it is difficult to separate the history from the work, but do not think we therefore have to interpret or judge the latter in terms of the former. Thanks for your comment - it has set off a train of thought which might or might not lead somewhere.

Many thanks for that.

The phrase "face that went on shaping itself with love" was one that jumped out at me, one among many incredible phrases.

Like many people I was turned on to reading Plath by Ariel. This work seems even richer to me than that. Much depends, of course, on whether you respond to confessional poetry. It seems a shame that until now the work has existed only in a format she did not sanction.

Welcome and thanks for the feedback.

Hi and welcome. Thanks for commenting.

Thanks for that. The Bell Jar made quite an impression on me, too.

Pamela Terry and Edward
If you click on the title of my post, Three Women, it will take you to the full text. Thanks for the comment.

VeRonda said...

Beautiful writings...

Dave King said...

Welcome to my blog. Good to have a comment.

Jan said...

What a lovely post. As I read it, I had tingles all over just thinking about the glory and misery of this amazing woman. I am so glad you shared it with all of us and I wish there was a way for me to see this production.

Your blog has so many wonderful threads that run through it. It will be fun to follow them. A poetic soul you are. Nice to meet you!

acornmoon said...

I find Sylvia Plath's work hauntingly beautiful, the first verse of the first voice evokes memories of childbirth. In my case made even stranger by the effects pethadine, sort of floating in and out of two worlds.

Thanks for your help with the quote.

Bee said...

"What happens in me will happen without attention." I love this line: it captures, so well, that mysterious aspect of pregnancy.

It's always nice when rare and unknown works are brought to life -- whether in a new production, or HERE, for example!

Dick said...

Thanks for this one, Dave. I guess I'm about as far from London to the north as you are to the south, but I'm very tempted to emerge from my rural fastness to see this extraordinary piece. Plath has always been a favourite. It's only 40 minutes long, thus plenty of time afterwards for a quick stroll up to Dean Street and a glass or two in the French House!

J. Andrew Lockhart said...

very interesting. you cover it very well.glad I came here. :)

Dave King said...

Welcome and many thanks for dropping by. Yes, I too would love to see the play. Maybe I will, but it seems doubtful at the moment. Your feedback is much appreciated. Thanks again.

You have the advantage of me there, but I, too, find Plath's words very beautiful.

Thanks for that contribution. I think I can see how that might be - but can't claim more than that, for obvious reasons!

You make it sound even more tempting than it was before!

J. Andrew Lockhart
Welcome to my blog and thanks for the contribution.

oximoron said...

OH, Sylvia! :(
I read The Bell Jar written by Sylvia Plath years ago. I love her! And I love fer poems, too.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Oh! I would so love to see this. I hope it tours provincially.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Thanks for posting this Dave I am intrigued by all things to do with TEd and Sylvia ,huge influence or more accurately catalysts for me. I hadn't read this piece before and it is indeed hauntingly beautiful and perhaps softer edged than some of her other work ,the darkness pervades still but less brutally.I really, really, like it and will have to try and get a copy.I must also mention the second photo too, it is brilliant, is it one of yours Dave?

Cynthia said...

Hi DAve, I adore Sylvia Plath's
writing, her poems and her novel
The Bell Jar, thank you for sharing
this part of her I have never

Crafty Green Poet said...

It took me a long time to discover Plath as a writer and gain any sense of her separate from her history. I now realise what a brilliant writer she was and when I read about this play in the Guardian i was intrigued.

Totalfeckineejit said...

I also don't think sylvia was a feminist writer she was a vulnerable human being and wrote as such.Her life has been hi-jacked to a certain extent to suit the needs of others. For me there are only writers/poets/people, gender to that extent is immaterial.I often wonder what wonderful things she might have written had she lived her life longer.

Sharon Hart said...

Dave, Thanks for this thoughtful and haunting post. I agree with Rachel's comments with regard to Plath being labeled a "feminist writer." Hopefully one day the world will tire of labels and view the writing of authors simply from the vantage point of what they were trying to communicate, and not with any overlays that may or may not colour the understanding of other readers.

Andrea said...

I enjoy Plath as a writer...thank you for this thoughtful post. :)

Heather said...

Her words are truly beautiful even if sombre and depressing at times..because such is life. Not always, but sometiems.

I loved this, thanks for posting it!

Dave King said...

To all
Apologies for being so tardy in reply.

I think a lot of folk have come to her via The Bell Jar. Thanks for sharing that.

That would be no more than it deserves, by the sound of it.

I agree it is softer-edged, though still dark and sad.
If you mean the second photo on my Waiting post, yes, it is one of mine.

Thanks for that.

Crafty Green Poet
I also took a long time to see her for what she is. I think maybe she's still emerging.

If you mean that her writing was driven by gender issues, I am still not sure. So difficult to disentangle her from the Ted Hughs thing.

Wouldn't that be wonderful! A dream come true, as they say! Thanks.

Welcome, and many thanks for the feedback.

Which is to say, I suppose, that she told it the way it is. - I'm falling too much into cliches these days!

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