CULTURE & ARTS
08/28/2015 08:26 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2015

Remember That Time Sylvia Plath Stuck Her Head In An Oven?

Our selective memory of the poet’s tragic past becomes more apparent in two Fringe plays this year.
Bettmann / CORBIS

With a heaving chest, a cross-faded Sylvia Plath explains the process of electroshock therapy to Yeats using a Ouija board. There are two different types, you know. She's rather prone to panic attacks -- mostly frantic yelling for Ted -- though in this moment, she has traded freneticism for a breathy relaxation, one she seems surprised to be, or maybe paranoid about, fading into.

That Sylvia is older, middle-aged, a stout decade and a half piled atop her 31 years. But an hour later, she's closer to 18, having returned to Smith College. Round-cheeked and earnest, like Disney's Belle but with an appetite, this Sylvia is all about the books. God, why won't they just let her learn? While reading her journal aloud to her psychiatrist, she violently juts into bouts of of hyperventilation (once as an entry about the popular girls springs to life in the form of a song by "the hip, well-adjusted girls that you wish you could be.")

At this year's New York Fringe Festival, there was not one, but two plays including fictionalized Sylvia Plaths: "Musas" featured the poet alongside a Frida Kahlo with distractingly well-groomed eyebrows, and "Plath," a hokey musical centered around her turbulent higher education.

Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003's "Sylvia."
BBC Films
Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003's "Sylvia."

The desperate effort to resuscitate Plath's presence is not limited to theater festivals or that Gwyneth Paltrow movie from 2003. Plath and her tragic death have emerged as a recurring reference in pop culture, the haunting biographical facts of her life on the verge of stamping out the impact of her work. If Plath and David Foster Wallace ever find themselves at a maudlin cocktail party in literature heaven, they can commiserate about this trend.

Poor David, now the subject of a "grotesque parody" via Jason Segel, also got his own play at Fringe in the form of dramatic readings from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The way his work -- largely through his Kenyon Commencement Speech -- has been masticated into a pseudo-inspirational offering is perhaps the most twisted example of this phenomenon. As Christian Lorentzen wrote for Vulture, the Wallace "cult has [been] revived, for precisely the post-therapy, post-Romantic, self-help-soaked culture Wallace described and intermittently deplored, the Romantic picture of the depressive as a kind of keen-eyed saint." It's really not that terrible to wait in line at the grocery store.

A still from "Musas."
Water People Theater
A still from "Musas."

But back to Sylvia, and the two very different Sylvias on display at Fringe. Director Iraida Tapias presents Néstor Caballero's "Musas" through an exaggerated, exterior lens. The Plath of "Musas" switches from droning on about wanting to be remembered or not looking very good in pictures, to screaming as if in the throes of a night terror. Plath has limited conversations with Kahlo, who acts as the "cool friend" during her discovery of Ted Hughes' infidelity -- a sort of Samantha Jones to Plath's infinitely more neurotic Carrie Bradshaw. In its entirety, the play is two wildly influential women, bouncing off each other amid disjointed acid trips.

Alex Donnelly and Allie Carieri's "Plath" goes the opposite route entirely. Director Emily Feinstein brings Plath to life through Jenny Vallancourt, the actor who speaks and sings as Sylvia in the sweet, high-pitched voice of every musical theater ingenue ever. Attempts to illuminate the titular tortured soul were largely limited to moments when she got a little out of breath while reading stressful passages from her journal. A journal, not a diary, mind you. Diaries are for little girls.

Instead of relying on a performance of Sylvia's persona, the focus shifts to illustrating her twisted perception (i.e. excessive cruelty read onto the superficiality of the aforementioned "hip, well-adjusted girls"). In short, "Plath" is an attempt at interiority that plays like a high school musical with a dark subject.

Sylvia Plath
Everett Collection / Alamy
Sylvia Plath

"Musas" and "Plath" take different routes toward reviving Sylvia, and neither quite works. Both attempts at analysis through fictionalization move backwards, trying to write her poetry onto her persona, conflating the whole of it with some colloquial idea of "craziness."

Plath died over 50 years ago, and yet our cultural fascination seems to only be mounting. When she took her own life in 1963, there were almost no obituaries written about her. Now, there are at least 20 songs inspired by her life, and so many Plath biographies a 2004 version resorted to telling her story through the lens of her Ted Hughes. (It's called Her Husband.)

Two separate accounts of Plath's life were published in 2013 alone (American Isis and Mad Girl's Love Song), one that dubs her "the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature," which, what does that even mean? Oh, Sylvia Plath. The Martha Stewart of melancholy. The Michael Jordan of sexual sublimation. The Beyoncé of death.

Each depiction manages to obfuscate her reality a bit further. We've officially spent more time depicting Plath's life than she spent living it. She's become inextricably linked to the myth of the tortured artist and feminist martyrdom, a symbol of the way we process artistic genius and sexist societal constraint. What she's not so closely linked to is her actual work.

The pop culture Plath uses her poems and The Bell Jar as a starting point for pumping her representation with air. Commodifying her as scorned pot head flirting with lunacy, or a bookish student who needs to learn to take deep breaths, just further reduces the force of her words, turning them into a mere anecdote to that awful story which ends in an oven. 

 

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