by Everett Goldner · August 23, 2015
It wasn’t until after I’d seen Plath that someone said the obvious to me: “a musical about Sylvia Plath? It sounds like a punchline, right?”
It does. But personally, I can see many possibilities for a show that takes one of the great 20th century poets – and easily the most famous – as its subject; it could show us the depths of 1950s repression and the surgical skill of self-reflection that Plath developed to cope with it. It could explore her relationship with her father as a memory play. If Julie Taymor directed, it could become a latter-day Ring cycle, for God’s sake! The one thing you’d hope a musical about Plath would NOT be is that by-the-numbers punchline. But for some reason, that’s what the team behind this presentation has chosen to give us.
To put up a show about Plath’s life that manages to be thoroughly superficial is to do a deep disservice to her and anyone who’s interested in her. The woman who wrote: “I don’t believe in God as a kind father in the sky. I don’t believe that the meek will inherit the earth: the meek get ignored and trampled. They decompose in the bloody soil of war, of business, of art, and they rot into the warm ground under the spring rains” is nowhere to be seen in this show. She isn’t allowed anywhere near the theater. This girl tells a psychiatrist that her father “died of stubbornness” in a bittersweet sort of way, but there’s not a jot of connection to the woman who would write of him, “there’s a stake in your fat black heart / and the villagers never liked you / they are dancing and stamping on you” ten years later. In this show we’ll endure hijnks-ridden romance numbers about boy-toy Casanovas and her hometown sweetie "Dr. Dick"...but we cannot let Plath approach the wildness of the woman who just three years later would write that Ted Hughes was “the only one big enough for me.” This Sylvia Plath tells her college frenemies “I’m just a normal girl like you” – and she means it. And in the 50-plus years since the real one put her head into the oven and turned it on, she’s become an icon and an image every bit as universal as Hamlet, so everyone can have their own idea of what Plath is, what she means; mine may differ from yours. But unlike (Shakespeare’s) Hamlet, she did live and die, and she left a large body of work to know her by, and so truths and lies can be told about her. And a Plath who says she’s “normal” is lying to us. Like many great artists, she might’ve wondered what “normality” would be like at times, but she was never remotely that.
And the show’s insistence that she is makes for a storyline that doesn’t cohere. As in real life, every boy Sylvia dates here tells her that she’s “fascinating”, that he’s “never met anyone like her,” which sunders any sense of plot when the piece demands that her vibe is a girl-next-door one. We hear Plath’s journal quoted incessantly (she kept one throughout her life, I quoted from it above), from multiple “voices” in almost every scene, but there’s no reason to believe that the fluid, intensely-crafted sentences we hear have anything to do with the girl they’re presumably coming from onstage. This isn’t to say that the acting is bad; the acting from the full ensemble is fine. It just isn’t connected to any depth or vision about Sylvia Plath. The production assumes that merely throwing Plath’s real words around without finding larger themes for them is going to show us who this girl was.
Until the last five minutes of the show, Sylvia is never allowed to be “difficult” for more than a moment; we open with her talking to a psychiatrist, but the reason why she’s there is flatly kept off the table until the finale. Until then, any mention of hard problems or unpleasant emotions is not even allowed to breathe before the music skips adamantly away into a land where Sylvie is just a young, fresh girl full of hope and all her melodies sound like they came straight out of Rogers and Hammerstein, and – I cannot overstate the numbing absurdity of this – they sound this way EVEN WHEN THE LYRICS ARE ABOUT SUICIDE.
In the final moments of the piece, we finally see a bit of real darkness, but it seems to be there only because they just couldn’t get around it anymore – there’s an undeveloped stab at turning the psychiatrist into a voice in her head – and it’s frankly unearned. As the actress playing Plath lay among her scattered papers, repeating like a mantra the line “I think I made you up inside my head” I wished that just for a moment the show would have the wit to acknowledge how truly she spoke.