GOOD TO KNOW!
A curious playgoer’s guide to TAME.
Cat’s Sister in Verse and ‘Madness’: The not-so-crazy life and mind of Sylvia Plath By Maegan Clearwood Resident Dramaturg History has a nasty habit of diminishing brilliant women. One of its favorite methods for doing so is reducing her memory to that of a fragile creature with an unstable mind -– she is described as neurotic, hysterical, emotionally unhinged, and, perhaps most famously, “that crazy lady who stuck her head in an oven.” The Sylvia Plath most know from high school English class is a stereotype of a stereotype, a hackneyed spokesperson for self-pitying teenage girls. But as anyone who reads her work with an open mind knows, Plath’s poetry cannot be dismissed as a madwoman’s undisciplined scribbles. Her verses are teeming with life, fury, and fear – hardly the dismal, angstridden woman history likes to remember. It is no wonder, then, that Sylvia played a major role in Jonelle Walker’s cultivation of Cat. Both Sylvia and Cat vocalized their inner worlds in a time and place that refused to listen; both wrestled with mid-twentieth century’s myriad sexual double standards; and for both, these dichotomies manifested themselves in artistic brilliance, but also self-destruction and torment. It is all too easy to romanticise Sylvia’s death, and by extent diminish the value of her life and work. As we delved into the landscape of Cat’s mind in rehearsals, however, we were reminded of how these rebellious, troublesome women are so much more than their transgressions or inner turmoil; they are fully alive, and neither Sylvia nor Cat will ever let us forget it.
. But women have lust, too. Why should they be relegated to the position of custodian of emotions, watcher of the infants, feeder of soul, body and pride of man? Being born a woman is my awful tragedy.” - Sylvia Plath in a journal entry, 1952
The three anxieties that most informed Sylvia’s artistic voice – her father, her status, and her gender -- evidenced themselves throughout her childhood. Her father, Otto Plath, played the strict role of family patriarch until his death in 1940. Eightyear-old Sylvia was devastated, proclaiming that “I’ll never speak to God again.” His memory was quickly replaced with mythology, becoming a larger-than-life figure whose metaphoric role in Sylvia’s later work would be invaluable. To say Sylvia was precocious is an understatement. She published her first poem in 1941, and by her senior year of high school, had been published in Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor. She graduated first in her class and was accepted as a scholarship student at Smith College.
Smith proved as intellectually liberating as it was socially constrictive. 1950s Smith was far from the socially progressive landscape we think of today; as alum Gloria Steinem remembers, “Administrators, professors, the president would say that they were educating women so there would be educated children,” and about two-thirds of Sylvia’s classmates dropped out of college to get married. Sylvia’s desire to learn for learning’s sake was at fierce odds with campus atmosphere, and she tried
to compromise these contradictory goals by impressing her classmates and dating Ivy League bachelors. Ultimately, Sylvia was left with the feeling that she was on a completely separate plane from her peers, not only because of her modest background and intellectualism, but because she saw the world for all its flaws and double standards. As she questioned in one journal entry, “How can you be so many women to so many strange people, oh you strange girl?”
McClean Hospital’s mental institution, which would be host to some of America’s literary legends, including Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Susanna Kaysen — “where the upper crust crumbled politely,” as one New York Times article described. Sylvia’s history with mental health treatment was already rocky. After years of frugally avoiding therapy, Sylvia began electroshock treatment, which at the time was often administered in an unmodified form — without the use of muscle relaxants — resulting in convulsions so severe that “Masks are the Order of the Day” Dido Merwin described her friend Sylvia as driven ‘’by the dislocations and fractures could occur (see page 3 for more conflicting drives and priorities of Medea and Emily Post.’’ details on ECT). Sylvia later described the treatment in The Bell Excavating Sylvia’s mind is virtually impossible, even with Jar: “With each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out the thousands of pages of letters and of me like a split plant. ‘I wondered what .Sylvia Plath was not the journals that she left behind after her death; she was extraordinarily incarnation of the mad, terrible thing it was that I had done.” McClean was a turning point for Sylvia, contradictory, with as much desire to conform to society’s expectations as obsessed poetess. Sylvia was who interpreted it as a signal of a lifetime she had to create on her own terms. a golden girl who knew more of mental instability, as well as a kind of as soon as she was released, Even accounts from her closest friends about living than most.” liberation: she died her hair platinum blonde, and colleagues are wildly inconsistent, embraced her new celebrity status on depicting an entirely different Sylvia -- Elinor Klein, 1966 campus, and gave in to her taboo-ed from one day to another. For starters, Sylvia was an intensely sexual person. Her but unignorable sexual desires. She received a Fulbright journals overflow with records of near-sexual encounters scholarship to attend Cambridge -- only to fall headfirst into and forbidden desires, which she managed to repress on one of literary history’s most famous, or infamous, romances. “Out of the Ash I Rise” her countless dates for the sake of conforming to society’s gendered expectations. However, Sylvia also recognized early The post-Ted Hughes Sylvia is the one most people know: in her adolescence the enormous double-standard between less than six months after meeting, the two poets were men and women, journaling time and again her frustration married, marking the beginning of a brief but tumultuous over men being allowed to fulfil their sexual impulses without union. Sylvia’s downward spiral following her separation reproval. “Being born a woman is my greatest tragedy,” she from Hughes is perhaps more famous than her poetry itself; it wrote after discovering that her long-time beau was sexually ended, of course, when she took her own life on February 11, active and completely without shame, while she still repressed 1963 -- less than a week before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine her sexuality to keep her reputation untarnished. Mystique was published and gave voice to the “problem that Even Sylvia’s desire to write was at odds with her environment. has no name.” Sylvia’s creative writing tutor went so far as to tell his students, It is impossible to say what impact second-wave feminism “I hope none of you is planning to be a writer, because would have had on Sylvia, but the timing of her death speaks women writers are usually very unhappy.” Sylvia was furious, volumes. Depression and self-destruction are not the tragedy but could not deny that her path to artistic freedom would be of Sylvia Plath -- although there is no doubt she suffered a treacherous one. As she questioned in her journal: greatly from mental illness -- but rather the fact that her death “Why did Virginia Woolf commit suicide? Or Sara Teasdale was the product of her time. Like Cat, Sylvia would not have – or other brilliant women? Was their writing sublimation (oh been remotely the same person had she been born a mere horrible word) of deep, basic desires? If only I knew how high decade later. Cat and Sylvia never, as Cat describes it, “found I could set my goals, my requirements for my life! …Masks their tribes,” because their tribes -- of women, artists, in Cat’s are the order of the day – and the least I can do is cultivate case the LGBTQ community -- were so resoundly silenced. the illusion that I am gay, serene, not hollow and afraid.” Sylvia’s legacy is still tarnished by history’s propensity for labeling and dismissing women as hysterical. Luckily for us “Crumbling Politely” Sylvia’s insecurities culminated in the suicide attempt that 21st century theatergoers, TAME., and playwrights like Jonelle would inspire her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After a Walker, have the space to reclaim such histories. Cat’s story is month as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine in New hardly a lighthearted one, but she tells it anyway, even if the York City – months of deadlines and photoshoots surrounded world refuses to listen. As Sylvia reminds us in “Lady Lazarus”: by the country’s most femininely perfect collegians – Sylvia Out of the ash spiraled into her most devastating depressive episode to date. I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air. An overdose of sleeping pills landed her in the now-famous
Mental Health Treatment Circa 1960 PREFRONTAL AND TRANSORBITAL LOBOTOMY
Walter Jackson Freeman II performed the first prefrontal lobotomy in the United States in 1936. The procedure was intended to cut certain nerves in the brain to eliminate excess emotion and stabilize patients, treating everything from “tension and apprehension” to “nervous indigestion and hysterical paralysis.” Freeman performed the first transorbital, or “ice pick,” lobotomy in 1950, a procedure that left no scars, was performed outside of an operating room, and took less than 10 minutes. He became a mental health celebrity, performing more than 2,500 transorbital lobotomies during his career. Surgical treatment became less widespread after the introduction of anti-psychotic drugs, and Freeman’s career ended after a patient died from a brain hemorrhage.
ECT began as early as the 1930s, with the theory that schizophrenia and epilepsy were opposite afflictions. The treatment gained momentum in the 1950s and ‘60s, when it was used to treat depression as well. ECT was almost immediately met with criticism, as it often caused long-term memory loss, and early treatments did not use muscle relaxants. Today, ECT is used to treat depression, only when psychiatric drugs are ineffective, and nearly always at the patient’s request.
Between 1949 and 1952, about 50,000 people received lobotomies in the United States. Of these thousands, the majority were women, and 40 percent were homosexuals. The treatment was wildly unpredictable, leaving some patients completely comatose and others relatively high-functioning. ANTI-PSYCHOTIC DRUGS Drugs had long been used to sedate patients, but it was not until psychiatrist J.F.J Cade introduced Lithium in 1949 that pschopharmacology became commonplace. A series of anti-psychotic drugs were introduced in the 1950s, including Chlorpromazine, or Thorazine, in 1952, and Valium, which became the world’s most prescribed tranquilizer in the 1960s.
GAY CONVERSION THERAPY Before the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, aversion therapy was used routinely in hopes of eliminating homosexual behavior. Treatments were myriad, including psychoanalysis, religious counseling, ECT, lobotomies, and electric shock aversion therapy. The latter, which was performed in hospitals as well as homes thanks to the variety of devices available, involved attaching electrodes to the patient’s body and administering shocks while the patient watched photographs of men and women in various stages of undress. This treatment was supported by a variety of wildly biased and unrepresentative popular psychological studies; because there were very few out homosexuals, most studies relied on those who were already committed to psychiatric hospitals for completely unrelated disorders, perpetuating the myth that homosexuality was a sickness.
The Official TAME. Reading List Fiction Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf Poetry The works Diana Di Prima The Collected Works of Sylvia Plath To Bedlam and Partway Back, Anne Sexton Biographies Zelda Fitzgerald: The Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography... Sally Cline
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, Elizabeth Winder Non-Fiction Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing Women Beat Writers, Nancy M. Grace and Ronna C. Johnson Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties, Amanda H. Littauer Lost Revolutions, The South in the 1950s: Chapter 7, A Little of the Rebel Texas Through Women’s Eyes, Harold L Smith and Judith N. McArthur
A Tale of Two Plays: Taming vs. TAME. wake. In order to make sense By Brett Abelman of the apparently abusive Assitant Dramaturg relationship between Petruchio The Taming of the Shrew and Katherine, some have is often considered one of staged their courtship as a the most troubled works in mutually shared joke. Others the Shakespearean canon have played Katherine’s final – a misogynistic, painfully submission to Petruchio as a outdated “comedy” that is façade. And still others have nearly impossible to play seen the play as itself critical straight today. Consider its of the sexism that it portrays. plot: Conall Morrison, who directed 1) Suitors wish to marry the the play in 2008 for the Royal sweet and beautiful Bianca. Shakespeare Company, had 2) Bianca’s father will not this to say in its defense: allow her to be wed until “By the time you get to the last her “shrew” of an older scene all of the men – including sister, Katherine, is married. her father are saying – it’s 3) The suitors convince their amazing how you crushed that friend Petruchio to “tame” person. It’s amazing how you and marry Katherine. lobotomised her. And they’re betting on the women as 4) Petruchio and Katherine though they are dogs in a race trade insults. or horses. It’s reduced to that. 5) Katherine slaps Petruchio …It is so self-evidently repellent The iconic spanking scene from the film adaptain response to a sexual that I don’t believe for a second innuendo, at which point he tion of Kiss Me Kate, itself a meta-adaptation of that Shakespeare is espousing threatens to “cuff” her if she Taming. The Cole Porter musical reflected historthis. …It’s very obviously a strikes him again. ical interpretations of the play and solidified the satire on this male behaviour 6) (Most productions insert spanking of Kate as a standard staging choice. and a cautionary tale.” a spanking scene at around Critics and other playwrights this point, although nothing began wrestling with Taming almost immediately after in Shakespeare’s text mentions Petruchio spanking the play’s first production circa 1594. Shakespeare’s Katherine.) contemporary, John Fletcher, wrote The Woman’s Prize, or 7) Petruchio refuses to let Katherine eat, doesn’t let her the Tamer Tamed, in which Petruchio gets his comeuppance keep a wonderful dress that is made for her, and generally at the hands of his second wife, mere years after the original’s wears her down. debut. Jonelle Walker’s TAME. takes this revisionist tradition 8) Petruchio forces Katherine to pretend that the sun is the as its starting point – though to treat this play like a direct moon, a man is a woman, etc. adaptation would be a grave mistake. 9) Once Bianca’s hand has been won, Petruchio and the There are similarities: both plays feature a “Cat” who other men getting married have a contest to see whose behaves in a way considered inappropriate in her society new wife is more obedient; the formerly independent (1590s Padua in Taming, and 1950s Texas in TAME.). Both Katherine is the only one who comes when called. are handed off by their families to men who aim to mend 10) Katherine scolds the other wives for their disobedience, their ways: Petruchio then, Patrick now. Both have a younger, sweeter sister (Bianca and Bea) who is doted upon. saying: But Shakespeare’s play does not feature a mother for Kate Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, and Bianca, only a father, while Walker’s has both; the older Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee… play has a trio of additional characters trying to woo Bianca, And craves no other tribute at thy hands while the newer one excises them; and while Petruchio is But love, fair looks, and true obedience… brought in to tame Katherine as a husband, Patrick is brought …place your hands below your husband’s foot, in as a Christian savior and a spiritual guide. In token of which duty, if he please, My hand is ready, may it do him ease. And, perhaps most crucially, unlike Walker’s Cat, In this light, we should not be surprised that Taming has left Shakespeare’s Kate was not a lesbian poet. a history of alternative interpretations and adaptations in its