When I first met my future spouse, the first thing that I did was read through her library. Not all of her library, “Our Bodies, Our Selves” and “Spiritual Midwifery” were titles that I skipped over; “The Bell Jar,” on the other hand I did read. Scattered amongst the detritus of a BA in English, Plath’s novel stuck out as something to read that didn’t involve higher thoughts on the politicization of the vagina. Ryan Adams’ song “Sylvia Plath” was in heavy rotation at the time on my computer and so it made perfect sense that this mystery woman who filled Adams’ song with such longing and beauty should have written something amazing, something transcendent. I vaguely remember the novel as being about a struggle for meaning and purpose at a time when women had little of either and about mental illness and the evolving field of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology; fascinating stuff.
I drove out to UNT (about five minutes from my house) and wandered onto the campus after calling to find the Friday performance was sold out but I “might be able to get in if I came early.” In the large, uninteresting General Academic Building on the UNT campus I found my way up to the Communications Studies Department hallway and secured my seat for the performance. There was a small collection of audience members waiting for the performance. Com majors, foreign students, parents, grandparents were all waiting in the hallway and there I was, standing against the wall waiting for the show. When they finally let the audience in at 7:00 for the show, I walked in to a converted classroom, walls and ceiling painted black and, at the back of the room some light trees holding fixtures. I stepped up to the third row and took my seat for the show, promised to be “about two hours with a ten minute intermission.” The room was stiflingly warm, a combination of no air and hot lighting instruments and the two hours looming ahead of me grew longer in my mind. Piled in the middle of the room was a collection of cubes and chairs and props waiting for the performers to animate them and give them meaning. The lights dimmed and the show began.
I generally go to a performance wanting to like what I see regardless of the genre and in this case, I was disappointed. That said, this performance had some very nice moments, Holley Vaughn as Esther 7 was delightful and turned in the richest performance of the evening. Meagan Oestry as Dr. Nolan was likable and nuanced and Kim Nall as Esther 1 provided an understated and purposeful introduction to the character of Esther. The rest of the performance, all two hours of it, was full of the kind of grad school bullshit that makes students salivate and the general public look quizzically at what is passing for performance in front of them.
Rebecca Walker, an Adjunct Professor at UNT with a Ph. D. from LSU in Performance studies, started the show by drawing a chalk square around the performance space and then sitting in the audience and interrupting at intervals to speak to the performers a la Richard Foreman. Other than that, the performance consisted of actors speaking the text of Plath’s novel and moving around the space interacting in a style of Story Theatre that Paul Sills and his mother Viola Spolin played around with in Chicago in the 70’s (characters speak with an “I said...” “Dr. Nolan said” framing the speech). This, in and of itself, is not problematic, Sills had great success with Story Theatre and it continues to be a good way for students to access the performative nature of literature. In the context of this performance, however, it became an alienating force between the audience and the performers and didn’t allow for the kind of empathy that makes the story palatable in the novel. Beyond these tropes, the performance contained the usual repetitive movements that have little to do with the action, each movement not growing out of some action performed by the actor in the piece but probably “discovered” in rehearsal as a way of reducing each of the 7 parts of Esther’s psyche. This limited tool box made for a constricted exploration of the novel, rather than embodying the characters, actors reflected on the characters. Actually, I don’t know if it is fair to call what I saw an exploration of THE BELL JAR. There is a movement in contemporary theatre that places public readings of great texts within a wider context (Elevator Repair Services’ GATZ) and I think this style of theatre is what was attempted at UNT. That this performance was produced by a Communications Dept is no surprise, the split between Com and Theatre is puzzling but something worth exploring at another time.
Because of the distance between my reading of the novel and seeing the show, I had a feeling that certain parts of the novel were being left out and others quoted verbatim. I did some investigating and all of the sexual experiences that Esther goes through (getting fitted with a diaphragm etc.) are left out of the performance. Given this flexibility with the text, I felt the performance dragged an extra 20 minutes beyond what I had begun to care about (with Volley’s help). As Esther comes out of her first effective electroshock therapy and marvels about the clear connection that she feels with the world, there is some kind of hope for the character of Esther, even if Plath didn’t find the same clarity. This is the moment where the story arc flames out, from there on it becomes petty and uninteresting. If certain parts were left out, possibly changed, why not end the story where the most powerful payoff is?
I started this post with a question: Is the story enough? In this case, I don’t believe it was. Without the help of spectacle or context, THE BELL JAR left me feeling separated from the meaning of the performance. Maybe that was the point.
THE BELL JAR has one remaining performance tonight at 7:00pm. There is information here.
Cast and Crew:
Esther 1/Teresa/Philomena Guinea - Kim Nall
Esther 2/Mother/Nurse/Dee Dee - Victoria Smith
Esther 3/Marco/Mrs. Mole/Joan - Brittany Hale
Esther 4/Betsy/Sailor/Dr. Nolan - Meagan Oestry
Esther 5/Doreen/Nurse - Jenna Ledford-Millerd
Esther 6/Buddy Willard/Cal/Dr. Quinn - Miranda Chesson
Esther 7/Dr. Gordon/The Negro - Holley Vaughn
Director - Rebecca Walker
Assistant Director - Andrea Lovoll