10 May 2014

Sylvia Plath in Paris

It is May, but I am thinking about December already…

In December 1955, Sylvia Plath spent a large portion of her Christmas holiday from Newnham College and Cambridge, England, in Paris, France.

At some point between the 20th and 29th, Plath saw the Emlyn Williams play Someone Waiting, although she saw the French version with the title of Le Monsieur qui attend. She wrote of this in a letter dated 29 December to J. Mallory Wober, who was a student and love interest at King's College, Cambridge, that Plath met and dated in her first fall as a Fulbright scholar. (Wober gave his letters from Plath to King's College in 1988, and I worked with them in February 2004 on a trip to England. Back in June 2007 and February 2008, I posted on this collection of letters.) And more recently, I learned that Plath also wrote about this play to her mother and Gordon Lameyer in letters dated 30 December 1955 and 21 January 1956, respectively

Anyway, I was curious about the play, which Plath referred to for the first time in the letter to Wober by its French name. Curious to see if it was possible to narrow down what day she saw it and at which venue, I visited the Microtext department at the Boston Public Library and browsed through the December 1955 issues of the French daily newspaper Le Monde. I found that the play was performed at the theater Comedie Caumartin (25, rue Caumartin, 75009 Paris; map & website). I looked at the newspaper for each day, just to verify the play ran for the entire duration of her stay in Paris.

Using Plath's fascinating calendars held at the Lilly Library (Plath Mss II, Box 7, folder 6), which are a set of fascinating documents for the detail they provide about Plath's daily activities between 1951 and 1957, I learned that she saw this play on Wednesday, 28 December 1955. Which is curious as both Wednesday's she was in Paris (21 December and 28 December) there was the play was not listed in the newspaper. While she was in Paris, Plath  took in other cultural performances, too, including a ballet (Roland Petit's La Chambre and Le Loup) and movies (Les Carnets du Major Thompson, Vive Monsieur le Maire, and Jeanne D'Arc).

Can I digress, please? Plath's activities for these years is neither completely recorded nor available… for example there are a few instances where pages of these calendar are missing. Were they removed by Plath herself? By Aurelia Plath who had them in their Wellesley house from circa 1957-1959 until they were sold in the 1970s? By some vandalizing researcher? Going off topic... One of the more chilling moments in working with these calendars is occurs in her 1953 calendar. Firstly, there is a week missing from her time at Mademoiselle, the week of 21-27 June 1953; and then by late July when Plath had two series of shock treatments over three days (on 29 July and 31 July, noted down in truncated form as "SHOCKT"), and then into August when the busyness and the meticulous recording that I had grown accustomed to seemingly, suddenly, slows down. Penned plans turn to tentative faint pencil. The note to call her friend Marcia Brown on Monday 17 August is in hardly recognizable handwriting, which I think illustrates how serious and fragile was her condition and frame of mind at the time. Then the silence that ensues after that, from 24 August 1953 when she attempted suicide and the remainder of the year (she clearly neither had the calendar with her at the various hospitals in which she recovered, nor had any need for it). And there are two missing pages in her 1962 Royal Lett's Diary tablet held by Smith College, which Gail Crowther and I discussed from time to time in our "These Ghostly Archives" papers (links to all of them here).

Anyway, back to the point of this post which was the play she saw and enjoyed. Emlyn Williams (1905-1987, obituary) was a Welsh dramatist and actor. Copies of Someone Waiting, published by Heinemann in 1954, can be purchased on ABEbooks.com. Has anyone out there ever read this play or seen it performed? Did Plath ever read the physical book? I am not sure. But she enjoyed the play and you very well might, too. You can see a list of books that Plath read or owned on LibraryThing.

All links accessed 11 June 2012, 16 February 2013, 21 April, 1 May, and 8 May 2014.


Anonymous said...

Is this a play that influenced Plath's work? I'm wondering what the point of looking up the dates is otherwise--it feels a bit stalkerish.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Hi Anonymous,

I haven't read the play so I'm unsure if it did influence her writing. It's a good question. I'm not sure how else to respond to your comment, especially the bit about it feeling "stalkerish". There is certainly a fair bit of that in this blog. Unfortunately (word choice?) that is an aspect to biography that occasionally works its way into the work that I, and others, do.

At the risk of becoming perhaps defensive... Plath was a culture vulture and when I read her letters, journals, and the like and she mentions something I do not know, I get curious. I figure if I am curious, others might be as well. So, I research and use the tools at my disposal to answer the query. I want to fill in the blanks; and even if the Williams play doesn't factor into her writing, I don't see the harm (word choice) is knowing that she saw it, enjoyed it, etc.

Thank you again for your comment.


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