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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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.