14 October 2010

"I have never seen a thing so clear": Sylvia Plath's "Three Women"

Among Robert Shaw’s directions to to his “Three Women” include the short, simple “Trust Sylvia.”

After successful runs in London and Edinburgh, “Three Women” came to New York. The theater at 59 E. 59th Street sits squarely in between the Barbizon Hotel and 575 Madison Avenue, where Plath lived and worked in June 1953 as a Guest Editor for Mademoiselle. It is an area she got to know well in those weeks and so seems a great fit. “Three Women,” along with Edward Anthony’s “Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath,” is part of 59E59’s “A Plethora of Plath.” They have three theaters, and I wish they could have also staged something like “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board” or a reading of Ariel or something. But then I might have exploded in all the Plathcitement."

“Three Women” is something I only ever imagined hearing: not seeing. Plath wrote it for the radio and the purist in me wanted it to stay that way. (I was tempted to just shut my eyes and listen, but being in the second row I thought that might be misinterpreted as being asleep.)

The “Three Women,” Francis Benhamou, Kina Bermudez, and Angela Church*, were perfectly cast. Each giving their own voice to the Wife, the Student and the Secretary, respectively. I found in watching and listening that the emotions, intonations, facial expressions, and gestures & postures of the actresses really made the poem** blossom for me now in ways that it has never before. You hear things differently, say, from the way you read them. And reading “Three Women” is not something that can be done quickly. I can’t or shouldn’t really comment on the acting or the directing, not being equipped with the right set skills to do so; however, I could neither see nor hear any flaws.

The set is minimal. Not as minimal as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but in its simplicity the actresses draw our imagination into the maternity ward or round about (to refer to Plath’s setting instructions). The Wife is radiant and glowing in her lines “What is it that flings these innocent souls at us?” At “Here is my son” she invites the student over and they peer through a “window” at a room of babies. It is a tender moment and gives interaction between Women where previously I had interpreted it as me, the reader/listener, receiving the proud invitation. The Secretary’s pain at the loss of her child is felt and enshrouded me like fog. It seemed to me the most difficult of the three to watch. Her “I am myself again. There are no loose ends” is given so matter-of-factly, that it only serves to betray the deepness of her hurt as she attempts to carry-on with her job & life. The Student’s decision to give up her baby in the lines “Goodbye, goodbye” is torturous. She moves seamlessly from the hospital to a consideration of what awaits her outside its walls “The day is blazing,” “Today the colleges are drunk with spring,” and “Hot noon in the meadows.” She tries to move on, but when she hears sorrow in a crying bird, the birds song is a reflection of herself “I am young as ever...What is it I miss?” It reminds me of something Plath wrote in “Parliament Hill Fields,” “Your absence is inconspicuous; / Nobody can tell what I lack.” But the poem ends positively, with the Secretary at home noticing that “The little grasses / Crack through stone, and they are green with life.”

I appreciate Shaw’s directorial liberty and the production is fantastic. After seeing “Three Women,” I will never read the poem the same way. If you’re near New York: Please see “Three Women.” If you’re not near New York: you still have time to book your tickets.

*Here’s an interesting thing: the acronym of the actresses last names is BBC!
**Some see “Three Women” as a poem. Some, a play. I can see the argument for both, but I am of the former and so refer to it as a poem.

Leftovers & Outtakes, possibly questionably included:

A false start:
I was talking to a coworker who asked me what I was doing this weekend. I said, “I’m going to New York to see three women.”

She said, “You’re turning into Ted Hughes! How does your wife feel about that?!”

There are certain associations between Plath and “Three Women” that I feel are important to highlight though may be nothing new to many of you, especially because in anything related to Sylvia Plath, it is the little connections that are quite fascinating. In addition to biographical experiences which may have influenced the poem, one of the biggest sources for “Three Women” was Ingmar Bergmann’s “Brink of Life.” I don’t speak or read Swedish but just watching the film transforms ones understanding of the poem and how Plath came to write it.

Shaw’s direction to “Trust Sylvia” is brilliant; yet he also admitted (perhaps off the record) that he has willingly avoided reading up on Plath’s biography. As director this is good and bad. It is good as it allows an unadulterated interpretation: it’s his. And it works, I’m honestly not being critical. It could be bad, however, because readers of Plath - undoubtedly a good proportion of attendees - have certain expectations. As it is set largely in a maternity ward, I expected a degree of likeness in the dress of the characters. Instead, each woman is in darkish clothing (black, gray, beige, brown: only the Secretary wears white, her shirt) that defines their role as wife, secretary, and student. But it is the whiteness that I expected, especially so when one considers “Three Women” to some of Plath’s other hospital poems such as “Tulips” and “The Surgeon at 2 a.m.” These poems suffocate in whiteness, and sameness. In “Tulips” Plath says,

“The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.”

Utterly confined. When Plath wrote “The Surgeon at 2 a.m.,” she opens with this line, “The white light is artificial, and hygienic as heaven.” Throughout this poem words like “transparent,” “snowfield,” “frozen,” “statue,” “icebox,” and “gauze,” all conform to a sense of being trapped, enclosed.

In “Three Women”, Plath updates “Tulips” and tosses her eyes skyward at the moon, which “passes and repasses, luminous as a nurse.” Now the whiteness is less centered around the speaker; it has moved upward, but not for long. Later, the Wife now in hospital ominously comments “The sheets, the faces, are white and stopped, like clocks.” Whiteness descends, like a bell jar.

“Three Women” brings out a range of female experiences surrounding pregnancy and child birth; it is a poem only Sylvia Plath could have written.

The genre of the verse poem was something new to her when Plath wrote “Three Women.” She did try a verse dialogue (“Dialogue Over a Ouija Board”) in 1957 or 1958. Her idol, Dylan Thomas, complete the verse poem (or play) “Under Milk Wood” around 1953, which, while performed several times in 1953, was published after Thomas’ death in the February 1954 issue of Mademoiselle. Plath and Thomas were both in New York in June 1953, and she kind of stalked him a bit but didn’t end up meeting him (though she did see him read in Amherst, Mass.) Interestingly, Dylan Thomas temporarily lost his manuscript of “Under Milk Wood” at the York Minster Pub on Dean Street in Soho, London. It was also at this pub where Plath signed the contract for her first book of poems, The Colossus, in February 1960. Both “Under Milk Wood” and “Three Women” were produced by Douglas Cleverdon.

In addition to this review, please read Julie Feltman’s which appeared on Theatre is Easy. Further reviews will be appended below...

At nytheatre.com, Jo Ann Rosen reviews...

At backstage.com, David Sheward misses the mark in his review... but catches the wife giving birth in the photograph...

18 October: offoffbroadwayworld.com gives us "Sylvia Plath's Three Women: Poetry Passing Quickly."

19 October: The Epoch Times reviews both "Three Women" and "Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath."

28 October: Eric Grode's review "Seeking Sylvia Plath, in Her Own Words and Someone Else’s" at the New York Times reviews both "Three Women" and "Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath."


Julia said...

Thanks for this review. How I wish I had the time and cash to fly out to NYC and see it!

Kristina Zimbakova said...

Peter, not only is this a review of the performance but also an entire comparative study, I should say. Plathcitement is a miraculous word coin.I wish it were possible to open a larger version of the photo,as usual,it is difficult to read as it is now.

Peter K Steinberg said...


Thank you! The whole thing just kind of got away from me when I was writing it Saturday after the afternoon performance. I also create highly offensive words, too. Not just Plathcentric ones.

I've bigified the picture so click away!


Kristina Zimbakova said...

Also, the 'BBC' serendipity with the actresses' surnames...the mysterious ways of life and destiny.

Robert Shaw said...

Kind thanks for the review, Peter.

Sylvia Plath called it a monologue for three voices. I guess a monologue can be a poem or a play, depending on your point of view. It does suggest she expected it to be heard rather than read, however.

panther said...

I must say I have had my doubts about THREE WOMEN being put on stage, it having been conceived as a radio play. I think you've convinced me, Peter, that this is valid ! Thank you for your very detailed critique.

The Sheward review sounds dismissive as well as bored. As for referring to Plath as "the suicidal poet". . .aaaagh ! No-one who feels suicidal, or attempts suicide, or actually succeeds, is like that all their life ! An impossibility. I believe that SP herself suggests in her journals that her writing, ALL her writing, stems from the part of herself that is healthiest and sanest. And THREE WOMEN, for all its disturbing language and emotional difficulties, is very affirming of life.

panther said...

I forgot to ask you, Robert, will the play be returning to London ? I live "in the provinces" and missed it first time round.

Arlaina said...

Peter! We did not rendezvous! But I think I might try and catch Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath. Is it worth it?
Hope you are well! And for the record, I use the term Plathcitement all the time.

Peter K Steinberg said...


No, I did not and do not plan on seeing "Wish I Had" on its current run in NYC. I did see it back in 2007 when it was at Oxford, as part of the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium.


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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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • 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 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: 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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.