Aberration of Starlight: A Play about Emily Dickinson

Bethany Ford

Bethany Ford

Even for those of us who are not devotees of Emily Dickinson, the life and consciousness of the poet remain a fascinating riddle. The historical period in which she lived – mid- to late nineteenth-century – was able to offer abundant documentation in the form of recorded accounts and letters, archived publications, testimonies of family and acquaintances, and photographs. And we do have a good amount of ‘accredited’ attestation to Dickinson’ life, and yet in her self-imposed solitude she appears as much a myth to us as she had to her contemporaries.

Perhaps less so now, however, because her complete and unedited work has only been published more than half a century after her death, and we have a much brighter scope of her thoughts and talent than did  most of her peers.  Emily Dickinson left us a poetic universe which she created enclosed in her house in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Then there are the Emily Dickinson connoisseurs, like Walter A. Davis, Professor Emeritus of literature, who wrote Aberration of Starlight: A Play about Emily Dickinson, playing on the stage of the Lowry Lab Theater in St Paul, Minnesota. When one is a literary scholar and an admirer of the poetry, one attempts to decipher the enigma of the recluse poet through her work. Davis takes us into Dickinson’ bedroom, for the two days and the night between them during which she was writing the poem “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—.”

The poem describes a forceful battle taking place in the writer’s understanding of herself, inspiring the playwright to create (or recreate) Dickinson’s state of mind as she writes her lines and enabling him to delve into this striking mind. The text is a celebration for lovers of language as it unpacks Dickinson’s words, lines, stanzas and demonstrates the tortuous linguistic and emotional paths that led the poet to the final few characters she drew on the paper.

The drama that takes place on the stage is, of course, but one possible interpretation of Dickinson’s process of writing amid many potential others, but the playwright is so thoroughly versed in her poetry that her dramatized monologues are spellbinding. For the viewer to gain appreciation of the studied text and to enjoy the treasure of Dickinson’s language as it is reenacted alive, he or she would need to accept that there is a merging of minds occurring on stage, where the desire and deep engagement of the reader has transformed him into a surrogate Emily Dickinson and generated a torrent of his own poetic prose.

In this spectacle it is hard to tell who is the real hero – the poem, the text of the play or the actress whom we watch on stage as she performs the emotional and literary drama of Davis’ image of Dickinson. By all accounts, this one-woman performance is extremely challenging and Bethany Ford, dressed in the white attire that was the poet’s chosen color, gives a powerful and moving portrayal of the fluctuations that Dickinson experienced in the very process of writing. Ford shows us that the drama of this writing lies in the recognition that some souls are doomed to wrestle between the abysses of looming death and ungratified desire, and the infinite heights to which our thoughts and conceptions can take us. We know that pain and pleasure are inextricably tied, and we are thankful to the ones who can mold this inevitability in the object that is the singular invention of humans: the beauty of language.

Aberration of Starlight: A Play about Emily Dickinson, by Walter A. Davis. Directed by Walter A. Davis and Bryan Bevell. At the Lowry Lab Theater, 350 Saint Peter Street, Saint Paul, MN 55102. Cash or Check only at the door.  Dates: June 13, 2013 – June 22, 2013.

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