This next piece came from my final year of secondary education where I gratefully took advanced higher English, the highest qualification that a Scottish pupil can achieve in high school and I absolutely loved it. There were only 4 of us in the class and we all got on so well especially due to our shared love of literature. During this year of English we studied the plays of Tennessee Williams and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Following my enjoyment of adapting prose into drama the year before I decided to kind of do it again but adapting information I had gleaned from Plath’s poetry and creating a piece that explored her life and relationships with men, I tried to combine the symbolism of her poetry into the form of drama which I love and I really wish I could stage this production. This one is a bit longer than the other two because I had no word limit in Advanced English (woohoo!). I guess if you enjoy Plath’s poetry and are intrigued by her tragic life, this may interest you, here’s White Horse…
The back wall and tabs of the stage are hexagon shaped lights, made to look like a honey comb. The lights are a warm golden colour. The buzzing of bees can be heard faintly as the stage is slowly illuminated. There are items laid on the floor, spread across the stage: a pair of black shoes, a roll of barb wire, a pack of Taroc cards, an anatomical heart, a black telephone and a pile of sand.
A young girl, of about 7 years of age, skips in from upstage left to stand centre stage as the lights fade up. She is wearing a green a-line skirt with a white shirt with a sunflower pattern; she has on knee-high white socks and green sandals.
SYLVIA: (Whilst twirling her hair) My Daddy is taking us on holiday to Nauset again. We have to sit in the car for the reeeeeally boring trip there. I think it feels like forever but Daddy says it’s only 2 hours. (Walks downstage right to the pile of sand and sits down crossed legged beside it. She picks up a handful of sand and lets it fall back into the pile, then repeats.) But when we get there, we go to the beach! Mommy sits beside all of our things and reads a book and Daddy takes me and my brother, Warren, for a walk along the shore (walks her fingers along the stage). Daddy told us that the waves would gobble us up if they caught us so we would run away when they chased us up the beach, but we’d try to leave it until the last second to see who was the bravest. On our walks, Daddy tells us fairy tales. (Giggling) He even once told us a ridiculous story about a woman who lived inside a boot! Can you imagine living in a shoe? (Giggles)
Sylvia jumps to her feet and walks to the Taroc cards that are lying upstage, she picks them up and splays them out like magazines on a waiting room table then begins to fiddle with them.
SYLVIA: I think my mommy is lucky because she has someone strong like Daddy to look after her. (Smiling) It reminds me of a story he was telling me. His stories always start with “once upon a time”, when he says that I get sooooooo excited! (Blurting out the details in excitement) So this time there was a girl who was walking through the forest. (As if remembering a part she had forgotten) Ooh! She was there because she – she – she had to pick flowers… they were tulips! She was getting them for her mother who was poorly. And then, she went to the river to get a drink, but then she fell in! This was the scary part because she didn’t know how to swim – (bragging) I know how to swim. So anyway, she was drowning! But then… (Pauses for dramatic effect) A prince came riding in on his white horse and jumped into the river to bring her to safety. (Wistfully) Then they fell in love and lived happily ever after! (Holds arms out then wraps them around herself in a hug)
Sylvia drops the cards to the floor then proceeds down stage left as if playing hopscotch. She picks up the black telephone that is attached to the wall and holds it to her ear. She twirls the coiled cord.
SYLVIA: The thing that bugs me is when my daddy speaks in German ‘cause I can’t understand what he is saying. It’s all “ach”, “ich”, and gobbledygoo! It is like he is keeping secrets from me. He uses it when he speaks to Mommy; usually when there is something they don’t want me and Warren to know. I think it feels like there are two people; my daddy and my father. (Thoughtfully) My daddy is the one who holds me and tells me stories and plays games… (Shifts to a dissatisfied tone) While my father is the German man who barks orders at me. I don’t like it when he does that. I don’t like Germany.
As Sylvia disconnects the black telephone from the wall, the lights fade down. The lights change so that we can no longer see the action on the stage but can see a shadow through the back wall of the stage. We can see the silhouette of a tall adult man as he picks up a young girl into a hug; he spins her around before placing her on the ground. The two figures stand holding both hands between them and look at each other. After a short pause, the man falls to the ground and his shadow fades away. The girl is left standing alone; she reaches out one hand before taking her hands up to her eyes, shoulders shuddering with her tears. She walks away from the back wall as her shadow fades out of sight.
Whilst this is happening a voiceover reads parts from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’.
“You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty year…
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich…
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo…
The black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two…
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you…
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root…
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”
Following this, we are left in darkness for a moment before a quotation by Sylvia Plath is projected onto the back wall of the stage. It reads: “those first nine years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth”.
The honeycomb lights fade up – a darker and more intense shade of orange – the noise of the buzzing bees intensifies. The objects on the stage are different this time and include a bundle of white sticks, a pile of barnacles, a few x-rays spread on the ground, a ship in a bottle, some books and a Ouija board.
Sylvia is leaning against a desk that is just off the centre of the stage. She is now around 24 years of age and is wearing brown trousers; an over-sized collared shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, and black loafers.
SYLVIA: (Throughout this speech the honeycomb gets gradually darker. Sylvia picks up the pile of books and hugs them into her chest with one arm. In her other hand is a cigarette that she is carelessly smoking) I am glad I came to Cambridge. Obviously, for the prestige and improved standards from my days at Smith College, but mostly because it means I can put some real distance between my mother and I. When I was at Smith, she was less than two hours away from me and would come to visit quite regularly, but with Cambridge, I have an entire ocean between us. Her tempestuous waves dull down into gentle lapping water by the time they reach my shore. (She takes a long drag from her cigarette and exhales before continuing) This distance is beneficial because it means that I have space to breathe, without her asking me if I feel alright, if I need another appointment with the doctors, if I am staying healthy. She always focusses on, and brings me back to the past – and it infuriates me. Why must she smother me so? She bleeds me dry, funnelling out my energy like a cancer. Three years ago, (nonchalantly) I tried to commit suicide. (on the back wall is projected another quotation of Sylvia Plath, it reads “I blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.”)
Sylvia places the books down on the desk and walks to pick up the X-rays, holding them up towards the light.
SYLVIA: (detached) After that first attempt, my mother was determined to ‘fix’ me. She took me to the hospital and they ran test after test before admitting me back to McLean’s Psych Ward where they continued to try and electrocute the depression out of me (rubs her temples). Then my doctor decided to try insulin shock treatment (places her hand over the inside of her elbow, protecting it from further injection). My mother was eager for these experiments to continue, especially since she didn’t have to pay for them – (caustically) my mentor, Olive Prouty, was footing the bill. Since those days in the hospital, mother has been a constant, looming presence. She hoovers on the periphery of my existence, eager to unwind her tentacles and wrap them round my neck.
Sylvia places the x-rays back on the floor and moves to stand centre stage. The honeycomb brightens to a healthier hew.
SYLVIA: (Her tone brightens with fondness, her mouth curves into a slight smile) Luckily for me, Cambridge meant the beginning of my own fairytale. My Prince, Ted, rode in on his white horse to rescue me from drowning in my own depression. I knew who he was because I had read some of his poetry, and then I met him at a party. (Nostalgically gushing) he was fantastic; he told me all about his writing in “a voice like the thunder of God”. I was enthralled with him. We continued to see one another, wrote poems for one another, and soon after, we were married (she breathes a swoon-like sigh). Our honeymoon was in Benidorm and was far superior to our family holidays in Nauset. I loved that Ted travelled as I got to see and learn new things. We have become very interested in the supernatural and we are discovering all sorts of new things together. Ted excites me; he makes me brighter (she beams a smile).
Sylvia exits stage left, kicking over the pile of barnacles as she passes. Again, the back wall changes in light so that we can see the shadows through it. The shadows portray a couple, Plath and Hughes, standing centre stage holding hands, paralleling the first shadow image of Plath and her father. A nurse enters and hands Plath a baby, a moment later the nurse returns empty handed and shakes her head. Plath cries into Hughes’ chest, he puts his arms around her. A moment later she is handed another baby. We can see Plath holding them in both arms while Hughes has his arm around her. Another woman grabs Hughes’ spare hand and separates him from Plath who turns away. Hughes and the woman embrace and then run away, Plath is left alone with the babies.
Whilst this is happening, a voiceover reads parts from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Medusa’.
“You house your unnerving head – God-ball,
Lens of mercies,
Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow,
Pushing by like hearts,
Red stigmata at the very centre…
My mind winds to you
Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable,
Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous repair.
In any case, you are always there…
I could draw no breath,
Dead and moneyless,
Overexposed, like an x-ray…
I shall take no bite of your body,
Bottle in which I live…
Off, off, eely tentacle!
There is nothing between us.”
Again after we hear the poem and see the shadow story, we are left in darkness for a moment before a quotation of Sylvia Plath is projected onto the back wall of the stage. It reads: “Is there no way out of the mind?”
The honeycomb lights up again, this time a dark, angry, reddish orange colour. The buzzing of the bees intensifies even further so that it is difficult to ignore. The objects on the stage now are: a lamp, a pile of peanut shells, a seashell and string of pearls, a cake of soap, a linen napkin and a photograph of a cat.
Sylvia sits on the edge of the stage, bringing her closer with the audience. She is wearing a long white skirt with a floaty white blouse and is barefoot, her feet scarred and red. She is now around the age of 30 and looks unwell, beneath her eyes are dark circles marking out many sleepless nights.
SYLVIA: (Picking up one of the peanuts from beside her and removing them from their shells) They call me a confessional poet. Whilst, certainly, I use my poetry to escape, I don’t think that other people can truly see my confessions. They only assume what I was trying to say by their interpretation of my metaphors. Even if what they see disturbs them, they don’t want to help, just watch what happens. My genuine confession is that life has destroyed me. I no longer believe in my childhood fairytales. The Prince didn’t help me onto his white horse and take me to safety, towards my happy ending, but instead drove me towards death, again and again. Ted was no Prince, no saviour, he was a liar who controlled me then discarded me. I never should have relied on anyone. (In a bitter tone, speaking through gritted teeth. Her body is still, clenched up with the anger of her situation.) My father died, my mother smothered me, my husband cheated on me and my second child died before even making it into existence. Each of these things pushed me further and further down the rabbit hole. The only root that I could grab at, to pull me up, was writing – it was the only thing that gave me hope. Trapped in the darkness, writing was my only flicker of salvation. It was like a gnarled limb; twisted but strong, a conduit to the cleansing light above. But, hope turned out to be a cruel illusion. The hole is flooding. The water covers my face. I cannot swim this time. I cannot breathe.
Sylvia stands up and walks upstage to pick up the linen napkin, she unfolds it then tries to wrap it around her shaking hands. The honeycomb begins to turn from red to black, gradually building up like the depth of the hole that Sylvia is trapped in.
SYLVIA: Since Ted’s betrayal, the darkness calls to me, beckoning me into its grasp. (She holds her wrists together in front of her) It is a siren call that cannot be ignored. I no longer hear the mournful wails of my little ones as I have fallen too deep inside the hole. I am consumed by the possibility of release. (Takes a deep breath and closes her eyes as she exhales) The painful bonds that have held me in their steely grasp begin to crumble as I contemplate the end. Perhaps it is more accurate to consider it a beginning. (Opens her eyes) Yes, a beginning. (Moves her hands beside her sides with her palms open towards the audience) Free from the shackles of expectation and obligation. Free from the need to look for those roots, the need to reach the light. (Her body relaxes) I no longer have the strength to push against the depths of the rabbit hole. It will be a relief to surrender. I leave my words as a legacy; my soul in ink, soaked into brittle paper. (She drops the napkin to the floor).
Lights drop to darkness instantly; there is a moment where all that the audience can hear is the unfaltering buzzing of the bees; its insistent volume is so loud that it is all-consuming. The shadows appear again, we see a woman lying on the ground and a nurse knocking at a door, she waits for a moment after getting no response, and then lets herself in to find the woman on the ground. As the nurse walks away, the woman’s shadow disappears and the nurse returns with the two babies in her arms. The shadows disappear.
Whilst this is happening, a voiceover reads from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’.
“I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it…
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die…
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot —-
The big strip tease…
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call…
Ash, ash —
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—-
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling…
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
The buzzing of the bees stops suddenly. Following a short moment of silence, a final quotation of Sylvia Plath is projected onto the back wall of the stage reading “While from the bottom of a pool, fixed stars govern a life.”