Academic Paper: This is my letter to the World: Emily Dickinson in Dramatic Performance
Artistic Project: The Poet in White
Public Event: Staged reading of The Poet in White with Q&A
Thursday, May 14th at 8pm (CST) — Zoom link here
My name is Hope Campbell Gundlah. I’m originally from Massachusetts, but I’m currently based in Chicago. I am an aspiring playwright, but professionally, I have worked as an actor, a dramaturgy research fellow, and a youth theatre educator. I’ve acted with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and Underscore Theatre Company’s Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. When I’m not researching my complex, queer, mentally ill, ingenious, badass idol Emily Dickinson, I’m the grant writer of Perceptions Theatre, a Chicago theatre company.
My thesis, “‘This is my letter to the World’: Emily Dickinson in Dramatic Performance,” investigates the origins of the popular conceptualization of the poet Dickinson. In American cultural mythos, Dickinson has been immortalized as a puritanical recluse, a childlike manic pixie dream girl, a heartbroken specter, and a mad genius by turns. I note in my introduction:
“The poet’s first major appearance as a character in dramatic performance occurred in 1976, in William Luce’s play The Belle of Amherst; this Emily is a manic pixie dream girl who feigns “madness” so that people will leave her alone to write. From these beginnings, the poet has become a recognizable character, simplified, amplified, and over-dramatized into an eccentric recluse who manifests alternately as a spinster, a manic pixie dream girl, a specter, or a circus freak on modern stages and screens…As with any caricature, the popular conceptualization of Dickinson is, at its core, derived from facts about her life; her several-year-long reclusion, for instance, is no invention. However, thanks largely to literary scholars from the 1970s and ‘80s, Dickinson dramatists after Luce have increasingly turned to Dickinson’s letters and poems in creating their characterizations. Recent years have seen an outpouring of Dickinson-inspired media, including Terence Davies’s 2017 film A Quiet Passion, Madeleine Olnek’s 2019 rom-com Wild Nights With Emily, and AppleTV’s 2019 streaming series Dickinson. These pieces are, of course, primarily intended for art and entertainment. However, like Luce’s Belle of Amherst, these modern movies and TV shows contribute to history’s conceptualization of the poet, her life, and her work, simply because their characters bear the name “Emily Dickinson.” In creating their media, these artists still offer interpretations of the poet, her life, and her work — interpretations that differ not only from each other, but also from Dickinson’s characterization of herself. These dramatic performances, as can be expected, are marked with the biases and limitations of their authors’ historical moments, and their influences on popular conceptualization of Dickinson have led readers to likewise neglect important aspects of Dickinson’s self-characterization when analyzing her poems or relating to her as a figure.”
My paper goes on to prove that even contemporary dramatizations of Dickinson have neglected her letters and poems, which essentially serve as her memoir. These performances have prioritized different aims instead — a conventional story arc, a certain aesthetic, a political message — which have most often been at the expense of truthfully depicting Dickinson’s queerness and mental illness.
I was introduced to Dickinson after being randomly assigned to research her for a high school English paper. I immediately fell in love with her poems — it seemed like her vast corpus contained a poem for every emotion a human being could feel. Upon encountering her poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” I was shocked. It seemed to describe a sensation I’d experienced dozens of times. I didn’t know its name then, but it was a panic attack; I’d suffered from them since I was five years old, but wouldn’t be diagnosed with anxiety until college. Sure enough, I encountered works from many scholars who found threads of mental illness throughout Dickinson’s corpus. In my research, I inadvertently stumbled upon a story I’d never heard before — the story of how Dickinson’s family, friends, and distant acquaintances edited, sold, censored, and even stole her poems after death, in a battle not only over land, adultery, and royalties, but over whose characterization of Dickinson would go down in history. I was awestruck when I compared several versions of the same poem and found drastic revisions that often erased or mitigated any presence of mental illness or queerness. This was all during my junior year of high school, but I kept this obscure narrative in the back of my mind, wondering why nobody had ever dramatized it.
I wrote much of The Poet in White during my first year at UChicago, in an Advanced Playwriting Workshop with playwright Calamity West. Years of research went into this play. Emily’s character speaks almost exclusively in direct quotations from her poems and letters; given the interest of this character study, and the beauty of her own words, I thought it best not to invent language for her. For her sister Lavinia, her sister-in-law and lover Susan, her brother Austin, Thomas Higginson, and Mabel Loomis Todd, I invented language, but never without historical basis. Thomas’s view of Emily is drawn from his letters and his introduction to Poems by Emily Dickinson. Mabel’s perspective is drawn from her description of Emily in letters, and further surmised from her poetry revisions. Only Austin’s language is solely invented, simply because his writings were sparse, but his character sprung from Emily’s descriptions. Lavinia and Susan’s characters were inspired by Dickinson’s letters, and they frequently quote these letters; in the final scene, Susan even recites a poem that real-life Susan actually wrote, and describes a true exchange with a dying Emily. I also looked to original letters to extrapolate each character’s views regarding Emily, her work, and her posthumous publication.
In telling their story, I found myself recalling my own process of writing the play. I, too, was retroactively piecing together characters from texts, creating my own biased piece of the historical record, putting invented words into figures’ mouths, and making presumptions about the wishes of the dead. The script is an adaptation of a story about adaptation — a creation of the same fraught process it depicts.
Artistic Project – The Poet in White