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Sylvia Plath in Bartholomew Fair

Posted by: CEWBJ Team 9 years ago

(1 comment)

Contribution by John Creaser, editor of Bartholomew Fair

Writing a detailed stage history for Bartholomew Fair has revealed some bizarre conjunctions of person and role, perhaps the most quirky being the appearance of the distinguished bibliographer Don McKenzie as ‘second puppet’ in a 1965 production by Downstage in Wellington, New Zealand. However, some equally remarkable instances come in the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Club’s production at its ADC Theatre in November-December 1955, which was studded with future stars. Reviewers recorded and praised performances of major roles by, among others, John Bird, the future novelist A. S. Byatt (under her maiden name Toni Drabble), Daniel Massey, and especially Jonathan Miller as a brilliantly eccentric Troubleall. The names of those playing the smaller parts went unrecorded and unpraised, and in the case of Punk Alice with her five short speeches and a cat-fight in Act 4 Scene 5 this may have been justified, since,  according to Miller, she was played by ‘this rather big, blonde girl standing with one hand on her hip in what she thought was a traditionally “whorish” posture’ (though, to be fair, he said his own celebrated performance was ‘utterly eighth-rate’). It is now realised that the blonde girl was an American graduate soaking up as much experience as she could in her first term at Cambridge, one Sylvia Plath.

At the beginning of term, Plath had been one of only nine girls to audition successfully for the ADC, and she went on to play the mad poetess Phoebe Clinkett in a minor production of Three Hours After Marriage, by Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot. At first she failed to win a part in Bartholomew Fair, the term’s major production, and initially she claimed to be glad about this (‘although, of course, it injured my ego slightly’), but was happy to accept a small part later ‘as a rather screaming bawdy woman who gets into a fight ... because it will give me a kind of stage presence and keep me active in the ADC.’ She wrote to her mother that ‘I have a long-sleeved gown of vivid yellow satin, which is much fun’, but, writing in her private journal when threatened by depression two months later, the tone is very different: ‘I am selfish, scared, crying too much to save myself for my phantom writing. But at any rate it is better than last term, when I was going mad night after night being a screaming whore in a yellow dress.’ Her provisional decision during the production to ‘let this stage and grease-paint part of my life go’ was to be confirmed, and her life changed once and forever, when on February 25 the quarrelsome Punk Alice had her violently passionate first meeting with Ted Hughes.

(For documentation, see Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, ed. A. S. Plath (1976), pp. 189-90, 194, 196, 199; The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962, ed. K. V. Kukil (2000), p. 202; Kate Bassett, In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller (2012), p. 79; and (November 2012).)


  • Martin Butler 9 years ago

    A few more of these strange casting conjunctions will come out when the Performance Archive is published. One of my favourite examples is the performance of Eastward Ho at the University of Liverpool in 1962, which had several participants who were later to achieve eminence as scholars: G. K. Hunter was Security, Norman Blake was Sir Petronel Flash, and the director was Inga-Stina Ewbank (editor of Catiline in CWBJ). And, most intriguingly, there's the 1972 Los Angeles performance of Volpone (in Stefan Zweig's adapted version), in which the part of Leone was played by Adam West -- TV's Batman.