By Patricia Contino
Emily Dickinson wrote her poems in pencil on scraps of paper. So, it’s no surprise that her scattered legacy, created in self‑imposed seclusion, inspires scholars and readers to claim her as their own. Emily is revered as a delicate Victorian “Angel in the House,” a feminist, a writer who cut herself off from the world to work in peace, a social misfit, atheist, lesbian and agoraphobic. Among the first to give Emily a posthumous life was writer/environmentalist Mable Loomis Todd (1856‑1932), mistress of Emily’s brother Austin. Now through November 17 at 59E59, Mable is portrayed by the great Kathleen Chalfant in Rebecca Gilman’s provocative and wonderful “A Woman of The World.”
Directed by Valentina Fratti, “A Woman of the World” takes place in 1931, 45 years after the poet’s death. Mable is lecturing on “The Real Emily Dickinson” in Hog Island, Maine, on a property she owned that became a nature preserve upon her death (and where Ms. Gilman wrote the play as an Artist‑in Residence). Dressed in white as was her “dear friend’s” preference, Mable is also promoting her new edition of Dickinson’s poems. She proudly admits correcting Dickinson’s lack of “understanding rhythm and rhyme…not following the conventions of punctuation.” Mable dismisses the rival, alternative Dickinson family edition of their ancestress’s work, without knowing that both hers and theirs are now judged wildly inaccurate. True, Emily used neither a dictionary nor punctuation ‑ but the lack of convention is what makes the poems brilliant. Removing the syntax reveals a distinctive voice. Her 1800 poems were not restored until 1998.
Night sounds and her daughter Millicent’s presence (invisible to the audience) unnerve Mabel, turning a memorized lecture into autobiography. Thus, her two safe havens of words and nature reveal her true self. She met the Dickinson family when her astronomer husband David was hired by Amherst College, where Austin was Treasurer. The combination of Austin’s unhappy marriage and David’s frequent absences and affairs (approved by his wife) led Mabel to have an affair with Austin. Mable speaks of Austin more than Emily because she never actually saw her until she was in her coffin.
Rebecca Gilman has a lot of material to work with. Turning the 80‑minute lecture into a confessional allows Mable an opportunity for self‑examination, to which Ms. Chalfant responds with surprise and spontaneity. Ms. Fratti’s direction is non‑intrusive. It’s easy to believe that Mable is talking to both her daughter and the lecture attendees/audience.
Mabel’s lies, infidelity and ego were in pursuit of a goal as common now as it was then: fame. While there were not many career options for women in the nineteenth century, today, the wife, mother or girlfriend of a celebrity can have an Instagram account with a large following.
Nonetheless, Mable Loomis Todd lived a relevant life. Kathleen Chalfant doesn’t try to make her likable, but succeeds in making her vulnerable. The more honest she becomes, the more alone she is onstage. Her recital of Dickinson’s poetry is worth the price of admission.
“A Woman of the World” does not reveal the real Emily Dickinson. What this intelligent play does is provide the absent history of someone ‑ a woman ‑ who knew she was an unconventional genius. Emily would have appreciated that.
“A Woman of the World”
Performed by Kathleen Chalfant
Written by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Valentina Fratti
Produced by The Acting Company, in association with Miranda Theatre Company
October 30 – November 17, 2019
Photo by Carol Rosegg
59 East 59th Street
New York City
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PATRICIA CONTINO has written about the performing arts for several online publications. The NJ native and resident received her MFA in Writing from The New School and is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.