Edna St. Vincent Millay Speaks to the Committee on Immortality: Poetic Seduction
"Longevity is so at odds with the love of life." So says Jennifer Gibbs in the title role of her solo play, Edna St. Vincent Millay Speaks to the Committee on Immortality. Perhaps a little less high living would have added to her 58 years, but as the lady once said, "I have had so much and all I want is more."
At age 20 she had earned national acclaim and a full Vassar scholarship for her poem, Renaissance, becoming a critics' darling and eventually the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Moving to Greenwich Village after graduation, Millay was a symbol of the free-living and sexually charged Bohemian lifestyle of the 1920's. Even when she settled down and got married to Dutch coffee importer Eugen Jan Boissevain, a man she found both intellectually stimulating and physically intoxicating, he agreed to let her carry on affairs with whomever she liked. An accomplished actress and playwright, her personal appearances reading her own work would sell out arenas. If it wasn't for that nasty morphine addiction, brought on after receiving spinal injuries in a car accident, she would have seemed to have led a near completely charmed life.
In Gibbs' play, the audience members are honored to be guests in her bedroom, a simple but effective set by Cameron Anderson that makes sensual use of long and billowy curtains. Although the year is 1945, which would make our hostess 53, Gibbs looks no older than 30. (Sarah Sidman's soft lighting is very nice, but I doubt if it can make one look 23 years younger.) For ninety minutes, between injections of morphine, Millay regales us with her life story, quoting herself liberally ("'Never ask a girl poet to marry you', someone said. I believe it was me.") and mussing on her desire for immortality.
As directed by Marie-Louise Miller, Gibbs' portrayal is that of a woman confident in her looks and sex appeal, teasing the audience with suggestive smiles and gestures. Costume designer Kathryn Rohe has her spending most of the play dressed enticingly in lingerie. Attractiveness is power in both her lifestyle and in her more erotic verse. In a memorable and very funny monologue, she describes an "experiment" performed one evening when a gentleman admirer invited her to his apartment for dinner. After the meal he made the expected advances, which she accepted with bored indifference. Her host proceeded to kiss her passionately, undoing her clothes and exploring her body while she sat inexpressive, her arms just hanging at her side. After he had satisfied her orally, she simply gathered up her things, thanked him for a lovely evening, and left. "Why must sex inspire such ineptitude in men?", she sighs.
Gibbs suggests Millay's popularity began to decline as more eccentric poets such as e.e. cummings -- with his nontraditional use of typography, language and punctuation -- began to gain favor. In one bitter scene an incensed Millay rants about the quality of his poetry screaming that she can't fathom what he's writing about.
If the play lacks a little in dramatics, Edna St. Vincent Millay Speaks to the Committee on Immortality certainly makes up for it in style and swagger. Gibbs' script and performance are both intelligent and appealing. If you weren't a fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay entering the theatre, don't be surprised if you find yourself stopping by a bookstore on the way home.