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Cultures of Solitude

Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation

Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler

This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.

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Socially Constructed Selfhood: Emily Dickinson in Full-Cast and Single-Actor Plays (Nassim Winnie Balestrini)

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Nassim Winnie Balestrini

Socially Constructed Selfhood: Emily Dickinson in Full-Cast and Single-Actor Plays

Abstract: In plays on Emily Dickinson, dramatists depict how contrasting cultural imaginaries interpret the nineteenth-century poet’s reclusiveness. These imaginaries range from justifying her transgressions against cultural norms to acknowledging problematic reading practices determined by theories of the socially constructed, relational self.

1. A Reclusive Poet’s Theatrical Career

Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal from society has been the source of numerous myths about her love life and her psychological well-being. Writers of biographical plays about the nineteenth-century New England poet necessarily confront the question as to how a dramatic work – to be put on stage to engage an audience – can convincingly depict reclusiveness. How, in other words, do playwrights dramatize and stage Dickinson’s perceived social invisibility in plays with casts comprising more than one actor? Does the form of a one-actor play/performance solve the problem of addressing and/or depicting such a life on a stage peopled with the ostensible recluse’s social circle? Even more poignantly, how can a one-woman show feature a poet reputed to be a shy loner, played by an actor who seemingly confides in an audience consisting of strangers?

The inconclusive knowledge about Dickinson’s reasons for deciding to remain single and to restrict her social ambit to a few relatives and friends with whom she regularly interacted and corresponded has spawned a sizeable body of stage works in which snippets from her poems and letters merge with the respective writer’s imagination, filling in numerous intriguing gaps and blanks in Dickinson’s biography.1 In spoken drama, Dickinson’s inscrutable biography has inspired numerous playwrights over the past roughly ninety years. At least twenty plays have been published or staged since Susan Glaspell’s Alison’s House was first performed at the Civic Repertory Theatre, New York, on 1 December 1930 (Balestrini 226). William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst: A Play Based on the Life of Emily Dickinson (Broadway premiere: 28 April 1976) is the earliest one-actor drama about Dickinson. More recently, K. D. Halpin and Kate Nugent produced Emily Unplugged (Sleeveless Theater, MA, premiere in 1995), and the British-American couple Edie Campbell and Jack Lynch published Emily Dickinson & I: The Journey of a Portrayal: A One Woman Play about Writing, Acting, and Getting into Emily Dickinson’s ← 203 | 204 → Dress (2005).2 In 2014, the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst presented John Bechtold’s “‘Before You Became Improbable’: An Immersive Theatrical Journey Inspired by Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters to T.W. Higginson,” which is a dramatic rendering of the poet’s communication with her editor.3

Broadly put, this essay will show that the two selected authors who opted for a cast including multiple actors dramatize, first, notions of why Dickinson came to lead a secluded life; second, the impact the solitary poet exerted on her contemporaries and on posterity; and, third, how the myths related to Dickinson’s reclusiveness have affected her reception as a poet. By contrast, the three selected dramas that rely on a single female performer – that may impersonate more than one character – either present a highly agentic woman that metaphorically pokes out her tongue at people who consider(ed) her a curiosity and that, simultaneously, enlists the audience members as her allies in defying her critics. Or they foreground Dickinson’s timeless relevance for contemporary artists and other readers who are engaged in self-finding processes and who invoke the nineteenth-century poet’s relative social isolation as a naive shibboleth meant to convey and celebrate the notion of the secluded creative artist. As a result, such performances of single performers assume a high level of meta-poetic reflection. The solo act can thus portray a thought process focused on individual approaches to understanding Dickinson, her legacy, and her role in another artist’s development. Paradoxically, staging this internal course of contemplation requires an immensely externalized and vocal form of communicating with audiences.

Before exploring this paradox, I will introduce selfhood theories developed in social psychology which will provide the basis of my analytical approach to the dramatic characters in plays with a multiple-actor cast and in plays with a solo performer. Establishing definitions of singular/independent versus social/interdependent selves is a crucial prerequisite of contemplating character development as well as diverging notions of singular/independent or social/interdependent selves because they frame selfhood as necessarily positioned within social relations. Long-standing assumptions that human beings are inherently socially oriented and that their self-understanding depends on social relations (Swann and Bosson 589–90, 594, 599–601) allow us to interpret implications regarding seclusion in a more nuanced light, as a matter of degree and as a phenomenon that must be discussed within a cultural-historical context that defines social roles and certain expectations regarding social interaction in a time-, place-, and culture-specific manner.

Juxtaposing early Dickinson plays that feature casts of roughly a dozen characters each with more recent plays for a solo performer reveals a marked shift in focus, even though overlap between earlier and later, full-cast and one-actor ← 204 | 205 → biographical plays exists. The main difference lies in two contrasting tendencies: first, the seeming need to justify the poet’s reclusiveness by highlighting her socially acceptable reasons and suggesting that her reclusiveness – either in itself or through the resulting poetic oeuvre – benefited others and thus actually reflected a deeper social concern; second, the interrogation of myths about Dickinson either with the result of depicting a proto-feminist poet or of foregrounding Dickinson as a figure of artistic identification that allows late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century characters to self-define. Metaphorically put, whoever dons the mantle of Dickinson’s historicized solitude does so with the help of a garment designed and created in the wearer’s own image.

2. Social and Relational Constructions of Selfhood

Numerous concepts of selfhood drawn from the field of social psychology stress “the fundamentally interpersonal” (Swann and Bosson 610) and, thus, the “socially constructed” (603) nature of the fluid and processual individual self. This so-called interactionist view of the self focuses on how human beings gain an understanding of who they are by constantly checking whether and how their idea of themselves coheres with their perceived social norms and with their ideas of how others see them (612). From this theoretical vantage point, extreme forms of solitude appear potentially pathological because any notion of selfhood requires a social context. Cultural psychology, a field that has gained influence since the 1990s and that contemplates the “cultural foundation of many psychological phenomena” (Heine 1423), reminds us, however, that the nature and extent to which self-construction depends on social interaction may, in fact, not be a clear-cut matter, as different cultures encourage individuals to position themselves in culture-specific ways within the spectrum between “independent” and “interdependent self-concepts” (1429; see also Plaut and Markus).

This cultural gray area between independent and interdependent selfhood helps us make sense of problems related to the reclusiveness with which the characters in Dickinson plays struggle. Can an individual self be truly independent and content? And at which point does a person’s distance from others become discomfiting or a sign of imbalance or illness? Is a person’s sense of isolation from society an essential, given trait, or is it a result of adapting to a specific socio-cultural environment or predicament? And how is a person’s self-image related to or different from perceptions by others? In particular, two concepts apply to dramatic ways of presenting Dickinson and those trying to understand her. First, the idea of “relational value” (Leary 874) implies the process of assessing one’s standing within a group by fathoming other group members’ attitudes towards one’s own ← 205 | 206 → self; the resulting assessment will then affect one’s self-esteem (874–75). In the dramatic works, the concept of ‘relational value’ allows us to understand how each play depicts Dickinson’s view of herself within a social context. Second, the concept of “parasocial relationships” (884) facilitates discussion of how the plays deal with Dickinson’s reception in literary criticism and in the cultural imaginary. While Mark R. Leary defines such a parasocial relationship between a fan and a famous person primarily for the era of television, the concept works well in the context of a canonized author who has become an iconic figure. The finding that parasocial relationships “may provide comfort and a sense of social connection even though the ‘relationship’ is distal and nonreciprocated” (884) also holds for dramatizations in which association with the secluded poet virtually enhances a dramatic character’s sense of self-worth.

In light of these theories of socially constructed and relational selfhood, the analysis of selected plays will demonstrate that the relationship between the imagined Dickinson and the dramatis personae changes from a parasocial connection based on heightening one’s own sense of self-worth through association with a specific version of the revered author to a reciprocal one, i.e., a relationship rooted in a sense of what I call ‘dialogic selfhood,’ according to which the poet and her seclusion can be neither unequivocally explained nor simply imitated.4

I use the terms ‘reclusive’ and ‘solitary’ interchangeably as designating the circumstance that Dickinson withdrew from social relations such as marriage and church membership that were deemed central to a woman’s life in her social environment. The terms do not imply that Dickinson had no contact with others, as she obviously lived with her family and interacted with a small circle of friends and acquaintances, be it personally or by correspondence (Messmer; Wolff). How the poet felt about her lifestyle remains largely outside the purview of this essay. Instead, my analysis of selected dramatic works will focus on how myths and conceptualizations of Dickinson as a recluse participate in promoting various notions of selfhood.

3. Evoking Dickinson’s Selfhood in Full-Cast Dramas

In Glaspell’s Alison’s House, for which Dickinson’s family denied the dramatist the use of Dickinson’s name and of her works (Guerra, “Dickinson Adaptations” 389), the titular character has been dead for 18 years when the play opens. The deceased poet is, naturally, physically absent but overwhelmingly present through memorabilia, her poems, and the conversing characters’ recollections. While the poet’s siblings, niece, and nephews share fond memories of Alison and disagree regarding how rumors about the reasons for Alison’s reclusiveness affect the family’s standing ← 206 | 207 → within the local community, characters outside the family circle are split between curiosity regarding her unconventional biography and the value of her poetic oeuvre for posterity. The central conflict of the play is whether restricting access to Alison’s biography and poems is tantamount to imprisoning the poet (Glaspell 25) and, by implication, making her reclusiveness permanent.

The concept of self-imprisonment in Glaspell’s drama coheres with the mid-nineteenth-century gendered concepts of propriety upheld by the fictional poet’s brother, John, and his daughter-in-law, Louise. According to John, Alison’s self-imposed isolation expresses her acceptance of social norms that disallow the consummation of her love for a married man. While a person unaware of this reason may read the woman’s spinsterhood as a psychological illness, the same person would possibly interpret male acts of self-isolation within a different tradition of thought. As Coby Dowdell argues, in post-revolutionary America the figure of the hermit became an emblem of individual liberty rebelling against oppressive majority rule (123). By the 1840s, the hermit was read not as an apolitical entity but rather as a particularly deep thinker that attempted to transcend party strife (143–44) and reconfirmed the nation’s commitment to “deliberative democracy” (147). Yet the defenders of propriety in Glaspell’s play do not promote such a philosophical reading of Alison’s relative seclusion (rather than full-fledged hermitism), which they attribute solely to personal reasons. Analogously, Emily Dickinson’s retreat not only from her studies at Mount Holyoke but also from her local church community and her avoidance of most interaction in public did not – for lack of extant records arguing otherwise – lead to a reputation as a female Thoreau in search of her Walden Pond. Rather, she came to be seen as an oddity precisely on account of her avoidance of normative social interaction.

According to Glaspell’s rendering of the poet, her seclusion does not imply an entirely independent self-concept in the sense that she completely broke with social norms regarding her choice of a partner, but the poet becomes independent to the extent that she rejects fulfilling mid-nineteenth-century notions of white middle-class womanhood. Alison’s poetic works, however, transcend her personal practice in the sense that not her biography but her oeuvre determines her long-term significance. Glaspell thus distinguishes between various ways of relating to Alison: family members cherish memories that imply Alison’s superior powers of empathy; on top of that, those who have experienced the desire for or actually indulged in socially unacceptable love relationships feel a secret bond with her both through knowledge of her life story and through encountering hitherto unknown poems that address her suffering. Furthermore, outsiders engage in a range of parasocial relationships: Alison’s nephew Ted provides insight into the sensationalist tendencies ← 207 | 208 → of his Harvard professor who supposedly promised Ted a passing grade if he were to provide previously unknown details about Alison’s recondite personality. The journalist Knowles, who visits the family’s house in order to see where Alison wrote her poems, argues that the poet’s works – which metonymically stand for Alison herself and for her life story – are not family property but rather “belong … to the world” (5; see also 19, 144–48). These perspectives merge when family members and others conclude that Alison’s poems comfort those who experience pain and possibly ostracism as a consequence of feeling desires that were unfulfillable because they were incompatible with the social norms governing intimate love relationships (139, 141, 145, 147, 149–53). The fictional world of the play then extends the idea of comfort found through a parasocial relationship beyond earthly life, as the empathetic link to Alison transcends death, which is the most extreme form of physical separation. When family members who have only now understood Alison’s suffering say, as if speaking to her, “Never mind, Alison. We have found you” and “You will never be alone again” (141; see also 154–55), they imply that their willingness to empathize may soothe the deceased’s suffering. The belated act of consoling the poet’s soul acknowledges an awareness of Alison’s ordeal, but it is obviously only a figurative gesture. Although the conflict between propriety and fulfillment persists in Alison’s House, the family patriarch’s decision to make his sister’s poems about this painful conflict available in print represents a step towards rapprochement between the contending parties.

Dorothy Gardner’s Eastward in Eden, which premiered in Boston and New York in November 1947, casts posterity’s parasocial link to Dickinson as being based on the poet’s ability to suffer stoically and to affirm traditional family values. In this case, instead of having other characters verbalize their admiration for Dickinson, the play stages the poet’s vision of emotional fulfillment. Gardner’s strategy implies that Dickinson’s emotional attachment to a married man was beyond reproach. The play repeatedly invokes the conventional metaphor of earthly life as a prison (32, 48, 72, 77) only to set a surreal dream sequence in a “cottage in eternity” (64) as the locus of an afterlife. In this scene (63–72), Dickinson experiences a marriage-like union of two minds and souls rather than bodies. Right after this scene of emotional fulfillment, the second act closes with the spectacular effect of Dickinson’s return to reality and to the earth-shattering awareness of her loss. Gardner’s Dickinson thus embodies the ideal of an interdependent female self within the alleged safety of middle-class domesticity, even though her life story as we know it contradicts this impression. As a result, Gardner’s play explains and justifies rather than pathologizes the poet’s loneliness. Even though the third act of Gardner’s play is set twenty years after Dickinson’s loss of her true love, it shows Dickinson’s lively interaction ← 208 | 209 → with family members and friends. She and her sister, Lavinia, also discuss their lives with a sense of resigned acceptance (94–96), which is confirmed by closing words that imply Dickinson’s reliance on God. Observing the first stars in the night sky, she says: “The lamp is lighted. God is very punctual” (100).

Glaspell’s and Gardner’s plays suggest that the female poet’s self-imposed seclusion bestowed upon her an aura of irreproachability as a socially aberrant, gifted poet. Both plays negotiate the poet’s seclusion as a personal issue during her lifetime. Although Glaspell’s Alison inspires her unconventional relatives and thus casts her as a potential reformer, the play goes beyond the personal only in hindsight, characterizing the poet’s secluded self as socially constructed and as socially relevant because Alison’s works are potentially therapeutic for posterity.

4. Dialogic Selfhood in One-Actor Plays

While traditional biographical plays – works that showcase the biographed individual through the depiction of momentous events, steps in personal development, tell-all revelations, artistic output, and responses by contemporaries – continue to be written, a growing number of playwrights have responded to postmodernist and new historicist critiques of historiography that foregrounds great personages and their ostensible achievements as objectively accessible. Playwrights instead spotlight the biographer’s function as a lens, that is, as a person contemplating another person’s life – possibly through reflection on her/his own life, by depicting the process of engaging with the biographed individual’s life, personality, and legacy, and by commenting on metadramatic features related to producing the very play one is watching.5

Selecting the one-actor format to represent a historical personage known for her secluded lifestyle raises questions regarding the dramatic possibilities inherent in using the theatrical form of an extended monologue as a mise-en-abîme for interpreting the solitary protagonist. In the plays discussed in this section, the solo actor breaks through the fourth-wall illusion and communicates with her audience. In the earliest play, Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, this results primarily in undermining long-standing myths about Dickinson as a secluded and extremely shy individual. The focus on the multiple Dickinsons constructed by recipients in different historical contexts, as depicted in two later plays, namely in Halpin and Nugent’s Emily Unplugged and Campbell and Lynch’s Emily Dickinson & I, rather indicates that any attempt at revealing what could be regarded as the poet’s essential selfhood is doomed as each recipient has an agenda and can do no more than enter into a dialogue regarding perspectives on the nineteenth-century poet. ← 209 | 210 →

The first one-woman play on Dickinson, Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, claims to be – as the subtitle says – A Play Based on the Life of Emily Dickinson. Its central concern is to revise the Dickinson cultural imaginary, replacing the cliché of a psychologically disturbed spinster with that of an agentic female artist who plays the role of the proverbial madwoman in the attic with relish (Luce 6) on account of her superior literary competencies. The monologue destroys the fourth-wall illusion by recruiting audience members as confidants. Luce’s Dickinson asks “Oh, you agree with me?” as if the audience had indicated agreement, and she repeats “How do you spend your evenings [?],” as if someone had asked her a question (32). The character’s verbal prowess, wit, and irony notwithstanding, Luce’s Dickinson fails to transform into a clearly determined agent of her retreat from society. She inconclusively claims: “I don’t regret my aloneness. I accept the pattern of life as it came to me – or as I caused it to be” (53). This dialectical relation between fate and agency relativizes the protagonist’s defiant self-assertiveness throughout most of the play.

As the allusion to MTV Unplugged in the title of Halpin and Nugent’s Emily Unplugged already implies, the play transfers the nineteenth-century poet into the present and chooses a format that supposedly allows access to what a recipient may consider the poet’s authentic artistry and, possibly, self rather than presenting an engineered and polished version. More importantly, this one-woman show illustrates how processes of reception can be characterized by construing other people’s motivations according to one’s own wishes. Thus, the protagonist claims that people who feel “weird” (Halpin and Nugent) project their own social isolation onto Dickinson. As William B. Swann, Jr. and Jennifer K. Bosson point out, “[a]pparently, when people sense that they and others perceive the world through the same psychological ‘lens,’ their confidence in the validity of their own visions of reality is reinforced. Such ‘I-sharing’ may constitute a powerful antidote to the problem of existential isolation” (603). Eclectic scenes envision Dickinson in roles that undermine the cliché of the silently suffering solitary spinster – as in renderings of Dickinson as a rebellious teenager (with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the soundtrack) and of Dickinson as a spoken word poet named Emmi D who recites the poem beginning with the verse “Wild Nights, Wild Nights,” one of Dickinson’s poems that has been read as depicting a woman’s erotic fantasy (Reynolds 188–89). These ahistorical appropriations of Dickinson turn the poet into an icon that responds to contemporary versions of popularity and psychological compatibility.

The main title of Campbell and Lynch’s Emily Dickinson & I introduces a drama that depicts the relationship between the single performer and her subject matter. The play’s first subtitle, The Journey of a Portrayal, alludes to the topos of a travel ← 210 | 211 → narrative and applies its extension in time and space to the process of artistic representation. The second subtitle, A One Woman Play about Writing, Acting, and Getting into Emily Dickinson’s Dress, confirms the meta-dramatic dimension and closes with what will be revealed to be the crux of the protagonist’s hybrid approach to auto/biographical drama and performance. As the play’s main title indicates, Edie, the single performer, ponders the potentially significant similarities between Dickinson’s and her own life. In tune with the subtitles, Edie narrates and acts out her fourteen-year-long attempt to write a Dickinson play that reveals the poet’s essence rather than one person’s perspective. When both projects come to naught in the sense that Edie rejects notions such as identifying with Dickinson and revealing her essence, the play uncovers expectations and reading practices that gain significance when considering Dickinson’s reclusiveness.

The central motif that conveys Edie’s journey towards distinguishing between the illusion of capturing another person’s presumably stable self and the experience of creative process is Dickinson’s emblematic dress. Edie questions not only the ways readers have been appropriating Dickinson, but also her own attempt at accessing the poet’s psyche. At the opening of the play, the actor contrasts a bust of Dickinson by an unknown artist with a prototypical dress Dickinson may have worn (30).6 Whereas the definitively shaped bust represents the poet as a monolithic icon to be admired in a pantheon, the malleable dress breathes softness, a domestic or at least everyday context, and the symbolism of a garment fitted to a specific human body. The idea of sharing the author’s apparel becomes constitutive of merging the writer’s experience, point of view, and sensibilities with the reader’s. Similar to the situation in Emily Unplugged, “[s]uch ‘I-sharing’ may constitute a powerful antidote to the problem of existential isolation” (Swann and Bosson 603). As Campbell’s play demonstrates, this sense of overcoming isolation is linked to understanding how artistic processes may include acts of projecting and constructing a psychological bond based on false premises.

When Dickinson’s solitude within the ostensible world of protected spinsterhood is projected onto the solitary artist who emulates her, their shared psychological and artistic predicament reinforces the comforting effect of the time- and space-transcending parasocial relationship between the adored poet and the contemporary dramatist-actor. However, the dress becomes a treacherous object that ultimately leads Edie from being obsessed with Dickinson’s life to focusing on her poetry. If we regard the dress as a nineteenth-century equivalent of today’s mass-distributed images of celebrities, which Leary describes as constitutive of a parasocial relationship (884), it makes all the more sense that the dress has assumed such an iconic function among those who construct their selfhood through referencing their relation to a mysterious recluse. ← 211 | 212 →

In Emily Dickinson & I, Edie goes through various phases in her engagement with Dickinson’s dress. In the first phase, she assumes that changing the dress will alter perceptions of the poet’s character, but she rejects such an act as “putting words in Emily’s mouth” (54). In the second phase, Edie reflects on her approach to acting as not “being” but rather “portraying” (59) a person (see also 60, 65). In the third phase, the dress as a work in progress gradually merges with Edie’s coming to terms with Dickinson’s writings as well as with her own verbal and dramatic creative process. In the fourth phase, Edie complicates the being-vs.-portraying idea by arguing that Dickinson’s texts represent acts of posing and performing that must not be read as factual or unmediated (102–03).7 As the dramatist-actor, thus, cannot access Dickinson, Edie tries on the dress, only to confirm that this, in fact, does not transform her into the poet (113). In the fifth and final phase, Edie imitates Dickinson’s act of organizing and sewing sets of poems into fascicles (117). Edie thus completes her journey from seeking identification with Dickinson’s elusive individual self to finding a satisfactory and, to her mind, non-falsifying method of acting in an auto/biographical drama.

On its meta-dramatic level, Emily Dickinson & I visualizes some of the dilemmas Campbell encounters, both as an individual with specific inner struggles and as an actor. The play’s concern with the predicament of an early twenty-first-century artist simultaneously provides a perspective on Dickinson that offers an alternative to earlier readings of the poet’s selfhood as primarily non-normative (41–42, 44, 48). Such readings imply that Dickinson’s reclusiveness expresses something problematic. Edie’s extensive counterarguments, by contrast, stress Dickinson’s independence from society along with her interdependence with art, wondering whether “she withdrew from the world because of the richness of her inner life? Among her contemporaries Emily could find no one to match her intellectually” (49). By subsequently citing contemporary authors who desire solitude in order to think and work (51–52), Campbell implies that Dickinson assumed a right that artists are granted more readily today and that was accorded to male rather than female authors, as writers ever since Virginia Woolf have pointed out.

Finally, Edie explains that, whereas she finds comfort in assuming that Dickinson may also have suffered from panic attacks and that this could explain her inclination toward solitude (69), emulating the poet does not solve Edie’s dilemma as an agoraphobic woman who wants to have a career as an actor. A poet may fulfill her task of writing poetry by retreating into the privacy of her personal space, but an actor like Edie needs a theater audience (69). Realizing this difference supports the play’s move away from mere biography-based identification and towards the contemplation of artistic processes. ← 212 | 213 →

5. The Liberating Potential of Dialogic Selfhood

The plays discussed in this essay address contrasting attitudes toward reclusiveness along a continuum of interpretations ranging from reclusiveness as a tragically limiting condition that hampers emotional fulfillment to reclusiveness as a pathway towards liberation from prescriptive social relations and towards creative freedom. Historicizing dramas such as Glaspell’s, Gardner’s, and, to some extent, Luce’s depict how Dickinson herself may have felt about being unconventional through remaining single, avoiding the full range of expected social relations, and writing equally unconventional poems. Dramatic characters that consider the domestic ideal as the sine qua non of a woman’s happiness necessarily assume that the poet’s seclusion primarily imposed limits on living a satisfactory life. Thus, these characters read Dickinson’s poetic output as resulting from tragic circumstances whose origins must be explored because completely voluntary reclusiveness for the sake of artistic creativity would imply a non-prescriptive, independent selfhood not granted to a woman of Dickinson’s cultural context. Whenever Dickinson is dramatically represented as a proto-feminist, either her lifestyle or her poetic output is understood as liberation from convention. In both variants, the plays imply that fathoming the poet’s seclusion remains the central element in the endeavor to define her essential self.

By contrast, the more recent plays by Halpin and Nugent as well as by Campbell and Lynch demonstrate the impossibility of accessing anything that could be considered the monolithically real Dickinson. Rather, numerous versions of the poet reside in different cultural-historical contexts. Those characters who engage in a parasocial relationship with Dickinson use the perceived empathy between themselves and their object of admiration to enhance their self-worth. As Emily Dickinson & I illustrates, the transition from a parasocial interlinkage with a rigidly idolized personage to a dialogic relationship yields two insights: first, Dickinson fans and scholars will never conclusively know whether or to which extent the poet experienced her reclusiveness as limiting or liberating. Second, using Dickinson as a foil is only liberating for recipients of her works who are willing to grapple with differences between their own selfhood and the constructed selfhood that they project onto Dickinson. In the latter case, they enter a dialogic relationship that turns dependence into independence.

The plays about Dickinson discussed in this essay shed light on how concepts of socially constructed selfhood affect perceptions of the poet and her oeuvre as much as each perceiver’s view of her/himself. Depending on their own cultural values and individual experiences, perceivers potentially construe Dickinson’s solitariness in diametrically opposed ways. Whether the actual meaning of her reclusiveness ← 213 | 214 → matters then depends on whether the perceiver sees her as an inflexibly contoured figure of identification or as a sounding board for her/his fluid, processual self.


1. Only one play, David Starkey’s How Red the Fire (premiere: 22 February 2007; as yet unpublished), combines Dickinson’s texts with scenes imagining an alternate history in which she loses her poems and her sister in a fire. For the author’s account of the genesis of his drama, see his “Adapting the Unreal: Composing an Alternate History for Emily Dickinson.”

2. An earlier version of this play premiered in 1999.

3. For an overview of Dickinson-inspired plays, see the two essays by Jonnie Guerra listed in the Works Cited section of this paper. Information on Bechtold’s “‘Before You Became Improbable’” can be found online.

4. This coinage includes, of course, a nod to Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of dialogic discourse (1214, 1218).

5. A signature example of this method is Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife: Studies for a Play about the Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (Off-Broadway premiere: 27 May 2003). The play follows the journey of the playwright whose plan of producing a biographical play is thwarted by unexpected revelations, so that he eventually concludes that the biographed personage will remain inconclusive. The process of grappling with the biography is depicted through an actor who embodies the biographed person as well as about three dozen other characters.

6. The curators of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst acknowledge the following: “As Emily Dickinson’s writings have grown in popularity since her death, certain objects associated with the poet have become icons. Chief among them is the white dress thought to have been Dickinson’s. The dress is a typical house garment of the late 1870s and early 1880s, worn when Dickinson was in her late 40s and early 50s. But the posthumous fame of the dress’s owner has given the garment an extraordinary life of its own. For many of Dickinson’s fans, the white dress embodies the essence of their beloved writer. The dress, made of a cotton fabric with mother-of-pearl buttons, is a style known as a wrapper or a house dress, worn by women as everyday clothing for doing chores and other activities inside the house. It was not a particularly unusual or expensive dress for its time” (“Emily Dickinson’s White Dress”). Thus, the house dress neither implies the poet’s virginity nor a misguided attempt at wearing bridal white as a spinster – or any of the other implications that may have been interpreted into this everyday item of clothing. ← 214 | 215 →

7. Diana Fuss argues that “Dickinson always had a finely tuned sense of the theatrical” (11) and that her posing invoked specific iconographic traditions (11–12).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1190–220. Print.

Balestrini, Nassim W. “Emily Dickinson im amerikanischen Drama.” Das Künstlerdrama als Spiegel ästhetischer und gesellschaftlicher Tendenzen. Ed. Frank Göbler. Tübingen: Francke, 2009. 225–48. Print. Mainzer Forschungen zu Drama und Theater 41.

“‘Before You Became Improbable’: An Immersive Theatrical Journey Inspired by Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters to T.W. Higginson.” Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and the Evergreens. n.d. Web. 1 July 2016.

Campbell, Edie, and Jack Lynch. Emily Dickinson & I: The Journey of a Portrayal: A One-Woman Play about Writing, Acting, and Getting into Emily Dickinson’s Dress. London: Black Spring Press, 2005. Print.

Dowdell, Coby. “The American Hermit and the British Castaway: Voluntary Retreat and Deliberative Democracy in Early American Culture.” Early American Literature 46.1 (2011): 121–56. Web. 23 Dec. 2015.

“Emily Dickinson’s White Dress.” Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and the Evergreens. n.d. Web. 1 July 2016.

Fuss, Diana. “Interior Chambers: The Emily Dickinson Homestead.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 10.3 (1998): 1–46. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

Gardner, Dorothy. Eastward in Eden: The Love Story of Emily Dickinson. New York: Longmans, Green, 1949. Print.

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