Examining Plaths torments and tormentors
By JERRY TALLMER
When Angelica Torn was a belligerent, unhappy 14-year-old at the United Nations International School, she was told one day she couldnt go to lunch unless she was carrying a book. She went into the school library, reached up to a shelf, and grabbed The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, a work published a few months after Plaths suicide in 1963, one year before Angelica was born.
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Angelica Torn portrays writer Sylvia Plath in Edge.
I read it five times, it was like a deja vu experience, says the intense, good-looking actress who nightly turns herself into Sylvia Plath in Edge at the DR2 Theatre on East 15th Street.
Playwright Paul Alexander adapted the script from his controversial 1991 Plath biography, Rough Magic. Angelica Torn persuaded Alexander to do the dramatization.
If Ms. Torn is intense and good-looking, she has reason to be, on both sides. Her father is the rugged, fiercely principled actor Rip Torn; her mother Rips wife was the theaters nonpareil Geraldine Page, who left us in 1987. They brought Angelica and her brother Tony up in the big old house in Chelsea in which Angelica and her own two children but no present husband still live.
She was not, as a teenager and on into her 20s, a happy camper.
I felt I knew Sylvia Plath really, really well, she says. I was so struck by the honesty and raw quality of her writing. I felt I knew her voice.
At that time I was having a bad time in school. There was a lot of phony socializing going on around me, Id been inducted into the popular crowd but I was rebelling against them.
Toward the end of the first term I had a punk-rocker boyfriend from Hells Kitchen, an Irish guy, a tough street kid. The football team beat him up because I was shunning them, I wouldnt go out with a football guy.
The boy from Hells Kitchen?
He died a few years ago.
Over the years since she was 14, Angelica Torn has, she says, been asked to play Sylvia Plath a couple of times.
But I didnt like any of those pieces. They were not true to her spirit. Then one fine day a stage manager gave her a copy of Paul Alexanders bio of Plath and I went crazy. I tracked the author down, and begged him to turn it into a play.
Ten years later on Oct. 27, 2002, actually, which happened to be what would have been her 70th birthday Alexander handed Angelica the script.
It took me that long to talk him into it.
Alexander also directs the play.
Sylvia Plaths cri de coeur in The Bell Jar pivots on a suicide attempt some years before the attempt that succeeded.
Any deja vu there, Angelica?
Silence. No. Silence. Once again: I just felt I knew her really, really well.
Every woman in the world every woman who can read knows, or believes, that Sylvia Plath went to her death, leaving behind their two young children, because she had been ditched and coldly mistreated by her husband, the British poet (later Poet Laureate) Ted Hughes. It is Hughes who stands as the (unmitigated) heavy of Paul Alexanders book and this one-woman play made from the book.
But I dont call her a victim, says the woman who plays that woman and discloses during the interview that she herself has had horrible things done to me, was raped at 19 and, later, beaten up by, put down by, more than one male in or out of wedlock.
Sylvia Plath just [pause] didnt have the facility to guard her heart. She was too sensitive.
Also, Sylvia is quite a whiner, wouldnt you say? An injustice collector?
Oh yes, definitely. Its hard not to be an injustice collector when youve been murdered.
Yes. There is evidence its not in the play that he [Hughes] was in the apartment when she died [with her head in the gas oven]. And if he wasnt the one to turn the gas on, he was the one who drove her to it. He was Poet Laureate [21 years after her death]; he was in with the Royal Family.
You know this is in the play his second wife, Assia Wevill, killed herself the same way Sylvia did, killing her own [and Hughess] child as well.
It might be noted that in a series called Crow, Ted Hughes reached greatness of poetic pressure and emotional focus; also in the poem cycle called Birthday Letters, published shortly before his death in 1998, at age 68, he laid bare the love hed had for Sylvia, and the loss.
Angelica Torns life, by her own recounting, at least in matters marital, is not all that dissimilar from Sylvia Plaths.
Thank God I caught it! But I dont feel myself a victim. I love life. Sylvia Plath died at 30, and I had a huge breakthrough when I was 30. After that boyfriend beat me up I never took it personally, I felt bad for him I went and got help from an amazing woman, Barbara Wilson, a therapist on the Upper West Side who saved my life. I still go from time to time for tuneups.
When I first met Paul Anderson I was actually the right age to play Sylvia, but not psychologically ready. Thats a very dangerous psyche to enter [Sylvia Plaths].
Angelica Torns children are Elijah Burkhardt, 18, and Tana Burkhardt, 15. Elijah made his stage debut as an infant when his grandmother, Geraldine Page, was playing Elizabeth I in Robert Bolts Vivat Vivat Regina at the York Theatre in St. Peters. This was 1985; Angelica was 21.
My mother wanted my son to play James 1. I said no. She talked me into letting him do one or two shows a week with me as the wet nurse carrying him in. I didnt have lines.
Elijahs grandfather, who may or may not qualify as the greatest feminist in the world has Rip seen Edge?
Three times. He cant speak afterwards, hes that destroyed. Of course when we did it at the Actors Studio, I sat him in the front row. Lee Grant spent the whole time comforting him.
Sylvia Plath was 8 when she lost her father and let the anger/love/fear/hatred/resentment all pour out in the white-hot poem Daddy, likening daddy to a Nazi and herself to a Jew (which she was not).
Angelica Torn was 22 or 23 when, out of the blue sky, she (and we) lost her mother to heart attack.
The last time I saw her, she was at the top of the steps, and she said: You didnt come to class the acting class taught by Geraldine Page are you going to come tonight? I said yes. Then she died. I kept the promise. Thats why Im an actress.
Sylvia Plath did not have acting to live for. But she could and did write. For whatever reason, it wasnt enough. Except for the people who have read it and identified with it ever since.