Is the Sylvia Plath mystique finally waning?  For those of us who came of age in the 1960s—or at least those of us who thought ourselves to be sensitive and literary back then—Plath, the brilliant poet who committed suicide when she was just 30, was the epitome of everything we imagined we were: smart, talented, sexy enough to get the cool guy, and yet tragically misunderstood.

But on the recent opening night of Three Women, the only known play that Plath ever wrote, the small, 99-seat theater where it was appearing was more than half empty. Six silver-haired baby-boomer women sat in the row in front of me, chatting excitedly before the show began. But I later saw a couple of them dozing off, even though the play—originally conceived as a trio of interlocking monologues for BBC radio—lasted only 45 minutes.

More people turned out—and were more attentive—for the other play that makes up the mini-Plath festival running at Manhattan’s 59E59 Theaters through the end of this month.  That show, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, a multimedia fantasia about Plath’s life, won a Fringe First Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The different responses to the two plays is how it has been so often with Plath: people tend to be more interested in the drama of her life than in her work.

For those who have forgotten—or perhaps never knew—the details of Plath’s life, here are the rudiments of the story: Plath was born and grew up in Massachusetts. She published her first poem by the time she was eight. She went on to Smith College and eventually won a coveted spot as one of the guest editors who interned at Mademoiselle magazine each summer.

But during her Mademoiselle summer, Plath overdosed on sleeping pills and underwent shock therapy. She recovered enough to graduate with honors from Smith and won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University. There she met and married the handsome and equally gifted British poet Ted Hughes. They had two children and Plath published a collection of poems but continued to struggle with depression, finding it hard to balance work and caring for the kids.

Things got worse when she discovered that Hughes was having an affair with one of her best friends. They separated. Throughout the troubled times, Plath poured her feelings into her writing. But the depression eventually overwhelmed her. On February 10, 1963, she put her children to bed, put her head inside the kitchen oven, and asphyxiated herself.

That, however, was just the beginning of the story. The Bell Jar, her fictionalized account of her experiences at Mademoiselle and in the mental hospital, was published within months of her death. Two years later, Ariel, a collection of poems—most of them written during the last weeks of her life—was published. The confessional nature of the books and the dramatic circumstances of her death set off a frenzy of interest. In 1982, her book The Collected Poems made her the first poet to be posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

But long before that, Plath had been adopted by feminists as a cautionary example of what can happen to thwarted female artists. Hughes was quickly castigated as the chauvinistic villain who had oppressed her, a belief that was further affirmed six years after Plath’s death, when the woman who had caused the breakup also asphyxiated herself.

The Plath mystique continued to grow. A collection of her letters, edited by her mother, was published in 1975. Her journals, partly edited by Hughes, came out in 1982, and an unabridged edition appeared in 2000. Over the years, scores of other books and countless articles have been written about Plath and Hughes, including Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems that Hughes–who in later life became Britain’s poet laureate–published about their relationship in 1998, the year he died. There were poems by their daughter Frieda. Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Plath in the 2003 movie Sylvia.

Despite my own literary yearnings, I’ve never been much for poetry. But I discovered The Bell Jar when I was in college, instantly identified with Plath’s surrogate heroine Esther Greenwood, and became fascinated with the author. Others may have wanted to know what happened in the final hours before Marilyn Monroe died, but I longed to know about those final moments in Plath’s life.

The young performance artist Elisabeth Gray apparently shares that obsession. Gray, who like Plath is an American who studied in England, was commissioned to write a play for a symposium on Plath at Oxford in 2007. The result is the one-woman show—inexplicably written under the pseudonym Edward Anthony—that is set inside the poet’s mind during the final ten seconds before she dies. The actress is already on stage when the audience enters, kneeling in front of an oven into which she’s placed her head. “Oh no, they’re turning Plath into a joke,” said the friend who went me with to see the show.

There are, in fact, quite a few funny bits. The character (Gray couldn’t get permission to use Plath’s name, so she substitutes Esther Greenwood’s instead) has a surreal conversation with the oven. Gray supplies all the dialog, mumbling melodic nonsense for the oven’s lines. Esther’s hallucinations appear as deadpan videos projected on a screen at the back of the stage. But the underlying pathos of Plath’s life breaks through as the events move toward the inevitable climax. Gray’s play tells the same old cautionary story, but tells it cleverly and affectingly.

That, alas, is not the case with Three Women. Set in a maternity ward, the play features a woman who goes through childbirth, another who miscarries, and a third who delivers a child but leaves the hospital without it, having given the infant up for adoption. The young actresses try their best but all three performances come across as little more than earnest audition pieces.

And they’re grim. Whatever the woman’s circumstance, she finds herself miserable. The one who gets to take her baby home does have a few seconds of happiness as she marvels at the extraordinary creature she has created, but then begins to wish that the child were more ordinary so that the Devil will be less attracted to it. The only redeeming grace for fans of Plath’s poetry is that the play is written in verse. But they can get that sitting at home reading one of her collections—and maybe sipping a glass of wine to ease the gloom.

It’s hard not to wonder how Plath’s life would have turned out had she lived. She’d be 78 next week, on October 27.  Would she, like so many of the rest of us, have made peace with her demons?  Might she have thrived in an environment more supportive of creative women? Or was dying so young and so dramatically a good career move, the thing that’s kept her alive in the public imagination?

I had thought that the small audience and the polite applause for the Plath plays meant that the fascination with her might be fading. But between the time I saw the first play and wrote this piece, news came that a previously unknown Hughes poem had been discovered, one that directly addresses Plath’s death. Within a week’s time, more than 500 stories about it had been published around the world. The mystique lives on.

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