What would happen if we actually were able to live with the celebrities we fawn over? You’d need to fully restock your kitchen three times a day to support Michael Phelps. Annie Oakley would surely stir up trouble with the neighbors. Whoever it is, normal life would simply go awry.
In her work-in-progress play, Wild Nights, award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates portrays the attempted assimilation of not only a celebrity, but one of the greatest literary names of all time — Emily Dickinson.
“It’s just hardwired into our psyche that we yearn for these icons, but we don’t really want to know the suffering human being that lies behind them,” Ms. Oates said in a question-and-answer session following a reading of her play last Monday at the Vineyard Playhouse’s Monday Night Special.
In the play, Harold and Madelyn Krim purchase a repliluxe — or slightly miniature human-like robot — of Emily Dickinson. At first, it seems as though the couple has brought a shy, old-fashioned young woman into their home, but her reserve turns harmful as the couple struggles to understand their elusive house guest who they have previously only understood as a literary genius.
“Quantitative details never add up to an explanation of what this genius is,” said Ms. Oates after the reading. The characters hear their small Emily Dickinson speak in riddles and see her tuck scribbled notes on scraps of paper into her apron pocket, yet they don’t truly understand her process of creation. They want instantaneous proof.
“Madelyn represents an intelligent and educated person who is confounded by genius,” said Ms. Oates. And her husband, a successful financier with an eye for art, struggles even more with Emily’s genius, which is only a shade of the true poet’s, wrapped in a disturbingly alluring feminine case.
“When you have the essence of the person there, the literal person, you soon discover that the mystery is not there,” said Ms. Oates. “The person is not the great work. The genius is not in the actual person.” All that is Emily Dickinson cannot be bought or sold, mimicked or even understood.
“My relation with Emily Dickinson has always been that she represents something elusive and mysterious,” said Ms. Oates. “She is so great an artist that when you try to paraphrase or remember her poetry, you almost never get it right. She doesn’t do the obvious things. She does something that’s almost going to seem to be clear and elegant, but the way she does it is slant, and that makes her absolutely unfathomable.”
The characters continually try to comprehend the poet, but always come up short. The play ends in what Ms. Oates described as “a parody of a happy ending,” and also “a parody of a tragic ending.”
Ms. Oates and Carol Rocamora, the director, were extremely pleased with Monday night’s reading. The actors delivered convincing performances of emotional American consumers. Jenny Allen read for Madelyn, and was especially strong in humorous moments — Madelyn both covets and rejects her repliluxe in dramatic fashion.
Harold was played by Ken Baltin, who recently played Ben Hecht in the Vineyard Playhouse production of The Screenwriter’s Daughter. Ella Dershowitz, the lead role in The Screenwriter’s Daughter, came back to the Vineyard Playhouse for the role of the mechanical Emily Dickinson. Peter Stray played the eager repliluxe salesman.
After the reading, while the crowd enjoyed a reception outside the Hebrew Center, a tall man in a blazer nodded in approval at his program.
“Well, it was certainly wild,” he said.