A Show For Emily

An Afternoon With Emily Dickinson: A Literary Dramatization

Emily Dickinson may be long dead, but Peggy Martin doesn't let such pesky details stand in the way of a modern-day Dickinson reading -- by Dickinson herself. Donning a costume a full three weeks before Halloween, Martin becomes the famous lyric poet this weekend for An Afternoon With Emily Dickinson: A Literary Dramatization.

"By the time I am on stage, I am Emily, and I behave as Emily would," says Martin, formerly an associate producer of the Smithsonian Institution's jazz and American theater programs. If this sounds a lot like The Belle of Amherst, the famed one-woman show about the poet, it should. Martin originally wanted to perform that work, but the rights-holders of Belle wouldn't make it available for library presentations. Undaunted, Martin wrote her own show.

As writer and director as well as performer, Martin is putting everything on the line. And with only ten square feet of library floor as a stage, a single costume, and no props, she couldn't be more alone out there. It's just her -- and Emily, of course.

So what happens if she doesn't follow her own direction? "I give myself terrible scoldings," she laughs. And how does she get into character at home, considering she doesn't live in seclusion, as Dickinson did? "I have to throw my husband out of the house every now and then when I do my big rehearsals."

Dickinson, it seems, shared Martin's sense of humor. "She called a lot of men "master,'" offers Martin. "I realized she was doing that not because she was a weak little thing. She used the word to her advantage, like a wise-guy feminist." Sounds more like contemporary New York sarcasm than 19th-century Americana.

"That's my Emily," Martin says, smiling. Martin's Dickinson also is a woman who went against the conventions of her times. Women poets of the day were outsiders to begin with, but Dickinson's lifestyle was unorthodox by any standard. She was a virtual hermit and almost always wore white, a display of perpetual mourning for her deceased father.

But for all of Dickinson's day-to-day eccentricities, her verse was not merely unconventional. Her obsession with words, images, and feelings, rather than people, was truly revolutionary. In her piece Martin hopes to show the undeniable link between Dickinson's stylistic innovations and her self-imposed solitude. "She was totally out of synch with the other women poets of that time," Martin explains. "A total recluse, alone -- because that's where her art grew."

By exploring Dickinson's art and her life, Martin has come to love not only the poetry but the poet herself -- an affection that gives her performance further depth.

"I didn't love her poetry before," Martin admits. "But now that I've written her, I love her. She's a totally far-out lady."

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Karen Dale Wolman