It’s a double-edged feeling when you come across something superb by someone you’ve never heard of. Happy to discover them, but sad that they seem to have fallen through the net of history. That’s how we felt on seeing ‘Alison’s House’, by the American playwright Susan Glaspell, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. We’d never heard of Glaspell, yet it turned out that she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for this play. In the Orange Tree production there was another surprise, the debut of a very fine actress named Gráinne Keenan, of whom I’m certain we will hear much more.
‘Alison’s House’ is based on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, with ‘Alison’ representing Emily. The play is set 18 years after ‘Alison’s’ death, and on the last day of the year 1899. During the course of the action, Alison’s family discovers a collection of unpublished poems revealing her love for a man she never married. Only a couple of older people in the family knew of the affair, and they had taken pains to keep it quiet. They’re aghast at the thought that the newly discovered poems might ever become public. But time has moved on, younger members of the family are of an age to take an interest, and their views are different. They believe that the poet’s work belongs not to the family, but ‘to the world’. A fight develops between the older and younger generation, with the younger winning as midnight strikes and a new century begins.
There are lots of parallel examples from the world of music – such as music being suppressed after the composer’s death by those who believe it wasn’t their best work. Clara Schumann prevented some of Robert Schumann’s late work from seeing the light of day because she believed it was unfair to him to publish anything which demonstrated his mental illness. We talked of such issues for a long time afterwards. Do loved ones have a right to say? When should the world’s judgement be allowed to override the family’s?