At the height of her fame in the early '70s, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton toured the country with a rock band. She did not sing herself, but her poetry spoke to young people with the immediacy of pop music. It should be no surprise that one of her last projects before she finally succeeded in killing herself in 1975 should have been to collaborate with composer Conrad Susa in bringing her collection Transformations to the stage, set to music that itself has roots in pop.
This week, Transformations is on stage at Theatre Project, where it's being presented by the Peabody Chamber Opera. (See box at the end of this article for details.)
Unlike the rest of Sexton's work, Transformations tells stories. Retells them, actually. Sexton's sources are the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Her title surely is a reference to Ovid's Metamorphoses, that first great collection of such tales. As in the Grimm work before her, Anne Sexton's characters are transformed by the powers of magic, whether good or, more frequently, malevolent. The stories themselves are transformed to reflect the flip contemporary sensibility of the television sitcom and the movies.
On a deeper level yet, Transformations refers to the many aspects of being a woman and, in particular, to the tormented struggle with her own demons that formed the script for Anne Sexton's life and the key to her death.
Anne Gray Harvey was born in 1928 in Newton, Mass., to parents whom Sexton biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook describes as "characters out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel: good-looking, well-to-do, party-loving and self-indulgent." They had little time for Anne, nor did her teachers, who had difficulty in engaging her intelligence and treated her with impatience. Shortly before her 20th birthday, she eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II, enrolled in a modeling course, then lived for a while in Baltimore and San Francisco while her husband served in the Navy. She returned in 1953 to Massachusetts, where her first daughter was born.
Sexton's mental troubles were diagnosed at first as postpartum depression. She was hospitalized at a small sanitarium, which was to become a frequent refuge as her impulse towards self-destruction became more and more unbearable.
Her therapist recognized her intellectual gifts and urged her to enroll in a poetry workshop run by John Holmes.
There, at the age of 28, her artistic self was born, practically overnight. Her poems were accepted by The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine and The Saturday Review. Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was published in 1960 by Houghton Mifflin and caused a sensation. In the decade that followed, Sexton was awarded a fellowship from the American Academy of Letters, a National Book Award, a Ford Foundation grant and the Pulitzer Prize. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and named Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard.
But if Anne Sexton's poetry garnered praise, it could also shock. As her fellow poet Maxine Kumin has written: "Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who broke new ground, shattered taboos and endured a barrage of attacks along the way because of the flamboyance of her subject matter. She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for society."
Right from the opening of "Snow White," the first story in Transformations, Anne Sexton proclaims her flip irreverence, her surprising images, her hints at sexual secrets in a Barbie world:
No matter what life you leadConrad Susa's setting for these poems is a mental hospital, with Anne Sexton as the narrator and other patients taking all the roles. Each tale begins with a lead-in, which is generally autobiographical. Thus "Rapunzel":
A womanIt is clear that Sexton is referring to her great-aunt Nana, who moved into the Harveys' house when Anne was 11 and became like a second mother to her. Nana's later commitment to a mental institution, where she received electroshock therapy, was one of the traumatic events of Anne's teenage years. Thus, while the story of Rapunzel takes its familiar course as the beautiful girl is rescued from imprisonment by the witch in the tower by the prince climbing up her hair, the focus at the end turns back to the old woman:
As for Mother Gothel,Musically, this scene is the highlight of the score, and rightly so. For all the verbal pyrotechnics of Transformations, for all the kaleidoscope excitement of the switched roles and theatrical legerdemain, for all the fun of catching the various pop references in Susa's score, it is Anne Sexton's power to write as a woman, to transform her suffering into something both radiant and profoundly moving, that makes the piece so totally worth doing.
Roger Brunyate, chair of the Peabody Institute's Department of Opera, is the stage director of the performances in 'Transformations.' He wrote this article for the March/April issue of The Peabody News.