Road trip! The woman known on Roxie’s World as Goose has spent her career studying the complex, intimate, generative relationship between Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson. (See, for example, this co-edited collection of letters beloved by Sisters of Sappho everywhere.) So, when you need an English prof to supply some steamy historical context for a cool, queer, one-woman play that dramatizes Dickinson’s passion for the girl next door, Goose is the gal you call to be the scholar on your talk-back. The play, Emily & Sue: A Love Story in 5 Scenes and 4 Seizures, was written by Carolyn Gage and Merry Gangemi and ran for two nights at New York’s Fresh Fruit Festival. Karen Ball plays Dickinson as the fierce, even volcanic, poet who said of the woman who inspired and edited her, “With the exception of Shakespeare you have told me of more knowledge than any one living.” The 30-minute monologue, which is composed entirely out of lines from Dickinson’s poems and letters, pushes hard against the myths of Dickinson as a dotty, white-clad, virgin recluse. Ball wears black for the role, and her dancer’s clothes call attention to the strong corporeality of a sexy woman who dreams of spending “Wild Nights” moored in the port of her beloved’s body. Her voice is strong and commanding, even in expressing the pain and vulnerability Dickinson at times experienced in relation to Sue. The seizures in the play’s title refer to the claim in Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds that Dickinson may have suffered from epilepsy. The claim has been controversial in Dickinson studies. The play hedges its bets on this point by projecting the seizures as jumpy videos on a screen at the rear of the stage. The “seizures” thus come across as metaphors for moments of heightened or fractured consciousness, when the poet’s brain crackles with perception. (One such moment is captured in the photo above.)
The Dickinson striding and prowling the stage in Emily & Sue is the Dickinson brought into public consciousness by a line of painstaking biographical and textual scholarship focused on sex and gender that goes all the way back to Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, published in 1951. It’s good to see that forceful, fascinating figure brought to life in a taut production that does justice to both the intensity and the complexity of a relationship that endured for close to forty years. If Emily & Sue comes to your neck of the woods, you should see it. It will banish the timid ghost of the gingerbread-bearing Belle of Amherst from your memory banks forever.
And remind you that, before she had a Laptop, The Madwoman perhaps made do with a quill pen for recording her dazzling, divine sense.