31st Spring

for Sylvia Plath


A monodrama in seven scenes for soprano and orchestra

Text: Katharina Mihm (2014)
Composition: Gabriel Iranyi (2015/ 2016)
Published at Verlag Neue Musik Berlin

CONTEXT: SYLVIA PLATH

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Massachusetts. Already from an early age she published poems and short prose texts for which she won several awards and accolades. Yet after a failed suicide attempt in August 1953 her literary success seemed to stagnate at first. During her studies at Cambridge she met the British poet Ted Hughes whom she wed in London in 1956. They moved to Boston in September 1957 where Sylvia Plath taught for a while at Smith College. In December 1959 the couple returned to England. There on April 1, 1960 their daughter Frieda Rebecca Hughes was born. The same year on October 31 Sylvia Plath's first poetry collection „The Colossus and Other Poems“ was released by Heinemann. After suffering a miscarriage the following February, she gave birth to her son Nicholas Farrar Hughes on January 17, 1962. Shortly after the couple separated. Sylvia Plath published her first and only novel „The Bell Jar“ initially under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Only weeks later, on February 11, 1963, she committed suicide as described by her biographers:

At about 6:00 A.M., according to Alvarez's memoir, Sylvia „Went up to the children's room and left a plate of bread and butter and two mugs of milk.“ Next she returned to the kitchen and sealed the door and windows with tea towels and cloths to guard carefully against the possibility of any gas reaching the sleeping children. Finally, she turned on all taps, knelt down as if to say her prayers, and laid her head in the oven.
(excerpt from Edward Butscher: „Sylvia Plath, Method and Madness“)

For „The Collected Poems“, published posthumously in 1981, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Also published posthumously were a complete edition of her diaries „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“ as well as the collection of prose texts „Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams“.

CONZEPT: 31st SPRING

The libretto of the musical drama „31st Spring“ is not to be understood in a strictly biographical manner. Neither the poet’s outstanding work nor her early passing are meant to be shown or explained. The enduring mystery shall be maintained and remain in the dark. Instead an independent dramatic essay emerged from the intensive examination of Plath's texts. It is rooted in the wish to gift the poet who passed in her 31st winter, another springtime. This 31st spring is to be conceived as a resurrection. Our present day shall be interspersed and inspired by Plath’s intellectual world once again in the shape of music, words and stage presence. This contribution may help prevent what she feared the most all her life: to be irrelevant and forgotten.

STRUCTURE: LIBRETTO

The drama focuses on the experiences of an anonymous woman. Consumed by romantic longing she promises herself to her lover, yet at the same time she rages against her future role of wife and mother. This inner turmoil leads to great harm: On her wedding night she not only gives her hand in marriage to her husband, but also to the „farthest star Ariel“, an angelic beast embodying artistic inspiration. „Ariel“ recognizes the woman’s consternation, but also her sublimity. She is forced now to honor both vows, one resulting in children and the other in words. Ultimately the rift proves irreconcilable. She tries to forget „Ariel“, but pays a high price: Her heart turns to stone. Eventually „Ariel“ frees her from her sterile loveless life, allowing her to renew her pledge to him. Yet in order to do this, she has to abandon her children. Desperate, she buries herself into the earth, through the blackness of the oven in her own kitchen. This way she hopes to stay close to her carnal children while searching within her derangement for „Ariel“ and her „word children“. Following an embryo-like sleep and death she is brought back to surface by the perceptible presence of the „listening strangers“ (the audience). There she discovers her 31st spring. During her journey she had to leave her body behind, therefore remaining solely a voice.

In the following the libretto’s seven stanzas are briefly outlined and complemented by selected original quotes from the diaries of Sylvia Plath. This depiction of the connection between drama and autobiographical texts is far from exhaustive, but rather exemplary. The countless and distinctive links between the dramatic text and the poet’s work are of course not only to be found in the biographical and autobiographical works, but are also based on Plath's poetry and prose.

1 Winter

The anonymous woman receives a marriage proposal. Full of rage she throws down her consent, and decries her feminine existence in a men’s world. Yet subconsciously tender sounds of longing mix again and again into her fury: „My beloved, I’m waiting –“

But then you're on top, shaking him, your hair falling in your face. He has relaxed. He's listening to the words pouring out.
„I hate you. Damn you. Just because you're a boy. Just because you're never worried about having babies!“
(excerpt from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, July 1950 – July 1953)

2 Getting dressed in front of the mirror

Speaking to her reflection in the mirror, the bride dresses and prepares for the wedding. When the wedding bells ring, the „most beautiful of women“ looks out from the mirror unwaveringly. She does not recognize anymore the festive and traditional items: Instead of a comb she reaches for a knife. But the young woman does not acknowledge her discomfort, rather she orders her heart to cheer. As a result the „lovely green may“– in gloomy foreboding – changes its color to red.

This is how it was. I dressed slowly, smoothing, perfuming, powdering. I sat upstairs in the moist gray twilight, with the rain trickling down outside, while the family talked and laughed with company down on the porch. This is, I thought, the American virgin, dressed to seduce. (...)
- A sudden slant of bluish light across the floor of a vacant room. And I knew it was not the streetlight, but the moon. What is more wonderful than to be a virgin, clean and sound and young, on such a night? ... (being raped.)
(excerpts from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, July 1950 – July 1953)

3 Encounter on a stormy heath

As the wedding bells trail off, the bride awakens on a dark stormy heath, far away from people. In a trance, she wades deep into the twitching animalistic darkness, laughing off the recurring warning voices, which she dismisses as „old timid maids“. During a „wild night“ she falls asleep on a bed of moss, and is then "recognized" in an other-worldly atmosphere by the serious, far away star Ariel, an angelically singing beast rising above and wedding himself to the sleeping woman. This awakens her and she now finds her groom wearing the „familiar coat of kindness“. He apparently forgives her outburst, and carries her in his strong arms back to the people. But the unfaithful bride cannot forsake a last, longing look back at the star Ariel. As a punishment she turns „into salt and stone“.

Oh, the fury, the fury. Why did I even know he was here. The panther wakes and stalks again, and every sound in the house is his tread on the stair; I wrote mad girl's love song once in a mad mood like this when Mike didn't come, and every time I dressed in black, white and red: violent, fierce colors.
(excerpt from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, March 10, 1956)

4 Trapped between the walls

In never-ending restlessness the „frozen“ wife hurries back and forth between her desk and the table she has to set. Now she needs no wedding bells anymore to remind her of the passing time: Her own face has turned into a clock, her eerily petrified smile pushes her on. Despite the exhausting bustle, only „dry words“ trickle from her pen, and children and husband remain hungry, because her heart has turned into stone and cannot love, and her salt-encrusted forehead cannot be fertile.

I feel really uncreative. (...) I self-paralize myself & wonder what I've got in my head. (...) I am dry, dry and sterile.
(excerpt from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, January – March 1957)

5 Longing for the beast

But the „star Ariel“ does not let the woman wither away: One day he visits her at home. She discovers the table where husband and children had just been sitting, devastated, „as if a beast had dined here“. A raven sits on top of the kitchen counter. Ariel looks at her through a broken window, sending her a blazing „monsoon“, which frees her heart from salt and stone. Overjoyed, she hurries and can finally bring vivid words to paper. But her bliss ends as she stands in front of her children's cots: she senses that she will not sacrifice the reawakened bond with Ariel again, and at the same time knows that, filled with Ariel's "cosmic fire," she can no longer be a mother to her children. Again she attempts a compromise and, instead of leaving the house, decides to drown herself, near the children, in the blackness of the oven from which Ariel's kiss blows her way.

No children until I have done it. My health is making stories, poems, novels, of experience: that is why, or, rather, that is why it is good, that I have suffered & been to hell, although not to all the hells. I cannot life for life itself: but for the words which stay the flux.
(excerpt from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, January – March 1957)

6 Burial into the earth

It is narrow and dark in the oven, and the woman's senses begin to fade. Before she entirely falls into a soft, embryo-like sleep, the vibrant world explodes again in rapturous color before her dying senses. At last, she sees her "star Ariel" bursting, but this loss no longer triggers sorrow. Too far removed already is the woman from her own self. She hears one last lullaby of her sweetheart, finds peace and dies.

„I want to kill myself, to escape from responsibilty, to crawl back abjectly into the womb.“
(excerpt from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, November 3, 1953)

7 Springtime

„This is not the end“ the woman declares as she hears the breathing of the listening audience members. In a sense, a change of reality levels takes place: The woman lives on as a voice in the hearts of compassionate readers and listeners and therefore may hope for another springtime.

I love people. Everybody. (...) My love's not impersonal yet not wholly subjective either. I would like everybody, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.
(excerpt from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, July 1950 – July 1953)

so words have power to open sesame and reveal liberal piles of golden metallic suns in the dark pit that wait to be melted and smelted in the fire of spring which springs to fuse lumps and clods into veins of radiance.
(excerpt from „The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath“, November 22, 1955)