On September 30, University of Utah student production company Open Door Productions premiered “The Emily Dickinson Musical” – a dedicated exploration of the life of poet Emily Dickinson, both in her poetic research and in his personal relationships.
In life, and after her death, the well-known and beloved poetess has always been defined by others – her heavily editorially edited work and her cartoonish personality. The musical gives Dickinson the space to speak for herself, to represent herself as an artist, wife and lover, on her own terms.
Queer and feminine
The musical captures Emily Dickinson (Mariah Stanelle) trying to pursue poetry and realize her love for her best friend, Susan Gilbert (Eva Merrill), while struggling with society’s expectations for women in the 1800s.
Male influence surrounds Emily on all sides. When deciding to publish her poems, she is confronted with the harsh realities of the male-dominated publishing industry.
His poems cannot be published without corrections which change them completely. Publisher Thomas Higginson (Dylan Birningham) suggests that his poems be published anonymously because the public will not accept a female poet.
Expectations in marriage to a man are set by his family and his interlocutor, George Gould (Fynn White).
Emily refuses to succumb to these expectations and becomes the driving force of her own story. She continues to write poetry the way she wants, not for fame or to appease publishers. She’s not getting married – keeping her promise to Susan that she won’t. Even when Susan marries Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson (Alexander McConkie), Emily never ceases to love him.
Escape the easy definition
“The Emily Dickinson Musical” struggles with one-dimensionality – Emily is queer, a woman and an artist, and cannot be defined by any one of these things.
The historic moment she lived in did not recognize her as a multidimensional human being, but we as viewers of the musical do. She is just as human as we are. Her complex life is woven with social, gender and artistic expectations. She has to make choices, even when she has no choice.
Emily Dickinson’s one-dimensional approach does everything she was as an artist and a person a disservice. Although we have tried to capture her in our imaginations, to solidify her identity, she still escapes definition.
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of representation since the musical, and I have found that part of the performance allows a person to be complex, whether we relate to its complexity or understand it. It is about a person who shows us its complexity, rather than trying to explain its complexity to us.
Emily Dickinson is no longer here to tell her own story. “The Emily Dickinson Musical” is a time when we can get a little closer to this story, a story that ultimately affects all of us, no matter who we are. A story of how time, place, love and art shape and change the course of our lives. If we can find compassion for his story, we can find compassion for our own and that of others.
For updates on upcoming Open Door Productions shows, visit their Facebook page.