Author of ‘most famously misquoted poem in history’ gets accurate rendering
Tom Prideaux, our 10th grade English teacher at the Lincoln School of Teachers’ College, advanced towards the blackboard chalk in hand. On the blackboard, he wrote these lines:
I burn my candle at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light.
Then he told us they were by someone named Edna St. Vincent Millay.
I have cherished those lines all my life, even though the first of them is more usually — and more weakly — recorded as “My candle burns at both ends.” I prefer the more sexually explicit Prideaux variation; though I don’t suppose it’s what later elevated him to critic and entertainment editor at Life Magazine.
God knows red-haired hell-raiser Enda St. Vincent Millay, the Greenwich Village girl from Camden, Maine, had an omnivorous all-gender sexual appetite, as neatly underscored throughout “Her Name is Vincent” — a “theater event with music.”
Here’s an astounding fact, astounding tome, anyway. I’ve been in and around Greenwich Village for upwards of 60 years, lived in the Village for many of those years, gave birth to a newspaper to keep alive the heritage of Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and did not know that the St. Vincent in her name was because she was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Her sister Kathleen — youngest of the three Millay girls — also died there a schizophrenic alcoholic, which is the sad part of the story, or the saddest of a terminal diminuendo for all concerned.
But oh! the joy and beauty and daring of all the earlier explosion into poetry and Bohemian nose-thumbing that shot Edna to fame with the short but triumphant 1919 premiere of her one-act multi-layered anti-war play “Aria da Capo,” at the Provincetown Playhouse that now, 90 years later, has been so ruthlessly demolished by New York University.
The two-part bill at the Abingdon is the lovely, loving brainchild of actresses Margi Sharp Douglas and Rachel Murdy, along with director Cynthia Croot. The three women first met as MFA graduate students at Columbia University in 1999. They do not flinch from carnally reinterpreting — as Edna gleefully did — Ariel’s “Where the bee sucks…” or reporting, via middle sister Norma, big sister’s Cliff Notes in Masturbation 101.
In itself theatrically and musically most poetic, Part I, done as a cabaret piece last year at Don’t Tell Mama on Restaurant Row, is a life and times of the Millay sisters, Edna (Ms. Douglas), and Norma (Ms. Murdy). No less magic, needless to say, is the actual Millay poetry, viz:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
I turned and looked the other way,
I saw three islands in a bay…
We are, however, spared all 214 lines of Millay’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Renaissance.”
Now about that candle that burns at both ends:
“Norma called it the most famously misquoted poem in history,” says Rachel Murdy, who plays sister No. 2, the not so silly self-described “silly blonde girl from Maine,” a 1920s actress who also loved her day job of Greenwich Village waitress.
Ms. Murdy, who had long “known about Edna from that same famously misquoted poem,” has also long lived in the West Village, only a few blocks from the narrow little wood-frame 1873 three-story dwelling at 75 1/2 Bedford Street where not only Edna but also Margaret Mead had lived.
For both Rachel Murdy and Margi Sharp Douglas the guiding light had been Nancy Milford’s “Savage Beauty” (Random House, 2001), a Millay biography 30 years in the making.
“This whole project started 10 years ago when I picked up that book” says Ms. Douglas. “The thing that was so interesting to me was not just Edna’s lovers and that whole story, but these three Millay sisters — how did they survive with no money at all? I’m one of four sisters —
“Well, my mother would have been a poet if she hadn’t decided to be a judge (Winifred Johnson Sharp, 5th District Court of Appeals), and I write poetry.
The Millay sisters, when not freezing or starving to death in one sordid dwelling place or another, used to sing together at various festivities “so I knew to tell their story I’d need not just poetry but music.” To which end she consulted “my wonderful singing coach Steven Katz.”
When Katz suggested she could try out the material at Don’t Tell Mama, she said: “You know, Steven, I don’t think I just want to sit on a piano and sing.” Then she pulled out all sorts of notes she’d been compiling about the Millay sisters and their mother back in Maine, and called Cynthia Croot.
“She and I got together and I told her there was all this music and all this poetry. She said ‘I think you need another person — to play Norma and divide the narration.
“So I called Rachel, and the three of us sat together and came up with a fairly interesting cabaret piece, and reworked it and reworked it and reworked it.”
I shall forget you presently my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little mouth, your little half a year.
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever, by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now…
You can see where Dorothy Parker came from.
If there is much that is bittersweet in this saga, there is also a share of the just plain bitter, especially in the case of kid sister Kathleen, herself a novelist of sorts, who ends up echoing the above stanza with peppercorn like this:
DEAR SISTER HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN ME SO SOON AGAIN I AM SORRY TO TROUBLE YOU BUT I OWE THE BUTCHER AND THE BAKER AND THE ELECTRIC BILL. PEASE WIRE ANY ANSWER YOU DEISIRE.
After cohabitating with half the world, male and female, notably the brilliant writer Edmund Wilson, an ailing Edna St. Vincent Millay upped and married a cold-blooded, arrogant Dutch-born export-import coffee millionaire named Eugen Boissevian. Their painstaking ledgers of all the medications they each were taking “by day, by month, hour, and dosage” comprise what one critic called “the most troubling and pitiful documents in American literary history.”
And a long way from “Aria da Capo,” the short free-verse Symbolist drama that put Vincent — as her friends and lovers called her — on the map, and comprises Part 2 of this Magis Theatre company production.
I believe I first saw “Aria da Capo” at the same Lincoln School where Tom Prideaux taught English, and saw it then again maybe 15 or 20 years — and one World War — later during the first arty stirrings of Off-Off Broadway. It is quite a precious, pretentious artifact, though one can forgive it much if only for the following lines, its Pierrot to its Columbine:
Don’t stand so near me!
I am become a socialist. I love
Humanity; but I hate people.
Quite a confession in the non-conformist Greenwich Village of that day or any day.
HER NAME IS VINCENT: AN EVENING WITH EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
Conceived and Performed by Margi Sharp Douglas and Rachel Murdy
Directed by Cynthia Croot
October 29th through November 14th
At the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex
(312 W. 36th Street)
For tickets, call 866-811-4111
or visit www.magistheatre.org