Haunted by Emily…a play

The Last Scene

Scene 10

(The 1930’s. HOMESTEAD to the left, EVERGREENS still to the right but the DELL in between has vanished. Both houses look the worse for wear; HOMESTEAD sports a “For Sale” sign. Arms crossed, two young women in thirties clothing study one another. They are the actresses who played SUE and MABEL restored to youth…as their daughters, MATTIE and MILLICENT. MATTIE stands proudly on the EVERGREENS porch, surveying MILLICENT who tows a wheeled trunk plastered with travel and Ivy League stickers. EMILY tries to stick collapsed shingles back on the HOMESTEAD; they fall off of course)

Sue! Sue! I meant to find her when I came
Death had the same design.
The success was his it seems
The surrender, mine.
I knew I lost her when remoteness traveled to her face and tongue.

(Grabs a broom)

The thrill came slowly – centuries delayed
Life is shorter than summer
Seventy years is spent. Sorrow is polite and stays.
We must be sweeping up the heart and putting love away. We shall not want to use it until eternity. Pain’s element of blank can’t recollect when it were not. It has no future but itself; infinity contain.


Leaving so soon, Mrs. Bingham?

Goodbye, Mrs. Bianchi.

(Stresses the title.)

(Sighs dispiritedly)

It is the Children’s Hour. Love that was meets love too best to be. Their junction is … eternity. Even a prison gets to be a friend.

I’m sorry you’ll miss the grand gala celebrating the publication of my book – Mama’s and mine. The Single Hound – Poems of a Lifetime.

(Sighs ecstatically)

Did you ever read poems backwards, because the plunge at the front overturned you?

You are obnoxious to the last degree, like all your family. Deliver me from “push”.

Love is a loaded gun that grants the power to kill without the power to die. Girls, girls! Shall we laugh at this catastrophe?

Your history – insofar as you have one – is scandal, convictions and homelessness. You wouldn’t understand.

Mattie, were revenge accessible, I would surely wreak it. Trust me. Revenge is an apparition. More prudent to assault the dawn.

I understand that when one conveys the impression that the work one did is one’s own work when it is actually appropriated, one commits an act of piracy. When there is misrepresentation of facts it is falsehood, deception, perjury, fraud, deceit, sham, pretence, perfidy, distortion, invention, dishonesty, treachery, counterfeit, fiction, myth, humbug, hyperbole and swindle!

Your mother was no better than a common whore!

Mattie, Mattie, you are royal! As there are apartments in our minds we never enter so we should respect the seals of others. Spirits rising too high inflate and feed on awe. You will never merit the ethereal scorn she evanesced.

And what was your mother? I know all about her affair with Mr. Bowles, all the while she behaved so high and mighty! She was a vindictive –

(MATTIE Slams the door to avoid another recitation. A shingle falls off The EVERGREENS and its lights fade. MILLICENT drags her trunk a short distance, then opens it and sets up camp – a cabana-tent, folding table, campstool, etc. Ties a pennant reading “Purity & Wisdom” to the top of the cabana.)

(Shouting in the direction of the EVERGREENS)

Vassar’s song was written by Edna St. Vincent Millay!

(Shouts the words)

Offended God of love and kindness
We have denied, forgotten thee,
Twisted, unlovely and obscure
Gifts we – er- hum-tum.

(Realizes the song is depressing and badly written plus she doesn’t remember it. Mutters sheepishly to herself)

Unfortunately Edna was expelled.

(Stroking her hair)

Love’s transmigration becomes idolatry of family. This silence is infinity – it has no face. Absence disembodies just like death. Poor child.

(Collapses on campstool, shoulders bowed, head down. Opens a notebook:)

Principles of Human Geography by Millicent Todd Bingham!

(Begins scribbling feverishly.)

Oh, Child! We have at least a pair of lives. With tomorrow in the cupboard, who can hunger? We do not play on graves because there isn’t room! People come – they hang their faces so we’re fearing that their hearts will drop and crush our pretty play. And so we move as far as enemies away.

(Spotlight on MATTIE at her much more elaborate desk)

Dear Houghton Mifflin, As the sole heir of the Dickinson family in Amherst and holder of the Dickinson copyrights, I am preparing a volume of recently discovered poems by my aunt Emily Dickinson that were withheld from publication by her sister Lavinia …

(Peering in the window)

Each age is a lens. Poets light a lamp; themselves go out. Light, Mattie. Light!

(Writing a letter of her own)

Dear Houghton Mifflin, my mother Mabel Loomis Todd, editor of the four original volumes of poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson, is interested in publishing a further volume based on papers left her by Lavinia Dickinson in a will which has mysteriously disappeared… Fortunately mother is in possession of an original contract granting her half ownership of the published volumes –

(Gouges the paper so angrily it rips. Says in frustration)

I feel I exist to do this. I am involved without question and I am glad to be.

(Wandering sadly between the two of them)

Finding is the first act; the second is – loss. Absence of the witch does not invalidate the spell.

(Feigning an argument)

There is a megatherium among the strawberries! Your nettle stung my rose!

To the Trustees of Harvard College: I would be willing to meet with your literary curators who are interested in discussing the ultimate disposition of papers pertaining to my late, much revered aunt, the poet Emily Dickinson –

To the Trustees of Amherst College: I would be very interested in discussing with you the acquisition and protection of my mother Mabel Loomis Todd’s papers. As you know she was a friend of the American poet Emily Dickinson as well as her first editor –

Mrs. Todd’s so-called “contract” is a draft copy prepared by herself. My aunt Lavinia’s papers makes no mention of Mrs. Todd’s contribution whatever and her contract states unequivocally that copyright resides solely in the Dickinson family…Patrimony! Patrimony, patrimony, patrimony!

What about matrimony, bridalled and shrouded in a day? Longing is a seed that wrestles with the ground.

(Addressing the audience)

Real hate is focused, waiting for vengeance. The emotion of hatred keeps the hater alive and vigorous. Hatred cannot continue unless the souls are kindred and the closer the likeness the more virulent the hatred.


I hope heaven is warm. There are so many barefoot ones. If a flower keeps its appointments, why should the heart be so tardy?

(Still writing – recites in a throbbingly romantic, thrilling voice)

In the witchery of an undreamed Southern spring Emily was overtaken – doomed forever by her own heart. It was instantaneous, overwhelming and impossible. Two predestined souls were only kept apart by her sense of the duty to preserve love untarnished by the destruction of another woman’s life…

(Throat catches on a sob)


Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the biographed. She mistook a winged spark for lightning! Consummation is the hurry of fools; expectation the elixir of the Gods. Go slow my soul to feed itself! Love deferred will fade like … ice cream. Redemption – for a kiss!

(Shouting in MATTIE’s direction)

The enclosed volume, Bolts of Melody, contains more than six hundred previously unknown poems by Emily Dickinson from my mother’s extensive private collection…

Poor fatherless serpent!

Dear Houghton Mifflin, if you publish any volume of poems to which I hold the copyright I will sue!

Here’s a pretty lawsuit! It is essential to the sanity of mankind that each should think the other crazy. Thus does spirit dialog with dust.

(MILLICENT and MATTIE speak at once)

Dear Amherst College, In securing my treasure trove of Dickinson papers I seek an institution that will –

Dear Harvard College, In preventing further interference with the Dickinson copyrights I seek to leave them to an institution that will –

(They stop and glare at each other. EMILY throws up her hands)

Heaven or hell? Think, Mattie! Character determines whether eternity be velocity or pause! Fundamental signals come from fundamental laws. The way is closed from where they came. The seconds pursue the centuries, the centuries pursue – eternity. A plank of balm is swallowed by the escapeless sea. My little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.

(The two girls speak at the same time)

Dear Harvard College – It is my intention to sue –

Dear Amherst College – It is my intention to sue –

Only love can wound and only love can heal the wound. To have lost an enemy is almost more memorable than to find a friend.



(They both clutch their chests and, miming heart attacks, sink floorward like marionettes. Emily tries to rouse them)

Inter the docile ones – we will dare to live!

(It doesn’t work. Lights out on the girls. Alone, EMILY comes to sit at the edge of the stage)

Can human nature survive without a listener? Life is but Life! And Death but Death! And Bliss is Bliss! And breath is breath! Death’s waylaying’s not the sharpest tool of time. There marauds a sorer robber – Silence is his name. The éclat of death is unknown renown. I don’t like paradise. I am not used to hope – I’d perish of delight. I never felt at home below, in the handsome skies I shall not feel at home, I know. I stand witness to the certainty of immortality – but – departing grace afflicts me with a double loss.
Is heaven a place – or sky or tree?
The dead have no geography
Abdication of belief makes behavior small.
Hope’s a subtle glutton!
Love is resurrection
Scooping up the dust and chanting, Live!
Take all away from me but leave me ecstasy!

(Coming close, peering into audience)

O, Master, master, is it you? Have you come to keep your promise to the sparrows who know how to starve or to shatter me with Dawn?

(Attempts to dismiss us)

Art thou the thing I wanted? Begone – my tooth has grown
Supply a minor palate that has not starved so long.
I tell thee while I waited the mystery of food
Increased till I abjured it and dine without – like God.

(Looks uneasily into the utter darkness behind her. There is nowhere to go. She is alone.)

What is earth but a nest from whose rim we are falling? I had a terror I could tell to none. Who knows how deep the heart is or how much it holds? Perhaps the balm seemed better because you bled me first. When did the dark happen? I thought I could play where sundown couldn’t find me. It would be comfort forever to look into your face and have you look in mine. Did you bring the little chest to keep the “alive” in? Heaven is so cold! It will never look kind to me if God, who causes all, denies such little wishes. Fabulous is the revelation that we shall hunger no more!

(Holds out her arms)

Life is the finest secret. So long as that remains, we must whisper.


The only thing worth larceny is immortality.

(Closes her eyes to feel the darkness)

A love so big it scares me rushes in my breast. Master, open wide your life, and take me in forever! Sinew and snow in one, an avalanche of sun!

(Closer and closer to audience)

“It is finished” can never be said of us! Creator! May I bloom?


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