Theater Production Exposes Tragic Lives of Famed Poets

“We’ve just witnessed an astonishing improvisation between two remarkable poets,” says Herbie Rimerman ’17 while playing the role of the host of “Potshots,” a college radio station. Sitting in the studio of “Potshots,” poets Ted Magus, played by Vincent Mocco ’15, and Dr. Robert Stoner, played by Jack Shumway ’15, answer question after question about their writing while listening to the host’s amateur attempts to analyze their poetry.

The radio hosts, Ted and Robert, are characters in “The Psychic Life of Savages,” a dark drama written by playwright Amy Freed and performed last weekend by the Theater-901 class. Co-directed by Emma Crowe ’15 and Frances Yackel ’15, “The Psychic Life of Savages” adapts the lives and writings of poets Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Ted Hughes into the characters Sylvia Fluellen, Stoner, Anne Bittenhand and Magus, respectively.

“These four poets are each a little, for lack of a better word, crazy in their own way. They all are a little obsessed with being famous or following their ambition and producing a piece of work that really defines their work, but they struggle along the way in accomplishing this,” said Katie Weaver ’15, who plays both the Ghost of Emily Dickinson and Robert’s wife.

Ted and Robert’s radio interview opens the play before introducing the audience to Fluellen, played by Liana Brooks ’15, and Bittenhand, played by Eden Livingston ’15. The pair of poets resides in a psychiatric hospital after attempting to commit suicide. Bittenhand made the attempt at her daughter Kit-Kat’s 16th birthday party.

Livingston said about her character, “[Anne Bittenhand] is an old school beauty but she’s aging so she’s very insecure about her looks and she feels like her looks define her. During the play, she’s trying to assert her sexuality and feel beautiful. She’s very superficial and [there is] not really much depth to her.”

Bittenhand soon returns home, where she reprimands her daughter, played by Hannah Burns ’15, for driving her to commit suicide. Tito, Bittenhead’s husband, intervenes, deeming Bittenhand’s outburst at Kit-Kat unnecessary.

Rimerman, who also plays Tito, said, “Tito is very, very submissive and he has been [throughout] his entire relationship with Anne. But when Anne attacks their daughter, he finally blows up and in his anger he works up the courage to stand up to her.”

Bittenhand eventually leaves her home and runs away with Stoner to serve as his “sexual healer.” Similarly, after leaving the hospital, Fluellen marries Magus, her older professor.

Mocco said, “[Magus] is egotistical for sure. A sexual deviant to some extent. Also, he’s pretty self-conscious. I mean you’re talking about a middle-aged English poet and professor who teaches at a school and in the play he has a sexual affair with one of his students [Slyvia,] and then she becomes his wife.”

The lives of each of the poets become more and more intertwined as the play progresses. In the end, Fluellen commits suicide by jumping out of a window after learning about a sexual encounter between Anne and Ted, her new husband. Soon after, Anne overdoses on pills.

Yackel wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “Sylvia Fluellen struggles her whole life with inadequacy. Since she was a child, she was the outcast in school. No one would go to her birthday parties, and when they did, it was only to laugh at her. When she finally finds [Ted], someone who makes her feel adequate, she gets married to him, but then he treats her just the way everyone else does, as if she’s not worthy of his love. Ted’s infidelities push her over the edge, and in the end she decides to prove to him how important his wedding vows were. She does this by taking her own life.”

“Anne Bittenhand struggles her whole life with growing old and losing her young, beautiful body. Throughout the play, Robert Stoner talks about her ‘sags and bags’ which only makes her struggle even harder until she thinks that the only way to stop her aging is to take her own life,” continued Yackel.

The somber ending to the play reflects the play’s larger theme of the difficulties that poets face as artists.

“‘The Psychic Life of Savages’ explores the inner thoughts of artistic minds or, as Ted Magus would put it, ‘the agony of the creator.’ This play highlights the agony and pain that artists and creators have to come to terms with. Artists think differently and they create new ways of thinking… If you could take something away from the experience of watching our show, I would hope that it would be… the more tragic aspect of it,” said Yackel.