That winter, I took up writing in an attempt to forget the countryside. My first play, carefully parsed out into eight acts, took place in a forest glittering with fresh sleet. The foliage dead beneath its luminous exterior. Faint music, then a long silence. Ophelia appears beneath a broken branch, seated on a tree halved by the storm. Her dress is ruined. Still, she looks each of us in the eye. Then she explains that consent is given based on facts, however cold and impersonal they may be. To mislead is an act of violence, a theft, an assault on reason and the mind. The curtain closes. She delivers the soliloquy seven more times.
The play was produced in the spring. I attended the opening and felt as though I had stepped into an anxiety dream, the kind one has the night before their play opens. Ophelia’s gown was too suggestive, as though she desperately wanted to be misled by the man she loved. The set, too, implicated her. She was the storm that destroyed the landscape, her breath letting off that ungodly cold. She was no longer vindicated in the way I had hoped she would be.
The reviews came slowly, like frozen branches falling one by one to the ground. Most read as summary, not passing judgment the way most would anticipate. One critic did deliver a verdict, suggesting there must be some underlying reason that I cared so much about Ophelia, an unconscious obsession with the torn dress, a fixation on ruined clothing. I was the whore, the wronged beloved, the bride abandoned at the altar. I stood accused, but when I tried to plead my case, I found I could no longer speak.
For the next play, I begin by imagining the heroine, and by heroine, I mean Juliet in a white dress. She walks a seemingly endless corridor, searching for him behind every door. There are two specifications that I make quite clear in the stage directions. First, the beloved must never appear onstage. He is all ghost-light, projection, and mirrors. Perhaps more importantly, her gown is overly modest, buttoned to the chin. No audience will ever see her as a sexual object, since it impossible that a woman in a high-collared wedding dress could be desired. At the end of the last scene, she takes a sleeping pill before she is eventually left for dead.
When the play is produced the following winter, something goes terribly wrong. The actress cast in the lead is diagnosed with cancer. There’s no understudy for the part. We come to the conclusion that I’m the only logical choice for the role. I’m not ready for this, nor am I prepared for the white dress the costumers have sewn. I can hardly breathe, let alone argue with them or even speak. The woman in charge of makeup insists that I must be made ugly. She draws moles and blemishes on my unblemished face. Then she snips my long blonde hair at the nape.
I have little appreciation for metaphor. I know that everyone must think that the play is a projection, an attempt to convey an enduring lack of self-regard by making myself into a spinster. With that said, there was only one review. The critic claimed that the play was too well-marketed for what it was, and what it was seemed to be solipsism. An audience is made to inhabit my psyche, then they are ushered out into the cold. I tried several times to write her a response, but almost everything sounded like ad copy for an empty chapel or a brightly colored sign for unworn wedding gowns.
It was quite awhile before I wrote another stage piece. But I took a keen interest in Othello, particularly the scene in which Desdemona is smothered and left for dead. While writing the play, I imagine I am Desdemona in the afterlife, and still I find myself unable to breathe. The stage directions are remarkable in their specificity. First, they state clearly that the set is lined with mirrors, showing us the heroine from every angle as she struggles for breath. It is also of paramount importance that the mirrors are ornate, embellished in much the same way that the play itself has been by critics, directors, filmmakers, and so forth. Moreover, Desdemona must be dressed in white. She is her own bride, her own patron saint. There are no lines to be spoken, let alone memorized and butchered on opening night. Perhaps more importantly, there is to be no music.
The play is finally produced that summer. For the first time, I discover that the theatre crew has remained faithful to the stage directions and the intent behind the work. Every show is sold out. Crowds murmur and gasp in the darkened room, rise and applaud when the velvet curtain draws shut. For the first time, I make quite a large profit, and purchase a champagne-colored Lexus before the show closes.
The reviews arrive like a door thrown open in winter. While several critics applaud what they interpret as feminist commentary on the original work, the point of departure is always the same. Desdemona’s suffering is made too real. The productions would be more palatable if there was some degree of artifice, if her pathos were stagey. Even worse, the audience is made complicit in that suffering, and as a result, they find themselves powerless over their own sorrow. That’s when they discover that the doors have locked behind them.
When winter returned, I wrote what I knew would be my last play. I had developed an unhealthy obsession with the death scene in Anthony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare, of course, insists she died happily, but both of her handmaids are also left for dead. Some nights I would think of the handmaids, utterly anonymous and ancillary, even in death. I decided the play must be set in a mausoleum, where the two women would finally speak, looking the audience straight in the eye. They tell us every small detail of their modest roles, how they coiffed the queen’s hair, what she looked like before they’d begun their seemingly endless work. They speak in unison, both proud that they did not love, nor did they honor, the queen. The curtains close before they deliver the soliloquy a second time.
The play is produced, but I don’t feel that it’s my best work. When the handmaids speak, something is off with the weight of their mouths. They mumble and stutter. They’re too timid to make eye contact with the audience, seated in rows upon rows of velvet chairs. I walk out of the theatre halfway through the opening.
A review appears soon enough, and my hand shakes too much to turn the page. So I stare at the magazine, which lauds my ability to challenge preconceived ideas about authorship, especially in the collaborative realm of theatre. To use the stage itself as a vehicle for critique, the critic says, is conceptually arresting, even brilliant. Still, he claims, the language itself isn’t alive in quite the same way it was in my previous work. It is the empty shell of an idea, an unrealized metaphor, a vehicle without a tenor. I look around at the plain walls of my apartment. Alone in a cold bed, I try to suffer more beautifully.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry, most recently DARK HORSE (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her work appears in The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.