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 pursuits and his personal relationships.
In life and after her death, the well-known and beloved poet has always been defined by others – her heavily editor-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 female-focused
The musical captures Emily Dickinson (Mariah Stanelle) trying to pursue poetry and fulfill her love for her best friend, Susan Gilbert (Eva Merrill), while struggling with societal expectations for women in the 1800s.
Male influence surrounds Emily on all sides. When she decides she wants to publish her poems, she is faced with the harsh realities of the male-dominated publishing industry.
His poems cannot be published without corrections that completely change them. Publisher Thomas Higginson (Dylan Birningham) suggests that her poems be published anonymously as the public will not accept a female poet.
Expectations of marriage to a man are set by his family and his gentleman, George Gould (Fynn White).
Emily refuses to succumb to these expectations and becomes the engine of her own story. She continues to write poetry as she sees fit, not for fame or to appease publishers. She doesn’t marry – keeping her promise to Susan that she won’t. Even when Susan marries Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson (Alexander McConkie), Emily continues to love her.
Escape the easy definition
“The Emily Dickinson Musical” struggles with one-dimensionality – Emily is queer, a woman, and an artist, and can’t be defined by any one of those things.
The historical moment in which she lived did not recognize her as a multidimensional human being, but we, as spectators 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 a disservice to everything she was as an artist and a person. Although we have tried to capture it in our imagination, to solidify its identity, it still eludes definition.
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of representation since the musical and discovered that part of representation is allowing a person to be complex – whether we relate to their complexity or understand them. It is a person who shows us his complexity, rather than us trying to explain his complexity.
Emily Dickinson is no longer here to tell her own story. “The Emily Dickinson Musical” is a moment where we can get a little closer to that story, a story that ultimately affects all of us, no matter who we are. A story about 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 ours and the stories of others.
For updates on upcoming shows from Open Door Productions, visit their Facebook page.