'And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name' Act V, Scene I, A Midsummer Night's Dream
During my interview with the cast and crew, one of them remarked that ‘it’s definitely becoming cooler to be into beat poetry’. It’s true that the Beat Generation seems to be particularly on trend at the moment. Whether that’s because of a focus on ‘madness’ and mental health, or just the rejection of traditional American values, capitalism and materialism that seem to be becoming increasingly mainstream, Elise certainly feels incredibly relevant. The play harnesses the energy and passion of the Beat Generation, to explore the life and death of Elise Cowen, one of the few female beat poets.
The play is set in the aftermath of Elise’s suicide. Her family and friends are interviewed, a process which forces them to reconnect with one another and also face up to what drove Elise to end her own life. The play questions whether her suicide was truly inevitable. Written by 3rd Year English student Brenda Callis, who was recently longlisted for the Papantango playwriting prize, the dialogue is quick, witty and as clever as you would expect from a student who has firmly established herself as one of the best writers on the Bristol playwriting scene. The show seems to overcome the difficult task of balancing the exposition of truth behind a woman whose work and life is so often ignored by literary scholars, with creating a fictional narrative out of it. The narrative mainly comes from descriptions of Elise and new found information about her past, cleverly retroactively creating the narrative of the events that led up to her suicide. This concept means that there are inevitably points where the pace drags a little; the play is dialogue heavy, often relying on one or two characters to move the play along. However, the play is overall incredibly real and honest, showcasing Elise Cowen as a poet and the darker side of an often much glamourised movement.
The play relies heavily on some central characters, so it is fortunate that they are both brilliantly constructed and acted. Mimi Paltridge is captivating as Joyce Johnson, Elise’s best friend, a force to be reckoned with and a beat poet in her own right. Both Paltridge, and Guy Woods (Leo Skir) are entirely convincing and different in their grief, showing beautifully the confusion and guilt that comes with losing a friend, as well as Joyce’s indignation at how Elise was let down by the people around her. As the play goes on and the audience discover more factors which contributed to her suicide, it becomes increasingly clear that it was not one person but an entire systemic community that stifled Elise. This exposition and realisation is incredibly well handled and subtly played, again making Elise seem all the more relevant as it looks at how women have been erased from history; what was seen in male poets as a sign of genius or creativity was, for women, deemed ‘hysteria’. While this message is incredibly political and very relevant to many of the movements we see today which focus on women who have been undervalued by history, the play also focuses on the grief experienced by Elise’s friends and family. One of the best moments of the play is when Angus Cooper, playing Cowen’s father, begs the interviewers to leave his family alone. Although Elise’s father was responsible for her institutionalisation and the burning of her poems, in that moment it is hard to feel hate or blame for a vulnerable family who have lost a child.
One thing that is done incredibly well is the use of Cowen’s poems throughout the play. Though we never get to see Elise, her voice is routinely present, giving us an insight into her mind and also showcasing some incredibly beautiful and clearly under-appreciated poetry. The collage of music and sound helps to capture the spirit and energy of the Beat movement. It’s this spirit and energy which makes it even harder to accept the darker side of the movement: the abuse that Cowen was a victim of and the marginalisation of women that occurred in a movement so male-dominated. Elise tells stories that have never been told before, from entirely new female perspectives, and therefore it has the makings of something incredibly radical and subversive.