All the ways we're obsessed with Sylvia Plath, Girl Detective
Like the cat I have nine times to die. This is Number One.
So begins the web series Sylvia Plath, Girl Detective in an homage to Plath’s famous poem Lady Lazarus. While the real-life Sylvia Plath penned a large body of dynamic poetry and prose, her tragic suicide at the age of 30 tends to overshadow the brilliance of her writing. Some would argue that she’s become known more as a literary personality than an actual poet, which is really a shame. Because she was an incredible talent. But its that juxtaposition between Plath’s work and her legend that makes Sylvia Plath, Girl Detective work so very well.
The show is Sylvia Plath meets Nancy Drew. Amazing, quirky and darkly humorous. (I mentioned amazing, right? Because AMAZING.) The award-winning short series became available a little more than a year ago on vimeo, but it has just been added to the free movie base at Open Culture. Its plot centers around Sylvia Plath as a freshman at Smith College where everything is wonderful until her benefactor, Olive Higgins Prouty (who endowed the real Plath with a scholarship), goes missing, leaving Sylvia’s tuition unpaid. Sylvia is even (gasp!) expelled. So naturally she resorts to some Nancy Drew-style amateur sleuthing. Where is Mrs. Prouty??
Sylvia has saddle shoes, bouncy blonde hair and a penchant for staring off in the distance and saying something wistfully melancholic…even if it’s a little over the top for the circumstances. She absolutely loves Smith, where she’s already writing poetry and making straight A’s in English. (Because of course she is.)
We see her doing all the things normal college students do, like ride her bicycle, hang out with her friends (you know she’s also got a frenemy), and go to dances with college boys. Which she actually did a lot of IRL. Those familiar with Plath will recognize her real-life beaus Gordon Lameyer and Harvard med student Dick Norton (“Your first cadaver…how intriguing!”).
Although, we’re kind of wishing they’d shown the moment when she met Ted Hughes. You know, so we could give her a heads up. (If you’re not familiar with the marriage of Sylvia and fellow poet Ted Hughes, let’s just say it didn’t end well. At all.) But alas, Sylvia met Ted when she was in graduate school in Cambridge, not when she was a Smith student. And while it’s definitely campy and outrageous, Sylvia Plath, Girl Detective is also factually accurate in many ways.
If you’ve ever heard a recording of Plath reading her poetry (which you can do here), you will appreciate how spot-on actress Kate Simses gets her accent and inflection. She absolutely nails it. Plus, nearly every bit of Sylvia’s dialogue is lifted straight from the real Plath’s poetry and prose. This is probably what I love best about the show. The more well-versed you are in Plath’s writings, the more fun it will be.
Writer-director Mike Simses doesn’t miss a trick. He seamlessly weaves the poet’s own words and experiences into the mix as often as possible. Even when he’s not quoting her directly, her spirit is there. “Mrs. Prouty’s car! What could frost my cake more?” is not only a hilarious line, it also pays tribute to Plath’s love of baking. She wrote about baking cakes often in her journals and letters home. (If, like me, you’re a complete literature nerd and want to try one of her favorite recipes, you can find it here.)
The only way this Plathian dark comedy could have been better is if Simses had changed the name of the horse that Sylvia rides off in search of Mrs. Prouty to Ariel instead of Brand. (Plath’s final manuscript was named Ariel, as was the horse she rode at riding school in Devon, England.) Maybe this can be fixed with a tiny bit of editing of the nameplate on the horse’s bridle. (There’s always Photoshop!)
The ending of Sylvia Plath, Girl Detective is genius, though. Mystery solved, we find Sylvia back at Smith and once again getting straight A’s. In fact, her professor wants to submit her latest poem to The Smith Review. Which one is it? The Detective, of course. I think the real Sylvia Plath would have gotten a great kick out of this. She was dark, yes. But she also had a wicked—some would even say melodramatic—sense of humor.
She’d appreciate the joke. We certainly do.
[All images and video via vimeo.]