"There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the '50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up." - Gregory Corso.
Elise follows the tragic aftermath of Elise Cowen, the ‘poet-gone-crazy’. Cowen, a woman who tried to compete in the male-dominated Beat movement, was marginalized and damaged by the patriarchal gender structures imposed by society.
'Elise is by far one of the best pieces of student acting that I have seen'
Set in 1962 New York to the backdrop of modern jazz, Elise evokes an earlier, hedonistic era consumed by drinking, sex and drugs, a time when youths rejected conventional society and fought against institutionalization and rigidity. Yet although this movement promoted and embraced sexual liberation, the play, produced by Dixie Fried Theatre in association with Bristol Spotlights, reflects the ways in which it remained tethered by patriarchal restraints.
When Cowen tried to assert her own independence, fiercely challenging the expected domesticity of women in the 1960s, her parents reacted with shame towards their wayward daughter - they labeled her unconventionality as insanity and confined her to a mental institution. No longer able to fight against the conformity and structure that she had dedicated her life to resisting, Cowen committed suicide.
'they labeled her unconventionality as insanity and confined her to a mental institution'
Disgusted by her difference, Elise’s family tried to erase any evidence of her involvement in the Beat movement by cremating all of her work, the remnants of which remain littered on the stage floor throughout the play. Yet fellow writer and activist Leo Skir recovered a notebook kept by Cowen that contained 83 of her never-before seen poems - she had resisted sharing her work as she believed that ‘no-one’s meant to be moved by my poetry but me.’
Elise weaves together Cowen's surviving works with a range of interviews conducted amongst her closest circle, to paint a complete picture of the woman who was lost in history. It was male-poets such as Allen Ginsberg that fuelled the Beat movement, the man that Elise Cowen was obsessively in love with and dedicated her whole life to, even when Ginsberg came to terms with his homo-sexuality. Consequently, Cowen has been remembered primarily as Ginsberg’s mad, typist girlfriend. In the gendered gaze of history, Cowen often loses her individuality and skill and becomes shrouded by Ginsberg's shadow, all because ‘she wanted to be wanted.’
'an earlier, hedonistic era consumed by drinking, sex and drugs'
Elise is by far one of the best pieces of student acting that I have seen. The New York accents are seamless and the acting is fervent, intense and convincing - despite having a cast of only four, the play manages to simultaneously convey the anger and rawness of grief felt for the deceased Elise while also incorporating an element of humor. The Bristol performance, a preview for the show's month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe, left me in no doubt that the play will meet with great success and critical acclaim.
(Featured image: Unsplash / Volkan Olmez)
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