Playwright Rebecca Gilman Finds ‘A Woman of the World’

The story of Mabel Loomis Todd -- first editor of Emily Dickinson's poetry and much more -- opens Off-Broadway with the timeless Kathleen Chalfant.

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Kathleen Chalfant in "A Woman of the World." Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Every time we think we know something about American history — say, for example, all of the straightjacketed, stiff-collared biases and prejudices against women of the 19th century — it seems as if we discover or rediscover something to challenge our perception. The wild and extraordinary life of Mabel Loomis Todd, vividly captured in A Woman of the World, a new solo play by Rebecca’s Gilman, is one such rediscovery.

Pick any aspect of Todd’s life, and you’ll see her stand as a radiant exception to virtually any 19th-century role for women that you think you knew. Best known as editor of Emily Dickinson’s posthumously published poetry, she never met the elusive, reclusive Belle of Amherst and, bizarrely, she foisted creative edits to her poems that Dickinson surely never intended and clearly, being dead, couldn’t prevent from print. Todd married an astronomer, David Peck Todd, whose sexual exploits in early and mid-life yielded to mental illness in later life. Mabel herself, meanwhile, had quite the affair with Dickinson’s married older brother, William Austin Dickinson, that was basically known to everyone and basically hid from no one. The ties that bound Todd to the Dickinson clan were intertwined to an absurd degree; issues ranges from rights to manuscripts to fights over royalties to slights over a piece of property bequeathed by Austin Dickinson to the Todds.

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And the Todds traveled the world: Mabel, goes the claim, was the first Western woman to summit Mount Fuji. Her artistic endeavors as a painter and musician were often on display, her lecture tours invariably popular. In addition to two edited (and we mean edited) books of Dickinson’s poetry, Todd wrote at least a dozen other books and who knows how many magazine articles as well.

So when the press materials for A Woman of the World (directed by Valentina Fratti) go to cheeky pains to note that Todd “invited scandal” by “drinking wine in mixed company” and “certainly wasn’t afraid to expose her ankles in a dress,” that’s not the iceberg, my friends, that’s the tip. For she was a woman of the world, but not entirely of the one in which she lived, making her a fascinating character study for playwright Gilman to tackle. (And who better to tackle it on stage than the timeless Tony-nominated Kathleen Chalfant?

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Gilman — an artistic associate at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and head of playwriting at Texas Tech University — sets her play on Hog Island, ME, where Todd has firmly entered her twilight years, eager to regale with stunning, scintillating tales of her life. Plays of self-reflection and, in particular, of reflected identity are right in Gilman’s wheelhouse; her two best-known plays, 1999’s Spinning Into Butter and 2000’s Boy Gets Girl, are beautifully constructed variations on that expansive theme.

Co-produced by The Acting Company in association with the Miranda Theatre Company, A Woman of the World runs through Nov. 17 at Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., 646-892-7999). For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Gilman has never been asked:

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Playwright Rebecca Gilman.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

A reporter once asked me if I hated to be interviewed. I really do like my work to speak for itself, so, yeah. That was perceptive.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

It wasn’t a question. An acquaintance once told me that he didn’t like my plays because he thought that the theater shouldn’t address economic or social issues.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

Someone asked me if my play, Blue Surge, was autobiographical. The play is about a sex worker and a cop. I didn’t want to know which part the person thought might be autobiographical.

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What is your history with the life of Mabel Loomis Todd, and at what point did it strike you as dramatically viable — and that you should be the playwright who encapsulates and/or shapes that story?

I was introduced to her story when I was a camper at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine. I love birds and went there to learn more about them. Dr. Steve Kress, who is director of the camp and a world-renowned ornithologist, mentioned to another camper that he was interested in developing a play about Mabel Loomis Todd. Somebody pointed to me and said, “She’s a playwright.” I wasn’t sure if there was a play there, but once I began reading Todd’s journals and letters, I fell in love with her and her story. She was a fascinating, fearless woman who had so many adventures, so many loves and passions. She introduced Emily Dickinson to the world and she saved Hog Island from destruction. I think I’m the person to write this story because I love art, I love birds, and I want to see both precious resources preserved.

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To characterize Mabel Loomis Todd’s life as eventful seems an understatement. But not all aspects of her life are especially complimentary. In writing the play, how did you balance the controversial, even unseemly aspects of Todd’s life with the basic idea that the story of her life is worth telling as a play?

She was a complicated woman — to put it mildly. But I don’t think “unseemly” is accurate. I see her as a modern woman — before her time. Yes, she had a long-running affair with Emily Dickinson’s brother. But it was not only condoned by her husband, it was embraced by him. If she were alive today, we would describe her as a polyamorous woman in an open marriage.

If you were Kathleen Chalfant, what would want her to ask a member of the Dickinson family if she could go back in time and meet them? And speaking of which, do you see Mabel Loomis Todd as enigmatic? Or do you think she was actually pretty clear in terms of everything she did and was?

If I were Kathleen, I would want to know if Emily Dickinson really did drown cats in a pickle barrel in the basement. Mabel Loomis Todd was always clear-eyed about what she wanted in life and she did everything she could to get it. She was bold, ambitious, even shameless at times. I have a hunch that the people who knew her were drawn to her because she was charismatic, not enigmatic.