The performance piece deals with the relationship between Emily Dickinson and her Irish servant, Margaret Maher

It would seem that every conceivable angle of studying Emily Dickinson has been covered, and in nearly all forms: biographies, academic monographs, poetry analysis, novels, films, and even television shows.

However, the famous Amherst poet always seems to inspire a new way of looking at her work and her life — and now Rosemary Cain does it with an Irish accent.

“Margaret Maher and the Celtification of Emily Dickinson,” a musical that will perform at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield December 3-4, examines the relationship between The Belle of Amherst and an Irish housemaid, Margaret Maher, who develops a close relationship With Dickinson over many years of service.

It is a subject that Caine, a Greenfield musician, composer and singer born in Ireland, has been studying for a while, spurred on by her love of Dickinson’s poetry and her great appreciation for poetry as an art form which she says is fundamental to him. Irish culture.

Kane, 77, wrote the script for the play and most of the music. She notes that some of the songs recorded for ukulele, piano, guitar, bass and voice have been set to Dickinson’s poems. She adds that the main theme of the production is that Maher helped curb the anti-Irish sentiment that Dickinson and many other Protestant Americans were harboring at the time.

“This kind of sentiment was very popular in the early part of the nineteenth century,” Kane said. “But when you read about how Emily and Margaret carried on through their years together, you see that change… That’s why we call this ‘The Celtification of Emily Dickinson. ‘”

In one scene, Emily tells Margaret, whom Maggie calls, that her father was an abolitionist and supporter of the Fugitive Slave Law before the American Civil War, which required people in northern states like Massachusetts to help catch runaway slaves. .

“So he doesn’t just hate the Irish,” says Margaret. “It is a pity that he thinks it is all right to pursue and capture freed slaves.”

“He’s a Calvinist,” says Emily. “He hates everybody. We all hated the Irish before you came along, Maggie.”

Caine, who came to the US herself in 1972, said her performance piece was particularly inspired by the 2010 book by Ave Murray, “A Maid as Moses,” which examines how Maher and other servants in the Amherst household influenced Dickinson’s views on culture Their dialects and speech patterns also find their way into her poetry.

“I used Margaret as a starting point for the story,” she said. “This is a work of imagination—it’s not scholarship—but I think it touches on some important ideas.”

The two lead roles are played by Moe McElligott (as Margaret) and Stephanie Carlson (as Emily); In addition, there is a six-woman choir who act like storytellers and also sing as a choir, augmenting the solos of McElligott and Carlson.

She composed the music part on harp and part piano, Kane says, writing lyrics and melodies that draw from American musical theater styles as well as “rhythms I know from Irish dance music and an addiction to wistful little keys,” she noted in a follow-up email.

Kane adds that, in some of Dickinson’s poems, the cadences “are quite like a Puritan hymn, so I must be guided by the meter of the ballad”.

She also draws on what she calls “Celtic Canon” for two songs that recall the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and the subsequent emigration of many Irish—including Margaret Maher and other members of her family—to America.

From music to theatre

Kane, who became a professional singer in Ireland and then continued for a while in the US – today she sings with the Young @ Heart Chorus – has also been involved in the stage for almost 20 years, since forming what Wilde calls the Irish Women.

The group has performed a number of musicals in the area over the years exploring the lives of Irish women throughout history. Last year Kane also led a performance at Greenfield in which she set several poems by one of the giants of Irish literature, William Butler Yeats, to music.

You see, Margaret Maher, born in 1841, falls into the category of “Irish Wilde Women” who, despite lacking much formal education, “kept it in” with the Dickinsons. Kane says she also had a love for music and the arts, which gave her “an intuitive understanding that her mistress was a genius”.

According to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Maher spent decades “faithfully guarding Emily Dickinson from her socialites” and is also “probably responsible for preserving a large number of Dickinson’s poems as well as the poet’s only surviving confirmed portrait”.

Indeed, Kane’s production posits that Maher had kept many of Dickinson’s poems, despite the poet’s deathbed wish that Maher burn them (Dickinson had stashed several in Maher’s chest).

“We don’t burn poems in Ireland,” Kane said. “I imagine (Margaret) thinking… that the poet Amherst lacks confidence in her own brilliance. She sees it and acts in it.”

In the play, Maher does so despite Emily’s threat that if she does not destroy her work, she will “haunt” Margaret after her death.

“You haunt me, right?” says Margaret. “This is very cruel. I am certainly not terrified of ghosts.”

Emily replies, “Only if you don’t burn my poems like you promised.” “Why, you know me, don’t you if I’m a ghost.”

“Celtification of Emily Dickinson” offers much of this kind of banter between the two, who share a sense of being out of place: Margaret in America, far from “my people far across the sea,” and Emily who says she feels like “a stranger in my land, my home.” My town.”

Margaret replies, “See–keep it up.” “Aren’t you Amherst property?”

And when Margaret complains about the pettiness of the Dickinsons, as well as their lack of alcohol—”This house is as dry as the dusty desert of tropical Africa”—Emily says “I know. Compared to you, Maggie, we’re as dull as groundwater, I mean dishwater.”

“Let’s go to the kitchen and do some baking,” Emily offers. “You can drink some sherry or rum.”

Caine says her play will debut two years after receiving the Margaret Maher Prize from the Irish Amherst Society, a group formed in 2014 to promote links with Ireland and Irish culture and the arts. It was an honor, she said, especially because the group did not know at the time that they were working on their play.

She may be a “very enthusiastic hyper-hyperophile”, Kane said in her email, “but that also comes from her being an immigrant. I don’t want to lose everything that has supported me in those Celtic connections over the years.”

“Margaret Maher and the Celebration of Emily Dickinson” takes place at 7:30 p.m. on December 3 and 2 p.m. on December 4 at the Hawks & Reed Center for the Performing Arts. More information can be found at hawksandreed.com; Click on the event calendar for December.

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