Millay Fest burns candle at both ends

By Daniel Dunkle | Sep 09, 2017
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle Sarah MacDonnell portrays Rockland-born poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in the play "Vincent" Sept. 8 at the Strand Theatre in Rockland.

Rockland — There was a standing ovation Friday night at the Strand Theatre for the play "Vincent," which imagines the last hour and a lifetime of memories for famous Rockland-born poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The play, starring Sarah MacDonnell as "Vincent" herself and John Williams as the poet's devoted husband, Eugen, was the big event capping the second day of the Millay Arts & Poetry Festival. Alva Hascall of Rockland, who wrote the play over about two years, received words of congratulation from numerous local and visiting attendees in the Strand lobby following the event.

The festival, organized by the literary society Millay House Rockland, has drawn hundreds to the city for three days of poetry readings and historical discussion about the life, works and significance of Millay, who was born in a duplex on Broadway in 1892.

She later moved to Camden, where she was discovered as an important literary voice following the publication of her work, "Renascence." (The poem famously describes the scene from the top of Mount Battie: "All I could see from where I stood, Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked another way, And saw three islands in a bay.")

She would later live in New York's Greenwich Village, where she was an actress as well as a poet. She was also politically active, willing to take on unpopular topics in her work. She earned a reputation as a courageous feminist voice in an era dominated by male poets and writers. Millay's career included success as a public speaker, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

The play captures both her professional achievements and her personal struggles, including her sadness over the loss of her mother and later her husband and her struggles with drug addiction. It also describes a moment when she stopped in Rockland in her later life to look at the home of her birth on Broadway.

Millay House Rockland's mission has been to restore and preserve that house and its place in the city's cultural heritage.

The festival opened with a talk at the Farnsworth Art Museum by Jerri Dell, author of "Blood Too Bright," which talks about Millay's love affair with Bohemian author and socialist newspaper editor Floyd Dell in Greenwich Village about a century ago. The talk highlighted the relevance of Millay, as she supported Dell when the government attempted to imprison him for his radical writings.

The festival gathered several Millay biographers, including Nancy Milford, author of “Savage Beauty”; Daniel Mark Epstein, author of “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”; Krystyna Poray Goddu, author of “A Girl Named Vincent”; and Holly Peppe, scholar, editor and literary executor for Edna St. Vincent Millay.

On Saturday morning, 2013 presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco spoke at the Strand concerning his life as a Cuban immigrant and his quest to find his identity and a sense of "home." While hesaid he respects and loves the traditions of his family, he also recalled wanting to fit in with a "Brady Bunch" image of America as a young person.

In talking about home, he noted the importance of preserving the Millay House in Rockland as a place of tribute and remembrance. He said we all need "that place to check in, a home."

Pulitzer-Prize-winning National Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith also received a standing ovation from an enthusiastic crowd at the Strand Saturday night. Smith read poems by Millay and a selection of her own work. The festival captured both a sense of history and the poets who are among the most relevant today.

The effort to preserve the Millay House in Rockland included the help of the Rockland Historical Society, which turned ownership of the house over to Millay House Rockland in April. For more information, visit millayhouserockland.com.

Rockland playwright Alva Hascall beams at well-wishers at the Strand Theatre immediately following the premiere of his play, "Vincent." (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
2013 presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco speaks Sept. 9 at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
2013 presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco signs autographs at the Strand in Rockland. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Bestselling writer and author of Millay biography "Savage Beauty" Nancy Milford speaks Sept. 9 at the Strand. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Pulitzer-Prize-winning National Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith signs autographs at the Strand Saturday night. (Photo by: Denise DeVaney)
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