Was her life a dream come true, or a surreal nightmare? Was she a free-thinker who lived to the fullest and broke down traditional barriers for women, or a remorseless opportunist, self-indulgent hedonist, and shameless narcissist who exploited herself and others in her insatiable quest for happiness? Playwright Carson Kreitzer examines the artistic talents and troubled psyche of Surrealist muse, Vogue model, fashion photographer, and World War II photo-correspondent Lee Miller in BEHIND THE EYE, now in its Philadelphia premiere at Gas & Electric Arts.
BEHIND THE EYE is conceived as a 100-minute memory play, in which Miller, a native of Poughkeepsie, New York, directly addresses the audience with autobiographical reminiscences and scenes incorporating dialogues and encounters with her internationally famed associates in the arts, including Man Ray, Paul Éluard, Pablo Picasso, Colette, and Roland Penrose. But it is also a revealing psycho-sexual study of a mind teeming with the extremes of manic-depression, a woman who was excessively impassioned but emotionally disconnected, privileged but never satisfied, always on the move but never able to escape her inner demons.
Kreitzer’s script is based on posthumous biographies of Miller constructed from the contents of a cache of boxes found by son Tony Penrose in the attic of their family home after her death in 1977. Filled with roughly 60,000 photographic negatives of and by her, manuscripts, and memorabilia from her globetrotting life and world-renowned avant garde circle, the mounds of cartons also served to inform the production’s minimalist scenic design (by Simon Harding) and props (by Avista).
Kittson O’Neill stars as Miller, whose historic recollections delve into the traumatic episodes of her childhood, as the nude subject of stereoscopic photographs by her father and the victim of rape and resultant gonorrhea at the hands of a family friend. She ardently recounts her years in the spotlight, traveling the world as a celebrated beauty, who perpetuated her own objectification and sexual fixation as a nude model and libertine mistress to the rich and famous, and, on more than one occasion, contributed to the devastation of their wives. Later suffering from post-traumatic stress and alcoholism, she gave up photography in favor of a new passion for gourmet cooking, after her stint in WWII on the front-lines and in the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, where she relished the excitement of capturing unimaginably brutal scenes with disturbingly detached clarity.
The portrayal’s overall mood is more indicative of the bipolar disorder from which Miller apparently suffered than the Surrealism she advanced, despite scenes with incongruously pacing characters, spinning mirrors, empty picture frames, and dangling vertical beams. Oddly, the production lacks any visuals of the actual photographs that Miller shot or posed for—an unusual choice for a play designed, in part, to promote her appreciation as an artist and her significance as a Surrealist subject. Those unfamiliar with her oeuvre might have benefited from seeing some examples of the artworks referenced in the script, though triangles of sheer grey fabric recall her Egyptian landscapes, and a nude scene recreates the well-known photograph of Miller bathing in Hitler’s tub, as well as demonstrating her recurrent display of her body for public gaze.
A fine supporting ensemble of Charlotte Northeast, Allen Radway, Robb Hutter, and James Stover assumes multiple roles as Miller’s friends, colleagues, lovers, and husbands, with Radway creating a telling contrast between his characterizations of the coarse Man Ray and the more refined Roland Penrose, and a brief but particularly humorous appearance by Northeast as the acerbic French novelist and performer Colette. Versatile costumes by Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind capture both the period style and the unique personalities of Miller and her artistic coterie.
Although I personally prefer my women artists, feminist icons, and role models to be mentally stable, well-adjusted, and clothed, admittedly that wouldn’t make for such high drama as the true story of Lee Miller in BEHIND THE EYE.
BEHIND THE EYE
Written by Carson Kreitzer
Directed by Lisa Jo Epstein
October 25-November 18, 2012
Gas & Electric Arts
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater
2111 Sansom St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Tony Penrose, who runs the Lee Miller estate, does not allow his mother’s images to be used for such things as a stage production. We chose to be inspired by Miller’s work and conjure a sense of the surrealism and realism of her life.