quote Elise, Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Review

27073242_149899269022575_4892802161630917675_nWhile the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Boroughs took the lion’s share of acclaim as members of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, they siphoned the limelight away from their female peers. Chief among these was Elise Cowen, who as well as writing many of her own poems, significantly helped Ginsberg with his work in the early years. But because she and other women were on intimate terms with their male peers, history sidelined her as part of the Beat movement’s entourage, a movement branded as the preserve of men…

Written by Brenda Callis, and directed by Eden Peppercorn and Oli Grant, Elise looks at the life of Elise Cowen from the perspective of those that knew her. Set in 1962, the various characters are being interviewed as part of an official retrospective about her life. Driving the project is one Cowen’s closet friends, Joyce Johnson (Mimi Paltridge). But while she’s aware of many aspects of Cowen’s life, there are ‘holes’ in her knowledge – particularly during the final days.

Nowadays, we often think about youth counterculture in the US beginning in the 1960s, but the ‘Beatniks’ a decade earlier were also experimenting with drugs, Eastern philosophies and free love. In addition, leading exponents of the Beat movement – both male and female – where gay or bisexual, leading to a complex state of affairs. For men to partake in such things was shocking in the 1950s, but for a woman such as Cowen, it was ‘unthinkable’.

Throughout the play, the audience hears about the many facets of Cowen, so we’re obliged to take everything what’s said with a pinch of salt and re-evaluate everything. One ‘inrefutable’ fact about Cowen is the time she spent in various psychiatric institutions as a result of lifelong depression. While there has always been a stigma with people receiving psychiatric help, in postwar America the sort of ‘help’ patients received and their status outside of institutions marked them for life.

Harry Petty who plays Donald Cook – Cowen’s former psychology professor at Barnard College – conveys the character’s slippery nature – making back-handed ‘compliments’ about Cowen’s academic acumen versus her other ‘qualities’ and ‘exonerating’ his past behaviour in the process.

Through the character of Leo Skir played by Guy Woods, we hear that Cowen’s parents were alarmed by the overt references to drugs, sex and death in her poetry, and destroyed as much of her work as they could. Skir, however, manages to save one of Cowen’s journal with samples of her work and passes it on to…


Joyce. Her anger at the way Ginsberg, Cook, Cowen’s parents and the other people who let her friend down is palpable. However, as someone who fully embraced the Epicurean ethos of the Beat movement, Joyce didn’t exactly look out for Cowen at the time. It is, however, through a mutual acquaintence who was on the periphery of the Beat movement that Joyce learns of another facet to Cowen – and what she later faced alone…

DYwbDwLWAAALDYrIt struck me as I watched Elise at the parallels between Cowen and Sylvia Plath – who lived at approximately the same time as her. Both were talented poets, both received little understanding about their mental health issues, both (at least during their lifetime) were eclipsed the men in their life and only later received posthumous recognition. Elise reminds us that there is an inherent bias against women as serious contributors to literature and that it is only in recent years that a woman’s sexuality, autonomy and right to have (or not have) children are an acceptable part of her identity. Cowen, alas, was born ahead of her time…

© Michael Davis 2018

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Elise runs at Venue 33 – Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker Two from Aug 10-14, 16-27 (11:25am) (50 minutes)


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