Martha Analysis

Martha (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Agnes de Mille is a distinguished choreographer known for such Broadway shows as OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL, as well as the author of numerous books on dance. In MARTHA she turns to the subject of the great modern dance choreographer, Martha Graham (1894-1991), who created an immense body of masterpieces and single-handedly revitalized the twentieth century stage in America. The book’s main narrative ends in 1987, before Graham’s death, but de Mille still manages to trace the essential trajectory of Graham’s life: beginning, middle, and end.

The Martha Graham portrayed here is a great Romantic artist, suffering for her art, possessed by her muse and oblivious to more mundane matters. The basic elements of such a life are standard from other biographies of Romantic genius: single-minded devotion to art that destroys all such minor impediments as other people, humble beginnings with starvation for the art turning into later years of too-great opulence and honor that threaten to collapse the gift. De Mille’s Graham is a tortured genius in the grand style: ruthless, cruel, constantly liking for live, ungracious in defeat yet continually striving.

Graham began her career in the Denishawn school in Los Angeles, them moved to New York in the 1920’s where she gathered around herself a group of dedicated women dancers. She began to choreograph for men in the late 1930’s, and by 1950 had produced a string of masterpieces, many of them versions of Greek myths from the woman’s point of view. The period following Graham’s own retirement from the stage in 1968 was difficult for her, and she emerged from depression and alcohol only gradually, to build the repertory and accept the honors that characterized her later decades. Graham died in 1991 at age ninety-four, universally revered.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXVIII, December, 1991, p. 127.

Back Stage. XXXII, December 13, 1991, p. 31.

Chicago Tribune. August 25, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. November 15, 1991, p. 17.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 22, 1991, p. 2.

New Woman. XXI, September, 1991, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, September 8, 1991, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVII, October 14, 1991, p. 119.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 23, 1991, p. 40.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, August 25, 1991, p. 1.

Martha (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Agnes de Mille is a distinguished choreographer known for such Broadway shows as Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945); she is also the author of numerous books on dance. In Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, she turns to the subject of the great modern dance choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991), who created an immense body of masterpieces and single-handedly revitalized the twentieth century stage in America. The book’s narrative ends in 1987, before Graham’s death, but de Mille still manages to trace the essential trajectory of Graham’s life. De Mille’s work serves as a major addition to the shelf of books by and concerning Graham, complementing especially the earlier, slightly more prosaic biography of Graham by Don McDonagh (Martha Graham: A Biography, 1973).

The interest of this book comes to a certain extent from de Mille’s zippy prose style and to a certain extent from the author’s real understanding of the nature of creative turmoil. Most essentially, however, it is created by the inherent power of the story de Mille has chosen to tell. It is both a tragedy and a hymn to greatness, combining an appreciation for the importance of Graham’s work with personal reflections on the price paid in human terms for this achievement, a price paid both by Graham and by those she drew to her. Moreover, for de Mille, these two aspects of Graham’s life are related. She writes: “William Butler Yeats has said that the individual is capable of either great art or great life, but not both.” De Mille frequently refers to Graham as both a goddess and a saint. At the same time, however, she suggests that toward the end of Graham’s life she turned into a witch; de Mille speaks of Graham “riding” the metaphorical broom with which she was cleaning out her company.

De Mille’s particular perspective of interested friend and peripheral actor in many of the happenings she relates makes her uniquely suited to tell this story. A choreographer whose own gifts, she acknowledges freely, never approached those of Graham, de Mille writes that nevertheless at times she felt like a younger sister to Graham, being part of the same dance world, first in California and then in New York. Yet De Mille makes clear that she was never Graham’s confidante. Inevitably, however, the two crossed paths. What de Mille doesn’t know from personal knowledge she fills in with remembrances by others, in some cases quoting at length from letters and published accounts. Nevertheless, the writing and editing are such that the book reads like a seamless account. Through all this, De Mille never denies her own subjective perspective; frequently she qualifies her assessment of someone’s motives or actions by saying that she believed something to be the case or by stating quite bluntly that it is impossible to know how things really were.

Though de Mille makes clear that many such assessments are her own, she is not shy of offering them. This makes for interesting reading. Frequently, these opinions concern the almost uniformly unsuitable husbands of forceful, creative women, including the husband of the modern-dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Graham’s own sometime husband, the dancer and choreographer Erick Hawkins. De Mille’s dislike of the power exercised over the Graham company in later years by Ron Protas, an outsider who ingratiated himself with Graham, is evident, as is her low opinion of the dancer and choreographer Helen Tamiris and of the exhibitionism seemingly rampant among male dancers.

The reader feels that de Mille is entitled to these opinions, being a part of this world herself. Only occasionally does the reader look up from the page after a filled-in, novelistic passage recounting conversations to which de Mille could not possibly have been a party and that one could have repeated to her—as for example between Graham and Hawkins—wondering just how much de Mille has used, or misused, her poetic license. The narrative, consisting largely of fragmentary, anecdotal bits several pages long arranged in loose chronological order and separated by white space in the text, nevertheless has the feel of truth—perhaps because of de Mille’s subtle shading of the central figure so that Graham emerges as one of her own tragic heroines. Reviewers have pointed out occasional inaccuracies in particulars. Aside from such concerns, this biography itself has the feel of inevitability that art can create. Most of it is certainly true, and what isn’t, one thinks, should be.

The Martha Graham de Mille offers is a great romantic artist, suffering for her art, possessed by her muse and oblivious to all more mundane matters. The basic elements of such a life are standard from other biographies of romantic genius: single-minded devotion to art that destroys all minor impediments such as other people, humble beginnings with starvation for the art turning into later years of too-great opulence and honor...

(The entire section is 2041 words.)