(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.