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ALEX BEAM

The death, and rebirth, of Sylvia Plath

If she had lived, Sylvia Plath would be 71 years old next month. Who might she be? I envision an attractive, gray-haired litteratrice in residence at, say, Bard College. The ultimate acolyte in her youth, now she would be a patient mentor to young writers, with a Pulitzer Prize, two ex-husbands, and a poet laureateship behind her. I see her as a Sibyl type, well shot of men, lobbing an occasional grandstand contribution into the New York or London Review of Books.

But Plath is not alive. She died by her own hand, gassing herself in a London apartment in 1963 in the grips of a bitter depression. Savvy career move, opined her friend, rival, and fellow Wellesley townswoman Anne Sexton. Because instead of whiling out her days as a Pretty Good Poet, Plath became Woman, Interrupted, an object of fascination for those interested in breeding, marriage, womanhood, brains, feminism, poetry, or any combination thereof.

Inevitably, Plath is back for another star turn.

Just as Paul Alexander's one-woman Plath play, ``Edge,'' winds down its off-Broadway run at the end of this month, yet another dissection of Plath's unfortunate marriage to the late British poet Ted Hughes - ``Her Husband'' by Diane Middlebrook - will hit the bookstores. More or less simultaneously with the book's appearance comes the Main Event: Gwyneth Paltrow starring in the title role of ``Sylvia,'' a British Broadcasting Corporation movie scheduled for release in early October.

I caught ``Edge,'' Alexander's cleverly written and staged one-woman vehicle for Angelica Torn, the daughter of actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page, during a recent visit to New York. It's enviable in many senses; Alexander (like Middlebrook, a good enough friend to merit a disclosure) is smart to have seen the commercial potential of this confessional material. It looks ready for a London run, where it will attract plenty of attention.

The hook that baits the plot line in ``Edge,'' and in almost all of the novels, memoirs, and literary flotsam about the pride of Elmwood Road in Wellesley is: Who Killed Sylvia Plath? Alexander has a ready answer, an answer that several critics have knocked for being too glib. ``Edge'' - recycling the analysis in Alexander's 1991 Plath biography, ``Rough Magic'' - maintains that Plath married a carbon copy of her tyrannical father, and that the choice killed her. Torn sends the audience into the play's only intermission with this sarcastic outburst about Hughes: ``This Nazi, this monster, this bastard - I'll marry him!''

Hughes has been a handy punching bag for the 40 years since Plath's death, and with good reason. He was waist-deep in a very public affair with a literary beauty when Plath killed herself. (He was waist deep in a similar affair when the woman for whom he left Plath killed herself, a detail Middlebrook seems to gloss over in her book.) Hughes notoriously destroyed Plath's notebook documenting the final months of her life, and - inconveniently for his reputation, but conveniently for his pocketbook - his wife's death made him rich. Her coming-of-age novel, ``The Bell Jar,'' and her final collection of poems, ``Ariel,'' sold like hot cakes after her grisly suicide.

Plathomanes have been looking forward to Middlebrook's book, hoping that the author who dispassionately charted the hills and valleys of Sexton's tumultuous career in the 1991 ``Anne Sexton: A Biography'' would bring some order to the roiled world of Hughes-Plath storytelling.

(At poetry readings, Hughes would sometimes face protesters waving signs that read: ``You Killed Sylvia!'' Histrionically - and understandably - Plath's daughter Frieda, a poet, has accused the BBC of profiteering on her mother's grave. Alluding to the producers' request to quote from her mother's poems, she wrote: ``they think / I should give them my mother's words / To fill the mouth of their monster / Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.'')

Middlebrook doesn't believe that Hughes killed Sylvia, and neither do I. Plath had made one previous, serious attempt at killing herself, when she was an undergraduate at Smith College. Plath was ambitious, capable of brilliance, and she was mentally ill, exhibiting manic highs and searing, depressive lows. ``Depression killed Sylvia Plath,'' Middlebrook concludes.

Now the question is whether anyone will believe her.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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