If you look up Hilda Doolittle on Wikipedia, in the very first sentence you’ll learn that she was “associated with the early 20th century avant-garde Imagist group of poets, including Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington”. But Doolittle – or H.D. – was a poet and novelist in her own right, so why is it that most of us know her now more by the men she was linked to than by her own name, story or work?
This is a wrong that Beatrice Vincent sets out to correct in her new monologue, Before I Am Lost. The play introduces us to Hilda at her most vulnerable, trapped in both literal and metaphorical confinement as she prepares for the imminent birth of her daughter. Frightened and alone, but also angry and defiant, and with nothing else to occupy her, she opens up to her unborn child about their current circumstances and how they got here: her past and present relationships with both men and women, the devastating impact of World War I on what had until then been a loving marriage, and the subsequent affair that led to her pregnancy and abandonment. Slowly a picture emerges, of a passionate, intelligent woman at a pivotal moment – the moment she realises not just to what extent her life so far has been designed and directed by men, but also that it doesn’t necessarily have to continue that way, either for her or her daughter.
Beatrice Vincent gives a beautiful performance, walking a tightrope of emotion with captivating precision throughout the hour-long play. One moment she’s playful, the next bitterly sarcastic; she claims not to want her child and yet addresses her bump with obvious affection; after one furious outburst as she recalls her husband’s affair, she regains her composure with an apologetic, “Sorry, that was embarrassing”. The result is a portrayal that feels very authentic – despite her obvious respect for Doolittle as both a woman and a poet, Vincent avoids the temptation to paint her as wholly admirable, and in doing so makes her much more sympathetic and relatable than any gushing tribute could have done.
Directed by Ross McGregor, the production captures the intimacy of the scene between mother and unborn child, bringing in secondary characters only as voiceovers and thus ensuring that closeness is never interrupted. Just as Doolittle appears so often as little more than a footnote in the stories of others, here the tables are turned to show us these well-known literary figures through her eyes, and it’s a view that’s affectionate but not always flattering. Meanwhile her own writing career is generally more alluded to than openly discussed, through the script’s poetic use of language and literary quotes (of which I’m sure there are many more than I managed to pick up in a single sitting) and references to the classical heroines who featured so prominently in her writing.
You won’t learn everything about Hilda Doolittle’s life from watching Before I Am Lost – we don’t even find out if her fearful prediction that she’ll die in childbirth is accurate. But the play is an excellent first step towards (re)introducing the world to a writer and a woman who deserves to be known as more than a lover, or wife, or friend, of That Famous Man. Hilda Doolittle had her own story to tell, and if this brief snapshot is anything to go by, it’s one that’s well worth hearing.
Before I Am Lost is at Etcetera Theatre until 20th August.