Jeffery Conway, Lynn Crosbie & David Trinidad

from Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse

Book 5:

            That Blasted Party

            Margo dons her poisonous gown,
               Mis-stitched with threads of ire.
            She downs her first Martini and
               Descends into the fire.

            The queen Mother stands before her gilded mirror;
            her dressing table overflows with jewels.

            Bill's welcome-home-birthday party . . . a night to go down in history.
            Even before the party started, I could smell disaster in the air . . .

            (Satan's presence signified as an odor)

            Birdie enters: "You all put together?"
            "My back's open." (from Eve's stabbings?)

            As Margo turns around, her
            silk cocktail dress rustles.

 10        Birdie zips it up
            and—"Voilà"—brushes her wings.

            The "snug-waisted, full-skirted, ankle-skimming . . .brown
            gros de Londres" dress was designed by Edith Head

            And on this evening Margo is gros partout: un grosse buveur;
            avec un couer grosse de chagrin: la soiree de les grosses chaleurs.

            Head, who designed exclusively for Davis, is said to have mis-stitched
            the dress, making it far too large; Davis is said to have pulled it from
            her shoulders, rectifying the error.

            This story is highly dubious as Head never made mistakes,
 20        and in the context of the film's narrative at this point, she is
            best viewed as Mulciber,

            The architect of Hell, or Pandemonium, a simulation of Heaven.
            Eve, we will see, is wearing a beautifully fitted black silk dress,
            which clings to her faultless body,

            and is hemmed at the neckline with pure white eyelet.

            Head has clearly made a dress the way Medea did:
            one designed to be unflattering, a painful replication
            of what Margo believes to be, her coarse and aging body.


            She will descend the stairs in this dress, after the little Birdie
 30        tells her that Bill is preoccupied with Eve,

            she will descend deeper, into the sunken living room, fuming.

            Bill has returned from Hollywood as full of himself as ever.
            He regales Eve with a story about looking into the wrong end of a camera,

            blind to the irony that, at this very instant, he continues to "see" incorrectly:
            young, calculating Eve vs. the more mature, "not completely dressed" Margo.

            The obvious prototype for the character of Bill Sampson is Broadway/Hollywood
                  director Elia Kazan.

            In the years just prior to the inception of All About Eve, Kazan was truly

            "the best and most successful young director in the theatre":
            he'd staged a string of critically acclaimed plays: All My Sons (1947), A Streetcar
                  Named Desire
(1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949);

 40        his film version of Streetcar would be released in 1951, the year after All About Eve.
            If Mankiewicz is poking fun, with Bill's pomposity, at Kazan's celebrated brilliance
                  ("Good luck, genius . . ."),

            then it follows that Aged in Wood, All About Eve's "play within a play," is a potshot
            at Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire.

            Williams's drama depicts the downfall of Blanche DuBois, a neurotic, aging
                  southern beauty.
            This corresponds with Margo's so-called "age obsession," though the role

            Margo must play in Aged in Wood is the inverse—
            a woman much younger than herself.

            Here Davis's predicament coincides with Margo's:
            she too must portray, in the play

50         within the play, a younger version of herself, namely
            the role she created in Jezebel twelve years earlier.

            [Tempestuous belle Julie Marsden insists on wearing
            a scarlet dress to the 1850 Olympus Ball, and is shunned.
            As Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda) spins her around the dance floor,
            the white gowns of "decent" girls sashay away]

            Aged in Wood also evokes the movie Gone With the Wind
            (Note, during Margo's curtain call, the black mammy and male slave

            to her right; and later, the columns of the plantation mansion
            painted on the set), which for Vivien Leigh (who starred in both Streetcar

60         and Gone With the Wind) likewise represents an antithesis—
            Scarlett O'Hara being the youthful, free-spirited incarnation of the withering
                  Blanche DuBois.

            (Davis won an Oscar for Jezebel in 1938, the year before Leigh won
            for Gone With the Wind. If Davis had won the Oscar for All About Eve

            in 1950, the year before Leigh won for A Streetcar Named Desire,
            history, for all intents and purposes, would have repeated itself.)

            Margo pauses at the foot of the stairs, listening in.
            Her eyes expand and contract at Eve's demonic laugh.

            She bounds through the door. The culprits conspire
            below, in her smartly furnished living room.

70         Bill smokes, one foot on the large square ottoman:
            his crotch again in Eve's face. For a second, Eve is imprisoned

            behind the bars of the handrail (confirmation, in Margo's eyes, of Eve's guilt?);
            at sight of Margo, she leaps to attention.

            "Don't let me kill the point—or isn't it a story for grown-ups?"

            Margo strikes a majestic pose, looks down on them from the railed landing.

            Even before the other guests arrive, the apartment
            feels claustrophobic, too small for the tumult

            that's about to erupt. It's all closing in:
            Louis XV armchairs, contemporary sofa and lamps,

 80        piano, huge "elephant ear" plant, ornate commode,
            Toulouse-Lautrec portrait, funereal flower arrangements,

            covered candy dishes, silver cigarette boxes and lighters,
            seasoned logs ready to be fed to the roaring fire.

            Showcased on the long marble mantelpiece,
            the altar for the only "personal" bric-a-brac in the room:

                  Margo's Sarah Siddons Award.

            "Remind me to tell you about the time I
            looked into the heart of an artichoke."

            Eve responds cheerily: "I'd like to hear it!"
 90        "Some snowy night in front of the fire."

            Margo's conversation with Birdie about Eve
            studying her "like a play" precipitates Margo's fiery

            Yet the scene in the living room is played for something else:
            not anxiety of influence, artistic tension,
            it is another terror that is enacted—

            Mankiewicz's strongest work with female vanity
            and fear is deployed here, in the form of Margo and Eve,

100       suddenly on the same level (prior to this scene, there is no parity
            between the two women: Margo sits, reclines, a Recamier;
            when she embraces Eve, it is a fleet gesture of fur crossing broadcloth).

            They are dressed the same, presented as symbolic options
            to Bill: youth and age; beauty and its corollary, decay; subservience and adamant will;

            supplication and "the pride of Lucifer."

            All About Eve is prescient in its anticipation of rebirth
            as the dominant female artistic trope of the latter half of the
            twentieth century,

110       eerily prescient in its evocation of almost mechanical means
            of reproduction (Eve as Mad Scientist, or sheep cloner),

            though always tracking back, to the original template:
            the walls of Pandemonium are pure gold, a fair if lack-lustre simulation of Heaven.

            In the "darkness visible" of the subterranean living room,
            Margo asks Eve for a dry martini; as it is she who "will not serve."

            As Margo swoops down the staircase
            from her boudoir

            & then from the landing
120        into the sunken room,

            her shadow on the walls
            grows more pronounced

            & separate

            the lower
            she goes,

            denoting her

            into a shade.

130       She plummets
            from the First Circle,

            or Limbo, to
            the Second,

            "where the Lustful
            are forever buffeted
            by the violent storm":

            "La bufera infernal"
            Bill acts as Minos, judge
            of the underworld,
140       "the connoisseur of sin":

            This ridiculous attempt
            to whip yourself up
            into a jealous froth

            Their quarrel escalates
            as he follows her about

            the room. She checks
            cigarette boxes & flicks

            lighters: smoke & fire,
            her artillery here,

150        in Inferno,
            devoid of power.

            It is Bill who blows
            smoke into her face:

            "l'aere maligno"

            The air between
            them malignant.

            Margo avoids Bill's stare,
                  considers chocolate to consume

            from a chalice, but dare
160            not glutton her waist-size abloom

            with Eve so young, so fair
                  in Margo's taunting mirror-tomb.

            Headstrong and unaware
                  a gruesome tri-tongued monster looms

            in sodden filth down there,
                  Margo swan dives into the flume:

            Third Circle—the mire where
                  ravenous Cerberus, for whom

            live flesh is standard fare,
170             waits "fangs a-gloat" in doleful doom.

            With qualities so rare,
                  Eve is indicted and presumed

            innocent: Bill declares
                  the "stage-struck kid" has not assumed

            teeth sharp enough to tear
                  through their society's barroom,

            Benzedrine, cutthroat lair.
                  Margo bites a cordial, resumes—

            bulgy eyeballs a-glare,
180             neck veins alto-relievo—to fume:

            "Cut! Print it! What happens in the next reel?"

            Mankiewicz substituted the chocolates in the bowl
            with little squares of gingerbread,
            Davis was to act as though she was consumed with
            temptation, and disliked chocolate.

            Margo's frenzied indecision and ultimate indulgence
            a nice piece of "business"; and very good

            metaphorical collapse. Her faith and will suspended;
            Bill, nominally, asserts this virtue,

190       and simultaneously urges her to lapse further, doubling
            Addison: chocolate, gingerbread, things are not what they seem.

            Eve materializes, as sugary as the "chocolate" Margo chews & chews.
            Bill gallantly offers to fetch Margo's drink.

            To Eve: "What'll you have?"
            Margo: "A milkshake?"

            "A Martini, very dry, please."
            (i.e., I'll have what she's having—you)

            Eve's eyes follow him out of the room.
            Laughing guests rescue her from Margo's wrath.

200       Margo who now rises like "the aged dragon of darkness"
            from her "earth-cave," "in a ball / of flame,
            burning for vengeance."

            She greets Karen, Lloyd & Max at the top of the stairs.
            Karen removes her mink, revealing a frock befitting a Gk. goddess.

            Max wipes his forehead with a hankie: It's hot in here!
            When Lloyd compliments Eve, "the seething dragon"

            breathes forth fire: a blast of cigarette smoke hits him straight
            in the face.

                                                            "Miss D. Smokes"
210                                                   (a poem within a poem)

            She gave her Baby Jane cackle, then quieted down, leaned forward, and
            lighted an unfiltered Philip Morris cigarette by striking a kitchen match under the                     table.
            She snubbed out her cigarette, rose, and paced back and forth, then
            stopped in front of me, cleaned my ashtray, and squinted her eyes.
            She snubbed out her cigarette.
            She puffed for a long moment.
            She lighted a cigarette, striking the match under the table again, then went on
            earnestly, without a trace of bitterness.
            Over another scotch Miss D. lit another Philip Morris.
            She fiddled with the cigarette.
220       She lighted another Philip Morris.
            She waved a cigarette.
            She lighted a cigarette.
            She lighted a cigarette and blew the smoke to the ceiling.
            She hurriedly lighted a cigarette, eager to explain.
            She was trying to cut down on smoking and snubbed out her cigarette in a large tray.
            Bette rolled her eyes to the ceiling and reached for a cigarette.
            She lighted a Philip Morris from a pale blue Bic that matched her dress.
            She had given up kitchen matches when one had flipped out of her hand and caught
                  a sofa pillow on fire.
            She lighted up, then laughed.

230                                                [end of "Miss D. Smokes"]

            The three join Margo, sinking into the room
            with shadows intact, only to become shades
            themselves in this "shifting phantasmagory."

            Five stairs down (Fifth Circle: The Wrathful,
            Sins of Fraud, Ill-Doing. Watch your step, please
            Max and Margo smoke, two flickering points of flame,

            as a blaze rages in the fireplace behind them.
            Margo's exegesis of her hypothetical death
            prompts Max to ponder his own mortality:

240       "I ain't goink to drop dead. Not with the heet."

            The "ghoulish" conversation is interrupted by Bill's
            return. He hands Margo her drink, but Junior is upstairs,
            so he offers the other to Karen: "You're a Gibson Girl."

            (Drink ordered: Martini—1 1/2 oz. Gin or Vodka, 1/2 oz. Vermouth.
            Stir over ice & serve on the rocks or up. Garnish with a spear of olives.
            For a dry martini, omit Vermouth & garnish with a twist of lemon.
            Drink Served: Gibson—1 1/2 oz. Gin or Vodka, 1/2 oz. Vermouth.
            Stir over ice & serve on the rocks or up. Garnish with a spear of
            cocktail onions. Omit Vermouth if ordered dry.)

250       Bill's little "mix-up" is anything but—Margo is no longer
            the fairest of them all. Her drink comes neither with an olive
            nor a lemon (à la Byron), but rather with an onion.

            "The general atmosphere is very Macbethish—
            what has or is about to happen?"

            It is Lloyd, the playwright, who says "Macbethish," an amazing statement
            given the superstition of theatre people about this play.

            The Tartans or Scottish Play being the preferred euphemisms,
            used to ward off disaster backstage.

            Although the players are now gathered outside of the theatre,
260       Shakespeare maintains that all the world's a stage.

            Margo breaks from the group and slowly begins to walk away
            and ascend the stairs; pausing, she turns her head:

            "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

            ("And please make sure all carry-on luggage is safely stored
                    under the
            Seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment.")

            These unforgettable words, Margo's flight warning, call to mind
            Earlier designation of plane/airport as danger site, as well as Bill's

            Nighttime trip to the west coast, a literal departure rather than, at this incipiently camp
            Yet pivotal juncture, the metaphorical journey Margo undertakes: i.e., the boarding
270       Of the boat that will transport her across the melancholy
            Underworld stream "that bears the name of Styx."

            Rough weather ahead—
            Stormy, in fact.

            Each Martini that Margo tosses off is 2 oz. skimmed from
            Another Plutonian channel: Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

            That Bill "can always get a fresh one" (he meant drink,
            But Margo heard otherwise) is the painful knowledge she wishes to
            Erase. But it is her former existence (young self) she must shed in the black waters of
            Lethe in order to proceed as a "fulfilled woman."

280       "The fading fragrance of the dying rose" is how Baudelaire
            Said it. Perhaps this is the disaster that scents the air?

            Lifting her dress with the cigarette-less hand,
            Margo takes wing to the landing, where firstcomers hover

            like moths to her fame, only to brush them off
            with a stagy wave, "enchanté to you too!"

            She scoops another drink from a passing tray,
            is met by Addison De Witt, whom she distinctly remembers

            striking from her guest list. And what's this? Rising up
            behind him, Aphrodite in a white (bunny?) fur:

290            "The breath of the west wind bore her
                Over the sounding sea,
                Up from the delicate foam . . .

            Addison inflicts a biting remark—"Dear Margo, you were
            an unforgettable Peter Pan, you must play it again soon"

            (his venom throbs through her age-obsessed veins, which long for Never Land).
            He introduces Miss Claudia Caswell, his protégée-of-the-moment, a graduate
                  of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts.

            She is "clad in raiment immortal," a radiant white evening gown,
            with two seashells of gathered fabric covering her ample breasts,
            and silk flowers dripping from her petite ceinture;

300       both a "soft, weak creature" and a "Beautiful, golden goddess"
            (of Love and Beauty). Our eyes leave her only for the entrance

            of Eve, who descends, one hand sliding along the banister:
            "Good evening, Mr. De Witt." Addison (the son of Adam)

            devours her with "two eyes full of poison." At long last,
            their formal introduction. Until now, they'd only met

            in (allegorical) passing: "Thus Eve gave birth.
            In this unnatural act / she gave birth to a rat."

            Addison points Miss Caswell in the direction of Max F.,
            an unhappy rabbit, then lays her wrap over Margo's arm


       before taking Eve's and leading her off into the Inferno.
            Margo presents the pelt to Birdie and raises her glass:


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