Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market

by Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Louisiana State University

Though Christina Rossetti’s powerful 1859 narrative poem Goblin Market might seem an unlikely source for a Broadway hit, Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market opened at New York’s tiny Vineyard Theater on October 17, 1985, starring Terri Klausner and Ann Morrison, to such good reviews that six months later it moved to Circle in the Square (a larger venue in Manhattan) for a successful run. A chamber opera requiring only two singer-actresses and a four-piece orchestra, Goblin Market has enjoyed continual production in both regional and college theaters. Most of the lyrics come almost directly from Rossetti’s luscious and memorable verse. The result is a captivating entertainment that—depending on directorial choices—works for a range of ages. Rossetti’s poem has generated a wide variety of interpretations: a Victorian children’s fairy tale, a metaphor for sexual desire, a Christian allegory, a saga of addiction and recovery, a story of sisterly affection, a representation of incest, a portrayal of prostitution’s ruthless market economy, a psychological investigation into the divided self, a portrayal of anorexia, and a feminist glorification of Sisterhood (with a capital S). In addition to being a work of theater that succeeds on its own, Pen and Harmon’s adaptation to the musical stage provides yet another way to examine Rossetti’s work.

The play is framed by a flashback. Dressed in mourning, the adult Lizzie and Laura return to their girlhood home, entering their old nursery to remember what may be a childhood game or may be something more. Once the frame is established and they have removed their black crinolines to reveal white petticoats and pantaloons, the drama follows the poem’s plot closely: Laura succumbs to the goblins’ tempting fruits and nearly dies; virtuous Lizzie saves her sister by bravely tricking the goblins into yielding the antidote without actually eating the forbidden fruit. Each actress speaks or sings her poetic character’s lines. But because there are only two actresses, each girl also plays the goblins in turn.

The play eliminates most lines that are typically used to support lesbian interpretations of the poem, such as “eat me, drink me, suck my juices / squeezed from goblin fruits for you” (lines 468-9). Unlike the poem, Lizzie brings back the physical fruit to Laura so that no live actors lick juice from the skin of another. But the possibility of a homosexual reading is reinstated through cross-gender performance. When Lizzie plays the goblins, they seduce Laura. Laura in turn plays the goblins throughout their violent assault of Lizzie.

The show’s readily available cast album and libretto work well for class discussion. Among the selections most useful for teaching is “Here They Come,” which is Pen and Harmon’s rendering of the poem’s metaphorical rape scene (lines 340-446): the women chant in disorienting counterpoint, harshly repeating the word “bite” as they rise to a feverish crescendo for an intense experience of how music can fortify poetry. Another song is “The Sisters,” a cheerful tune by Rossetti’s contemporary Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The duet supplies the poem’s sense of the girls’ striking similarity, replacing lines often cited to back a lesbian reading of the poem (“Golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest /. . . Cheek to cheek and breast to breast / Locked together in one nest” (184-198)) with words translated from Brahms: they are “like as like can be, / As eggs are like each other, . . . / Or one star like another, / You can’t tell her from me.” For four verses of the song, the girls sing in harmonious thirds emphasizing their supportive relationship, with Lizzie taking the higher vocal line. In the last verse, the girls’ voices become progressively discordant as they sing new words, “Now who is the loveliest one? / I am, I am, I am, I am, I am!,” with Laura repeatedly trying to get the upper hand as she grabs the higher note. The concluding “I” is sung only one note apart, gratingly. Rossetti’s poem is not often interpreted as about sibling rivalry, but this song humorously helps us to consider that possibility.

Listening to cuts from the show pairs well with looking at illustrations of the poem (beginning with the original wood cuts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti’s brother) to compare visual and musical adaptations with Rossetti’s words.

Discussion Questions:

What is effect of framing the fantasy of Rossetti’s poem in a realistic setting in which grown women return to their childhood home after a funeral? How does providing the sense of an adult world outside the magical nursery space where goblins sell fruit change the how we interpret the story?

In much of the show, Pen and Harmon set Rossetti’s poetry to music almost exactly as Rossetti wrote it, while manipulating the words through repetition, as in “Here They Come.” How does musical embellishment serve as an interpretation of the poem, affecting our understanding of the poetry? In what ways do performance and staging also operate as an interpretation?

Pen and Harmon have written or interpolated some songs that are not based on Rossetti’s poetry. One example is “The Sisters,” emphasizing the girls’ sibling rivalry. How does the addition of these lyrics change our understanding of Lizzie and Laura’s characters? How does it affect their relationship? In what ways does it alter the meaning of the whole poem/play?

Further Reading:

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2002.

Pen, Polly and Peggy Harmon. Goblin Market. Dramatists Play Service. 1985.

Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems. Ed. Betty S. Flowers. London and New York: Penguin, 2001.

Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. “Performing Goblin Market.” Essays on Transgressive Readings:  Reading over the Lines. Ed. Georgia Johnston. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter:  The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997: 121-143.