Martha Graham: The Drunken Downfall to Depression

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This paper will explore the hidden narrative of the life of Martha Graham and the events that led her to her hospitalization after she tried to commit suicide. Exploring her relationships, career and personal life to understand her depression and her poor choices that led her to alcoholism. Dear Diary, today I woke from a coma. As I opened my eyes, I lay in an unfamiliar hospital bed thinking about the events that have led me here and why I am willing my last breath to arrive. I remember there was a time in my life when I used to say ‘The body never lies’ (Brainy Quote, 2019). Maybe now it is time I start to listen to my own words as well as everyone else’s. I pride myself on having such a regimented career but look how I have ended up. I drink to drown my sorrows, cry to relieve the pain and sleep to forget my memories. How different are my public and private faces? I would create works of art the ‘works confronted emotions that everyone felt: jealousy, fear, guilt, anxiety, self-doubt’ (Au, 1988, p. 123). I just never thought that I would feel all emotions at once whilst standing still.

I would stand up feeling hollow thinking what is the point realising, that this world of art and expression is so beautiful yet so deceiving. Realising that “To be [an artist] we have to be vulnerable, we have to give of ourselves, hugely, we have to allow ourselves to feel an array of emotions – some of them good, some of them really difficult,” (Harmon, 2019). Drinking until my body felt numb of feeling and emotion, the opposite of what I had prided myself on teaching, The art of expression through dance. I had lost all hope in myself and thought that I couldn’t do anything right. What I could do was unscrew the bottle and have my emotions sink away under the burning sensation of alcohol.

When people left my company it almost felt as if they were leaving me. I taught the most amazing dancers, some of which would go on to say that their time in the company were ‘six wonderful, hideous, bewitching, boring, tickling, vivid years’ (Brown, Mindlin, & Woodford, 1998, p. 123). I would reflect on why they left, and I never thought that putting my love and happiness first would affect my company. Louis Horst a dear friend and someone I considered to be in my life for a long time left me. He thought that I was using Erick’s creative input over his, we used to clash openly, resulting in the disruption of the atmosphere in the company. Slapping me and shouting, “Get on with this you bitch, stop your nonsense”. (Agnes De Mille in Martha Graham Documentary).

Erick felt like a breath of fresh air compared to my previous relationship with Louis. Louis’s striking looks and exceptional ways attracted me to him, it was as if I had seen love at first sight. He without a doubt was” a king in bed” (Mille, 1992, p.195), but I realised that he never made me truly happy. He didn’t want marriage, but when I look back neither did I. I was so engaged in my work, I wanted to succeed and be the best version of myself that I could be. Looking back, I would say that “we weren’t lovers, we were partners” (Mille, 1992, p.198). After a while of never knowing where I stood with Louis, I knew that we could never be together, he would never break his marriage for me, and I wasn’t the only woman in his life or his bed for that matter. Erick, A beautiful, caring and kind man that stole my heart the only man that ever truly did. I miss him greatly, I always have. ‘After eight years of living together, Erik decided we should marry. I didn’t want to, but I did. During that ninth year it all fell apart. It shows. Never try to hold on to anything.’ (, 2019). Choreographing the most amazing pieces about love and emotion with the man I loved was wonderful. Suddenly to become a spiralling decline to depression. I couldn’t bear to watch my dancers, portray the roles of me and Erick. Memories came flooding back I couldn’t handle it, so I thought that it was easier to teach drunk. I couldn’t remember the rehearsals, the smell of potent gin invading the air is all I could remember.

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I thought that Erick was the most amazing man to ever walk in my life. It appeared that after he left, he did not feel the same way. After Erick left me, I read articles that would portray me as a monster. Erick saying “in terms of her ego she always had to create tremendous drama around herself. I almost didn’t survive Martha Graham. It really is a tribute to one’s talent that one could transcend all that and still come out strong” (Tracy, 1996, p. 69). It broke me. I could never take a break from work. I could never stop doing what I loved, I just needed someone else to understand that. No one ever did. I could never have child to have responsibility over or take the attention from work away, it still breaks my heart thinking about it, but I needed someone who only wanted me as that is all I had to give.

I knew that the decline of me and my career was closing in when people started to write reviews stating, “I imagine Graham was already a bit exhausted, when alcoholism began to impede her ability to choreograph, Graham underwent a precipitous decline that began to show its effects within Phaedra in 1962”. (Franko, 2012, p. 111). It was almost as clear as neat vodka that I wasn’t well and that I wasn’t creating astounding works of art but depressing and displeasing work. Choreography became blurry and so did my future in the profession. During the period of my life that I was incapable of spending longer than twenty-four hours without alcohol, I came to a realisation that very limited people offered help. Maybe it was because I was hiding my emotions behind the stern face that greeted people whatever I was feeling that day. I never let people in, I was too scared.

Reflecting on my teaching, I understand that I had unusual ways of teaching. I knew that I was violent, and I could get angry. But I was a perfectionist everything needed to look right. I admit that I didn’t like seeing women come into the company that were better than me. I wanted to forever be untouchable. I “was still trying to out-dance them” (Tracy, 1996, p. 148), pathetic I know but I still wanted to be the best at everything, especially dancing within my own company.

I didn’t know what to do with myself once I had retired from dancing. Other than drinking and over thinking. Watching my dancers was heart wrenching. As much I wanted them to succeed, I was forever wishing it was me dancing. My body was burning with jealously. I had soon realised that when I had retired from dancing and started focusing more on teaching my art, that dance to me was as addictive as alcohol if not more. Dance was my drug and I was forever craving it. Once it had been taking away from me, I was lost. Dance brought me many happy memories, it was my safe place, my escape, my everything and I still turned to alcohol to drown everything out.

After all of this I found myself drunk, not knowing what day it was, wanting to die. I would lock myself in my apartment, not caring about the success of my dancers or my own company. I had lost all hope. I had ruined myself because of alcohol, staggering around, embarrassing myself and wondering if I was worthy enough. I couldn’t carry on this way I knew how to escape this feeling. I used to say, “Die while you are still beautiful, it’s better than sitting around here waiting for imminent death” (Mille, 1992, p. 370). Then I tried to escape… a vivid memory, one I never want to re live. Maybe I wasn’t ready leave this world of art and expression. I was to carry on, creating art work and changing the world of modern dance. I always wanted to be a legacy, but if I knew what was to come along the way, maybe things would have been different.

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