Saturday, June 1, 2013

Elizabeth Bishop / Dear Elizabeth

Elizabeth Bishop 

The Art of Poetry 


A Stamp on the Outside, Intimacy on the Inside

‘Dear Elizabeth,’ a Sarah Ruhl Play

Joan Marcus

Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays in “Dear Elizabeth,” the Sarah Ruhl play at the Yale Repertory Theater about the friendship between the writers Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

NEW HAVEN — “I seem to spend my life missing you,” Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, many years after the long and intimate friendship between these two great American poets began. In another letter he sadly observed, “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.”
The geographical distance between them, breached only rarely during their sometimes tumultuous lives, was a deeply felt burden to both — if perhaps occasionally a blessing, too. But it left behind a great literary treasure: more than 400 letters that they exchanged as their careers and lives blossomed, faltered, foundered, almost fell apart, then blossomed anew. The playwright Sarah Ruhl has distilled from their voluminous correspondence a concise selection to create “Dear Elizabeth,” an epistolary play that is having its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theaterhere.
Aside from sparingly used subtitles and a couple of the subjects’ best-known poems, the play consists entirely of writings from the letters. On a simple set suggesting a shared study, the actors Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays read or recite from the correspondence, which begins shortly after the poets’ meeting in 1947 and concludes only with Lowell’s sudden death, from a heart attack in a taxi in 1977.
Occupying a hazy theatrical landscape somewhere between a staged reading, along the lines of A. R. Gurney’s durable “Love Letters,” and a fully staged play — the director, Les Waters, animates the back and forth with some whimsical touches of stagecraft — “Dear Elizabeth” provides a satisfying if ultimately superficial glimpse of a complicated relationship. The result feels a bit like trying to take in a rich, beautiful landscape through a window fogged by frost.
Bishop and Lowell were devoted friends and passionate admirers of each other’s work. Their instant intimacy almost inspired Lowell to propose marriage. Ten years after their first meeting, Lowell confessed in one of the correspondence’s most moving letters, “Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”
And yet it is all but impossible to imagine the two as a happily married pair: Lowell’s turbulent romantic life included three marriages — to the writers Jean Stafford (brief and tempestuous) and Elizabeth Hardwick (long and somewhat less tempestuous) and finally to the writer and British aristocrat Caroline Blackwood. He fought frequent battles with alcoholism and later severe manic depression that landed him in mental hospitals more than once.
Bishop, meanwhile, was a lesbian and a lifelong wanderer. Essentially orphaned (her father died and her mother was institutionalized), she always had trouble putting down roots and never seemed to find a haven in the world for long. (One of the most morbidly funny anecdotes related is the pity Bishop received at the hands of a hairdresser, who upon learning that she was orphaned, said, “Kind of awful ain’t it, plowing through life alone.” ) Among her most celebrated poems is the villanelle “One Art,” recited here, a witty and deeply sad meditation on “the art of losing.”
Through the dizzying highs and lows of their lives, their correspondence was often a steadying rock. Glimmering throughout “Dear Elizabeth” is the sense that despite the occasional disasters that struck them, both individually and occasionally together, they drank deep of the solace that a shared passion for their art and mutual love brought them.
I’d like to report that Ms. Ruhl, Ms. Fisher and Mr. Mays fully capture the mildly gossipy, subtly witty, moving beauty of their rapport, but much about this production struck me as ill conceived. Both of the actors seem miscast, to begin with. Ms. Fisher’s performance is wry, dry and at times too schoolmarmish; although she sheds tears at least once, the shyness and desperate loneliness that haunted Bishop for much of her life never come through. I rarely give thought to recasting, but fantasies of Cherry Jones in the role kept springing to mind.
Mr. Mays is a superb technician — his tour-de-force performance in more than a half-dozen roles in the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” was one of the delights of my theatergoing year — but surface polish is the last thing I wanted from his portrait of Lowell, who comes across in the letters as emotionally reckless but infinitely bighearted. Mr. Mays seems more like an Oxbridge don. Both actors attempt too ardently for my taste to turn the letters into performances. To move and entertain us, the letters simply need to be read with honest feeling and, above all, an understanding of the psychology behind them.
Mr. Waters’s attempts to indicate the dramatic events that sometimes must be read between the lines of the letters are not always felicitous. Lowell’s repeated psychological breakdowns are signaled by having Mr. Mays suddenly slide to the floor — a striking image of the debilitating (and often sudden) nature of his attacks. But having Ms. Fisher crisply remove from the desk a bottle of whiskey and start taking big slugs from it strikes me as a tasteless way to treat the terrible bouts of alcoholism from which she suffered. My heart sank with unease when I heard the (understandable) tittering in the audience.
Ms. Ruhl, who studied poetry before becoming a playwright, obviously has great respect and affection for both writers, and for those unfamiliar with the correspondence (published in 2008 under the title “Words in Air”), “Dear Elizabeth” will surely shed light on both the writers’ emotional and working lives.
Beautiful passages abound. Perhaps my favorite, from Bishop to Lowell, in generous admiration of his recent poems: “They all have that sure feeling, as if you’d been in a stretch when everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry — or not material, seemed to be poetry. If only one could see everything that way all the time. It seems to me it’s the whole purpose of art — that rare feeling of control, illuminating — life is all right.” Then, in a telling phrase that says much about their troubled lives, she adds: “For the time being.”
Dear Elizabeth
By Sarah Ruhl; directed by Les Waters; sets by Adam Rigg; costumes by Maria Hooper; lighting by Russell H. Champa; sound by Bray Poor; projections by Hannah Wasileski; dramaturgy by Amy Boratko; stage manager, Kirstin Hodges; music by Mr. Poor and Jonathan Bell. Presented by Yale Repertory Theater, James Bundy, artistic director; Victoria Nolan, managing director. At the Yale Repertory Theater, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven; (203) 432-1234; Through Dec. 22. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Mary Beth Fisher (Elizabeth Bishop) and Jefferson Mays (Robert Lowell).

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