Whether or not you’re familiar with Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell, their worlds or their poetry, you should hasten to this show.
Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by A. Nora Long. Produced by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, 2nd floor, Boston, MA, through November 9.
By Helen Epstein
“It’s difficult to write about friendship,” Sarah Ruhl writes in the foreword to her play Dear Elizabeth, which is based on the 470 letters and many poems that the two American poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, wrote to each other between 1947 and 1977, when Lowell died. “Our culture is inundated with the story of romantic love. We understand how romantic love begins, how it ends. We don’t understand, in neat narrative fashion, how friendship begins, how it endures.”
I am one of Ruhl’s many fans, having seen her quite different plays, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, and Eurydice. Her work marries a quirky and inventive contemporary sensibility to a strong sense of theatrical form. I looked forward to how Ruhl would make a play out of the 30-year-long 20th-century correspondence between two brilliant and difficult people who met infrequently, but who wrote one another the most candid of letters. And I was interested to note that she had not included any words of her own, but had worked exclusively from those of the poets.
I had expected a spare, conventional set, two native New Englanders at wooden desks in bare work spaces, but, characteristically, Ruhl has imagined a production whose zany stage directions in many ways challenge the capacities of director and design. We rarely see the two poets engaged in the act of writing—whether by hand or by typewriter. Instead, we’re drawn into the minds and words of a fascinating man and woman as they travel up and down the Eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida, to Europe and South America, engaged in an ongoing and intense conversation. We are oriented in time and place by a series of supertitles in old typewriter font projected onto the stage floor and walls. We are so engaged by the friendship unfolding before our eyes that we barely realize that 30 years and (including intermission) two hours go by.
“Dear Mr. Lowell,” Elizabeth Bishop begins the correspondence (and, in this production, the always intriguing conversation) on May 12, 1947 after they’ve met at a party given by a fellow poet.
I just wanted to say that I think it is wonderful you have received all the awards; the Guggenheim, the Pulitzer, and—I guess I’ll just call them 1, 2 & 3… Maybe if you’re still in town you would come to see me sometime, I should like to see you very much, or just write me a note if you’d rather…
This bold and irreverent invitation to a man six years younger than herself sparks our fascination with an unconventional woman who combines great reserve and formality in her poems with an adventuresome, sometimes impetuous temperament. I found Laura Latreille’s nuanced performance utterly absorbing as she portrays Bishop drawn first to Lowell and then head over heels in love with the Brazilian architect Carlota de Macedo Soares, with whom she lived until her lover’s suicide.
Ed Hoopman is similarly convincing and subtle as Lowell, who was married three times and, unlike Bishop, an explicitly confessional poet.
The two of them write about everything to one another: bits of literary gossip; Bishop’s trials with her hairdresser; colleagues at the writer’s colony of Yaddo; loneliness and solitude; drinking; psychotherapy; the ethics of mixing fact and fiction in poetry. They wrote one another in the best of times and the worst of times—during fallow periods in their work, amid divorce, deaths, and births.
They even have fun writing blunt doggerel:
“Thirty-one and nothing done,” (Lowell)
“Thirty-seven and far from heaven,” (Bishop)
But the pair also produce deeply moving lines of love, as when Lowell looks back at a moment in their lives when he might have asked Bishop to marry him and writes, “Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”
Perhaps it’s the chemistry between two such different personalities that allows for the startling emotional candor between these two poets. Perhaps it’s the physical distance between them for most of 30 years. Perhaps it’s the affinity between two artists who both struggle with sexuality, intimacy, and mental illness, and self-medicate with alcohol. Whatever it is, such frankness is as rare in life as it is onstage and a privilege to witness.
Director A. Nora Long has provided Boston audiences with a mostly wonderful production, though I was confused by the set, which, to me, evoked a dilapidated antique store or perhaps a musty poet’s garret, including a large and distracting 19th-century gramophone out of sync with the actual time period. Other innovations provided by the design team were ingenious, especially the way memory was evoked through images of water and sand.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell, their worlds or their poetry, you should hasten to this show. You will be drawn into a rich and satisfying celebration of love, friendship, and literary art.
Helen Epstein is the author of six books of non-fiction, including Children of the Holocaust; Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History; a collection of profiles of musicians; and a biography of Joe Papp. All are published as ebooks by Plunkett Lake Press.