Theater Interview: Wordsmiths Strike Back — The Poets’ Theatre Redux

The theatre has a poetry of its own, but the engine of masterful language is seldom a principal feature. We intend to stage work by all the living American poets we can lure into our sphere: starting right here in Cambridge.

Dylan Thomas rehersing for a Poets' Theatre performance.

Dylan Thomas rehearsing for a Poets’ Theatre performance.

By Bill Marx

Given that not only our audiences but dramatists appear to be convinced that the stage is primarily about serving up familiar images rather than original language (i.e. the increasing number of theater productions based on films), it is about time words struck back. And who better to lead the charge than poets who are interested in stepping into the spotlight?

After a hiatus of over a decade, the venerable Cambridge-based organization The Poets’ Theatre returns this month, reasserting its commitment to the enduring power of verse and performance. The organization was started up in 1950 by such literary heavy hitters as Dylan Thomas, Mary Manning, Edward Gorey, William Carlos Williams, Alison Lurie, and Thornton Wilder. Over the years, an impressive list of dramatists presented their work under its auspices: William Alfred, John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Brodsky, Richard Eberhart, Donald Hall, James Merrill, Frank O’Hara, Dylan Thomas, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Richard Wilbur, among others. An equally august group of actors lined-up to wrap their tongues around the words: among the headliners — Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard Channing, Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, Wallace Shawn, Cherry Jones, and Irene Worth.

Artistic Director Robert Scanlan, Producing Artistic Director Ben Evett, and Literary Director David Gillette are re-launching The Poets’ Theatre with an event (on September 14th at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre) that is very much in the organization’s hallowed spirit — a staged reading of Dylan Thomas’s 1954 drama Under Milk Wood that features a cast that includes, among others, Cherry Jones, Alvin Epstein, and Thomas Derrah and Karen MacDonald. Future offerings in the works: a solo performance piece based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” written by Matthew Spangler and Evett, and a stage version of Cambridge poet Martha Collins’s Blue Front, “a powerful poetic collage about her own father’s witness of a lynching in Cairo, Illinois in 1909.”

I talked to Artistic Director Scanlan, who is also the Professor of the Practice of Theatre at Harvard University, about why the organization went into hibernation, whether poets are still interested in the theater, and what he hopes to accomplish with the rebirth of the Poets’ Theatre.

Arts Fuse: There are more theater companies and productions in the Boston area than ever before. Why bring The Poets’ Theatre back now?

Robert Scanlan: Because the newly vibrant and populous Boston Theatre scene is the best arts environment (especially for theatre) in my lifetime. Going to the theatre makes theatre-going more popular, not necessarily more risky or unwise. Only from a purely “business” point of view can a crowded field seem like a drawback. Actors have been enthusiastic about our return and audiences follow actors. Poets need more public exposure, too… more “soundings” of their music wed to sense. On the page, the music is muted. Spoken (especially by good performers) the poetry comes fully into its own, sense and music fused in “personation.”

AF: What were the reasons for The Poets’ Theatre inactivity for a decade?

Scanlan: Two factors: the death of the incomparable Molly Howe (Adams), and my own resignation as President, followed by my distraction in the English Department at Harvard. I did seven “Poet’s Theatre” stagings for the Unterberg Poetry Center in New York during this period, so in essence I did not stop doing Poets’ Theatre, just moved my work life to New York, for some reason. I loved working for that organization, and intend the revived Cambridge Theatre to continue a close collaboration with the 92nd St Y.

AF: What made this rebirth possible? How important are the links with the 92nd Street Y in New York City?

Scanlan: The enthusiasm and expertise of actor Ben Evett, plus my own need to be active in the Boston Theatre scene again. Ben’s the dynamo behind this revival. Poets also drove this rebirth; Jorie Graham’s astonishing “Harvard Poets” program during one of our recent Harvard anniversaries made us talk seriously about reviving the Poets’ Theatre. Her outstanding students memorized all the poems they presented. They responsibility they felt to “their” poet (under Jorie’s tutelage) generated performances that were as good, if not better, than what many actors could do. Poetry is a serious commitment, and its results (poems) precious cultural treasure. Jorie and Peter Sacks and Helen Vendler had a lot to do with my determination to revive our theatre. The late Seamus Heaney was also slated to be part of it… other poets: Fred Marchant, David Ferry, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, Martha Collins, George Kalogeris, and Ben Mazer. All prompted me to proceed.

AF: Why a staged reading of Under Milk Wood for your opening production? Wouldn’t a full production make a bigger splash?

Scanlan: Under Milk Wood for two main reasons: the play and Thomas himself were one of the earliest triumphs of the theatre in its first incarnation in the early 1950s. The twin readings by Thomas, at Harvard and soon after at the 92nd St Y in New York, really launched our sister organizations. It also happens to be the Dylan Thomas centennial.

A full staging is not now permitted, because exclusive staging rights have been granted to an English/Welsh production company during this centennial year. Their full staging is coming to America next year, and our simple one-time reading has been authorized by them as a gesture of solidarity and a courtesy among devotees of Dylan Thomas. Their production is superb, I am told, and our stage reading/concert version will whet appetites for their work when they come next year to America.

We do intend to stage fuller theatre events as our main mission. This is our launch, and it has sentimental historical roots here in Cambridge.

AF: The founders of The Poets’ Theatre assumed that American poets are interested in the theater. Is that still true? Which important poets writing for the stage today can you can point to?

Scanlan: The original founders were reacting against commercialized Broadway theatre fare, and felt that the theatrical potential of great poetry was being driven into obscurity by a crass theatre culture that discouraged poets. Dylan Thomas gave a stunning example of our possibilities (another reason to re-boot with his work), but William Alfred followed (with Agamemnon and Hogan’s Goat) and Richard Wilbur revolutionized Moliere in English, and worked with Lillian Hellman on Candide. The Poets’ Theatre was intended to encourage poets to compose for the stage. That remained our main objective during the 80s and 90s, when Liz Shannon and I were, one after the other, presidents, and when original founder Mary Manning Howe was our presiding genius. Seamus Heaney took up translations of Sophocles, and many strong poets responded to our urgings: Derek Walcott, Tom Sleigh, Rosanna Warren.

But poets tended to venture onto the stage by means of translation more than by attempting original plays. Our renewed mission is to feature language and make our theatre a place that welcomes poets by giving a full voice to their work. The theatre has a poetry of its own, but the engine of masterful language is seldom a principal feature. All our affiliated poets would love to find their way onto the stage. We want to put our collective theatre expertise at their service. We intend to stage work by all the living American poets we can lure into our sphere: starting right here in Cambridge with Jorie Graham, Peter Sacks, David Ferry, Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Louise Gluck, Gail Mazur, Martha Collins, Fred Marchant, George Kalogeris, Eamon Grennan, Karl Kirchwey, Rosanna Warren, Marcia Karp, Josh Bell, Andrew Sofer, Daniel Tobin, Aafa Michael Weaver, Dan Chiasson, and Paul Muldoon. I mention only those who have already responded. No poet I have ever met is not interested in the theatre’s becoming a viable extension for their work. In some instances we find ways to stage their existing work, in others (our best case scenario) we develop a distinguished play with the chosen poet. Heaney and I made serious inroads into figuring out why there is a clash of cultures between contemporary poets and current theatre standards and practices. A serious culture would alter both worlds and work to unite them.

AF: Talk about your interest in drama and translation: Will the plays you choose go beyond the usual line-up of European countries? For example, few dramas from Africa or Asia have been staged professionally in Boston.

Robert Scanlan --

The Poets’s Theatre’s Robert Scanlan — “Caving into craven standards is bad marketing, in the long run.”

Scanlan: As long as language has a pre-eminent place in the script/performance, then we consider it a Poets’ Theatre project. Geographical diversity and translation are intertwined in our current so-called “global” culture, and David Gullette, our Literary Director, with his fluency in Italian and Spanish, and his extensive connections with South and Central America has already suggested we range there… I am interested in Francophone and colonial literature, and Arab, Asian, African poetry is definitely on our agenda. One event we have already committed to in this season is an evening surveying African-American Poetry, and we mean a wide survey, not just current and twentieth-century. My “Poetry in Translation” evening will feature the performance of translated poems in their original languages: Vietnamese, Spanish, Anglo-Saxon, Greek (modern and ancient) by expert speakers, followed by their renderings into English. It will be a highly musical event.

AF: An exasperated artistic director of a Boston theater company recently told me that today’s audiences — steeped in the visuals of Hollywood movies and TV programs — are impatient with words. Do you agree?

Scanlan: That may be true, in the same way that it is true that McDonald’s “competes” with fine dining, but we intend to show how limited that common view is, to create new tastes for language by performing memorably. Marketing departments, if they use business survey techniques, invariably kill serious culture. “Popular” taste, if it is uneducated, is like a sweet tooth, or a craving for salt. That appetite may indeed temporarily pre-empt fine cuisine and its appreciation, but fine cuisine finally prevails if it is available. The taste for fine cuisine was rare and “elitist” in America when the Poets’ Theatre was first conceived. That taste is now widespread and has a huge “market.” Caving into craven standards is bad marketing, in the long run.

And, by the way, that old saw about TV and Hollywood has its obvious truth (if you stick to the Oprah Winfrey level of the media), but it is a bad misrepresentation of rising artistry and ambition in those media as well. There are fine writers in both media, and they would be inspired by a Poets’ Theatre. Shakespeare is still the single most-produced playwright of our time… by far. Quality poetry trumps a lot of popular crap.

And there is a dimension of visual poetry that I would like to see wedded to acoustic sophistication. Lyrical film technique is called “lyrical” for reasons that should be aligned with lyric poetry. Our hunch is that there really is a large public, not a small one, that is starved and frustrated by the crude blandishments of “successful” marketing and “shows” that pander to the salt/sugar response. I want to enlist that artistic director, and give him hope, and hand him an improved audience base.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Shelley on September 9, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Yes. Poetry deserves something better than slams.

  2. Gerald Peary on September 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    I hope you’ve contacted the superb Cambridge poet, David Rivard, for participation in your very exciting project.

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