Theater Review: “Robert Frost: This Verse Business” — Friendly to a Fault
By Jim Kates
The overall effect is one of a genial, superficial club lecture on reading and writing poetry, punctuated by Frost’s Greatest Hits.
Robert Frost: This Verse Business by A.M. Dolan. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players at 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through February 16.
The Peterborough Players have long been acquainted with staging the poems of Robert Frost.
In 1982, reviewing the Players’ production of Donald Hall’s 1965 stage compilation of An Evening’s Frost, I wrote of “the convergence of three New Hampshire institutions.” Hall objected to being called an “institution” and opened an amusing correspondence between us.
In 2010, Gordon Clapp first brought A. M. Dolan’s interpretation of Frost, This Verse Business, to the Players, but I missed reviewing it then. This winter, with its revival, I have my chance.
The play purports to take place in 1961, but the poet on stage flourishes a published copy of his last book, In the Clearing, which didn’t come out until a year later. (Let us fervently hope this was just a mistake in the Peterborough Players program, not in the actual script notes.) I remember vividly when In the Clearing first hit the bookstores and what a shock it was to those who had an avuncular image of Frost, prompting even the Beat poet Gregory Corso to write: “Old bard I like you more / now that I know you’re / no Saturday Evening post philosopher/ Nay but such who plagiarizes God . . .”
It is the blurred, avuncular Frost, the “Saturday Evening Post philosopher,” portrayed in This Verse Business, not the hard-edged, sometimes nasty, and very complicated poet who presumed to lecture Nikita Khrushchev face-to-face on world peace. This was true also of Hall’s presentation of the poems as illustrations of Frost’s biography, but Dolan’s version elides most of the biography, as well, with only half the number of poems. What there is given of the family is sentimentalized and cleaned up — frosting more than Frost. The poet’s relationships with the larger world of poetry are indicated only by one incidental reminiscence of T. S. Eliot and one glancing reference each to Catullus and Keats.
Where An Evening’s Frost used three actors, This Verse Business has Clapp in a monologue for 70 minutes. In spite of director Gus Kaikkonen’s moving Frost from a formal reading to an evocative Vermont farmhouse on a summer night (an uncredited set evocative of the Frost Place in Franconia), the overall effect is one of a genial, superficial club lecture on reading and writing poetry, punctuated by Frost’s Greatest Hits interspersed with some of his snappier epigrams and others chosen more to evoke laughter rather than to represent the poet’s more profound work. The deepest moment comes early, with Clapp’s recitation of “The Death of the Hired Man.”
Those of us who remember Frost’s own readings, or who have listened to his recordings, are relieved to know that Clapp does not attempt to reproduce the poet’s deliberate, cadenced, inimitable voice. When any poet reads his or her own work, no matter how accomplished an actor the writer may be, there is always an undercurrent, a muscle memory at least, of the writing in the reading. This is one of the reasons why we want to listen to the poet, even if he or she does not read well. An actor reads verse differently, and this is often one of the reasons poets themselves like to hear actors read their lines. Clapp reads the poems as scripts, not as poems, trying to make them his own, most apparently and effectively with the intrinsically dramatic “The Death of the Hired Man,” which he does not merely recite, but performs.
The script plays funny tricks with some of the other poems, putting them in conversational settings that make it hard for Clapp to do anything but toss them off. The worst damage is done to “The Pasture,” eight lines with a light touch that are broken into two separate halves by Dolan. Not all Clapp’s skill can stitch the poem together again.
Still, in a poem not included in this production, Frost wrote, “No one can know how glad I am to find / On any sheet the least display of mind.” The same could be said of “any stage.” If This Verse Business introduces a new generation to Frost’s poetry, or if it reminds others to go back to books they may have thought they had left behind, it serves a valuable purpose.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.