By Sarah Ruhl
A play in letters
From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell
And back again
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Roda Theatre
May 24–July 7, 2013
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters, acclaimed collaborators who created Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and Three Sisters, return to Berkeley Rep with another tale of love and longing. Dear Elizabeth follows the beautiful and bittersweet friendship between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Across oceans and continents, across three decades, these esteemed poets found a true marriage of minds in their eloquent correspondence. Dubbed the Dickinson and Whitman of the 20th century, they traded hundreds of vibrant, witty and passionate letters that now spring to life on stage. This West Coast premiere paints an intimate portrait of two extraordinary—and quite ordinary—lives, told anew by two of the finest artists of our time.
Sarah Ruhl · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic Design
Maria Hooper · Costume Design
Russell Champa · Lighting Design
Bray Poor · Original Music / Sound Design
Jonathan Bell · Original Music
Hannah Wasileski · Projection Design
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Gena Whitman · Assistant Scenic Designer
Mary Beth Fisher · Elizabeth Bishop
Tom Nelis · Robert Lowell
“Watching poets, even eminent poets, read and write to each other shouldn’t be half as gripping as playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters make it in Dear Elizabeth…with more intellectual, artistic and emotional vigor than might be expected in any epistolary drama. It’s her artful selection from the letters and poems, combined with Waters’ inventive stagings, that makes the words take flight. It’s a treat simply to have Ruhl and Waters…working together again at the Rep, home of his memorable stagings of her Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). The West Coast premiere…works best when their collaborative efforts make the complicated, distant relationship between the poets come alive in the imagery they use and details from their lives. Annie Smart’s elongated room of a set transforms itself from academic haunts to domestic study or Library of Congress. Then it exerts sheer magic, as she and Waters bring poetic metaphors to life in remarkable stage effects—the most exciting of which elaborates on a similar effect in Eurydice.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Waters and Ruhl could easily have sat their poets at a table (Love Letters style) and had them read. But there’s a lot more to this production, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect of the dynamic Waters–Ruhl pairing we’ve seen at Berkeley Rep in Eurydice and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). In two acts and running just under two hours, we are treated to a sort of visual poetry from Annie Smart’s surprise-laden set washed with color and mood by Russell Champa’s gorgeous lights…a placid piece of theater, filled with lovely, lively writing and gorgeous images…Fisher and Nelis have warm chemistry with one another, and Fisher especially conveys the tremendous intelligence and complex emotional life of Bishop with an understated but heartfelt performance.”—Theater Dogs
“The poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell have never sounded so fresh and beautiful. But it’s their letters that dazzle in Dear Elizabeth…Those who come to Dear Elizabeth expecting a dry and dusty recounting of literary history may be surprised at the yearning and intensity of the lives of these poets.”—San Francisco Examiner
“Certainly Ruhl’s gentle treatment of the poems, the way she finds the breathing space between life and art, can’t be overpraised. She crystallizes the magic of what is left unsaid and the piercing intimacy of regret in one beguiling passage after another. The playwright and director live up to their reputation for plumbing the unspoken in quiet moments filled with yearning…At its best, the play captures both the enchantment of poetry and the alienation of reality in equal measure…Ruhl and Waters have an affinity for stage pictures that radiate quiet longing (Eurydice, Three Sisters) and never is this quality more apparent than in the elegiac Dear Elizabeth…Nelis nails Lowell’s charmingly rumpled attempts at wooing but also his volatility…Fisher speaks volumes with Bishop’s wry looks of appraisal and the way she scrambles for the bottle of hooch hidden in the bookshelves. These two gifted actors sweep us away in the tide of time as youth slips away and mortality casts its long shadow. The vulnerability of the performances is startling.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“Leave it to playwright Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room (the Vibrator Play), Dead Man’s Cell Phone) to dust off the genre and present it with fresh, articulate power in the form of Dear Elizabeth…she and director Les Waters have crafted a piece of theater in which we are allowed to see and hear each character’s yearnings, joys, and sorrows, and occasionally watch them touch each other beyond space and time, between letters…[A] powerful piece that would appeal to any romantic who’s shed a tear over someone who got away.”—SFist
“The core of [Dear Elizabeth], the correspondence itself, is handled remarkably well. Ruhl weaves the letters together so they play like a conversation…It’s a touching portrait of a friendship between two delightfully clever people that’s as intriguing for what it leaves out as for what it tells…it’s sure to be of interest to American poetry buffs.”—KQED Arts & Culture
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I’ve always been fascinated by letters. And I don’t mean email. I’m dating myself here, obviously. People under the age of 30 have no memory of waiting by the mailbox for a letter from a distant friend or a loved one, the excitement of tearing open the envelope, or of trying to decipher every single word written in longhand in a cursive style that uniquely identified the writer. Back in the day when you knew the name of your mailman, letters were a way of marking time, marking the changes, both little and big, in the ebb and flow of our lives. They were the cradle of some of our deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings, conveyors of a kind of rarified speech capable of expressing things that no other form of communication could bear.
Dear Elizabeth is a chronicle of a 30-year relationship between two great poets told entirely through the exchange of letters. The sweep of the letters provides a window into two extraordinary minds, as well as a portrait of two small human beings struggling to make their way through life. Unlike a biography, or a fictional drama, or a film, the great virtue of sticking solely to the letters is that it allows us to fill in the spaces in between. We become each character, obsessing over what’s been said and what each author chose not to include. Why didn’t she tell me that? Why hasn’t he written in so long? Why is this letter so short? My god, it’s good to finally hear from you! I rejoice upon hearing from you! Your letter was a great relief, was deeply troubling, was so exciting, cleft my heart in two…
But using letters as the only material for a stage play is also seriously challenging. It requires artists of great skill, possessed of enough intelligence and creativity to transmute the descriptions on the page into a series of compelling dramatic actions. Fortunately, the wonderful Sarah Ruhl and our beloved colleague Les Waters have returned to grace us with their talents. Both Les and Sarah are comfortable in “the spaces in between.” They’ve spent much of their creative lives studying what we say to each other and what we don’t. Together they leap into the task of making the letters three dimensional, joined by a special design team and consummate actors Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis. We are the lucky recipients of their discoveries.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
As we open Dear Elizabeth, which is the final subscription production of the season, I want to draw your attention to two special events that we’ll offer here at Berkeley Rep this summer.
We are very pleased to host George Gershwin Alone on the Thrust Stage from June 8 to 23 and No Man’s Land, featuring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart along with Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, in the Roda from August 3 through 31. You’ll find information about both of these spectacular shows in this program and on our website at berkeleyrep.org.
Why, you might ask, are some productions listed as special events and others as subscription shows? Ever since we opened the Roda Theatre, we’ve had more weeks available for productions than the seven subscription shows require. We’ve done our best to make some of those weeks available to other organizations in need of performance space in downtown Berkeley. We’ve also found, over time, that the flexibility afforded us with these open weeks has given us the opportunity to showcase certain projects that fall outside of the parameters of a Berkeley Rep subscription.
Special-event programming tends to fall into three categories: projects with time constraints, projects that fall substantially outside the aesthetic of our subscription productions and projects that become available after our subscription season has been selected. In other words, special-event programming gives us the opportunity to be flexible and opportunistic—and to bring you more extraordinary experiences.
For example, Selected Shorts, the NPR series that we’ve hosted for the last two years, fits outside our standard programming. We were able to host the show for a weekend this winter, and NPR devotees were grateful to us for making the show available at Berkeley Rep. Last season’s production of In Paris featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov could only be performed for four weeks—way below the usual seven weeks we’d need to seat our entire subscription audience. In the past, we would have needed to turn our back on this project. Instead, we do everything possible to say “yes” to projects that might be of interest to all arts lovers in this community.
The one downside to these special events, we’ve found, is that many of our subscribers think that they already have tickets to these shows. Long after we’ve sold out, some are disappointed to find that they missed out. We do everything we can to alert subscribers to these special events—and they always get first dibs on tickets. That is one of the many important perks that come with becoming a subscriber!
So, if you’re a subscriber and haven’t made your call to order tickets for George Gershwin Alone or No Man’s Land, then you don’t yet have tickets. If you’re not a subscriber, please consider joining us for our exhilarating 2013–14 season and pick up subscriber perks along the way. And whether you’re a subscriber or not, we look forward to seeing you here throughout the summer!
“I scarcely dared to look”
By Nora Sørena Casey
At 18, Elizabeth Bishop abruptly left a family gathering and hitchhiked to her boarding school, where a policeman found her asleep on the steps the next morning. For the rest of her life Bishop kept travelling—adventurous, lost or both—to make her home. The carefully crafted imagery and delicate meter of her poems earned her a place among America’s most respected poets, but her friends also remember a vulnerability that she kept hidden from the world. Whether she was teaching in Cambridge or living in Brazil, Bishop disliked sharing her personal life with critics, interviewers and often even her friends. “Almost nothing I’ve said about Elizabeth’s life would she want said,” remarked Frank Bidart in an interview. “That’s why, after her death, I decided I didn’t want to be the source of anything that appeared in print about her drinking, sexual life, etc. But the intensity of interest in her work, and the nature of contemporary biography, made revelations that she would have found intolerable in her lifetime inevitable.”
Bishop’s poetry drew on her experience, but more often from the world around her than from her own emotions. “I hate self-pity poems,” she said, although the struggles and tragedies throughout her life could have provided ample opportunity for them. Bishop’s father died in 1911, several months after she was born, and her mother fell into deep mourning and mental instability, and was institutionalized when Bishop was 5. She had an unmoored childhood, spending several years in rural Nova Scotia with her maternal grandparents, less than a year with her paternal grandparents in Worcester and several years with her aunt in Boston before attending boarding school and then Vassar College. Yet when her poems draw on experiences from those times, the vivid scenes they paint still leave the poet obscure:
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
—excerpt from “In the Waiting Room”
These crystalline images are as indicative of her writing as the loneliness they evoke is of her life. The subtle solitude of these lines stayed with Bishop from the childhood moment (visiting the dentist with her aunt at age 7), through the publication of the poem more than 50 years later.
Bishop was first published in 1935, a year after graduating from college, when the poet Marianne Moore selected three of her poems for an anthology. Moore was the first of many influential writers whose support would guide Bishop’s professional and personal life: across the years her friends would often look after her, nominating her for awards, recommending her for jobs, taking her to the hospital and once even moving all her furniture into a new apartment. Among them, Robert “Cal” Lowell stands out as a lifelong advocate of her writing and one of her most trusted friends. The two met at a party in 1947 and took to each other instantly—a rarity for the reclusive Bishop. “She liked Cal Lowell. She liked him and his work,” recalls Bishop’s friend Joseph Frank. “She had a liking for things that were harsh…I think she liked the kind of knottiness and also a certain pitiless quality of his sensibility.”
Bishop and Lowell’s extensive correspondence—which provides the text for Dear Elizabeth—was due in part to the fact that Bishop traveled throughout her life. After college she and Louise Crane, whom she knew from Vassar, visited Europe. The two returned to the States in 1938 and set up a residence in Key West, Florida, where Bishop lived for nine years, although Crane left after a year. In 1951, Bishop made an impromptu voyage to Brazil. While staying with her friends she had an allergic reaction to cashews and was nursed back to health by Lota de Macedo Soares, an aristocratic Brazilian woman with a passion for painting and architecture. By the time Bishop had recovered, Lota had invited her to stay. She did, for 15 years.
Throughout this time, Bishop was always writing, but slowly—it might take years for a poem to come together. She didn’t subscribe to any theoretical approaches, but employed her strong command of meter and rhythm in a variety of forms to create mesmerizing and moving images. After fighting with her publishers over the limited quantity of her new work, her second book, Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring, incorporated her first volume alongside 18 new poems. Nevertheless, it earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, which delighted Bishop because it prompted not only the Brazilian literary circles that had dismissed her but also the local fruit vendors to recognize her as a respected poet. Her next volume, Questions of Travel, was published in 1965 and drew on life in Nova Scotia and New England as well as in Brazil:
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
—excerpt from “Questions of Travel”
In the 1960s, the home that Bishop and Lota had set up in Brazil began to fall apart. Bishop’s fierce intelligence, acerbic wit and clear poetic talent were married with a social anxiety and a lifelong struggle with alcoholism that often fed off each other, creating disastrous downward spirals. Her drinking was one source of tension between her and Lota; another was Lota’s increased involvement in politics, which left Bishop feeling neglected. She began traveling before moving to Seattle in 1966 to teach for a year. Although she returned to Brazil, Lota’s deteriorating health caused her doctor to recommend that the two have some distance. “I don’t know what is right really, and wish God would lean down and tell me,” Bishop wrote to her friend as she planned to move to New York in 1967. “I hate to leave Lota like this, but it seems almost as if it were a question of my own life or sanity, too, now.” Bishop went to New York that September. Against advice, Lota joined her there several months later and died within a week, overdosing on Valium.
Lota was buried in Brazil and, after meeting hostility from their friends and Lota’s family, Bishop moved to San Francisco, where her literary style was at odds with the 1960s counterculture. In 1970—as another relationship fell apart—she won the National Book Award and moved to Boston to take over Lowell’s teaching position at Harvard. She needed the stable employment, although she was ill at ease when teaching and keenly aware that her poetic success fell within a limited sphere. A friend recalls Bishop looking through The Modern Poet, with essays on Lowell, Sylvia Plath and John Berryman but nothing on her, and remarking, “It’s like being buried alive.”
Her position at Harvard ended in 1977, and that year her Geography III brought her a new level of public recognition; the slender collection includes a variety of forms, from the strict rhythm scheme of “One Art” (included in Dear Elizabeth) to the narrative poem “Crusoe in England.” As one of her students recalled, “Her life was often out of control, but her poetry is precise.” The critical acclaim sparked by Geography III continued to grow after Bishop died of a brain aneurysm in 1979. Once considered “a poet’s poet,” today her writing holds a place within any anthology of American poetry.
Although Bishop was lauded for her pristine images and precise language, an uncertain sense of self flits behind many of her poems: “I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was,” she writes in “In the Waiting Room.” Throughout her life Bishop struggled with her identity, and any answer to that personal question, Who am I? was unvoiced. She rarely spoke with even her closest friends about her childhood, sexuality or alcoholism, and she hated when others applied labels to her life or her work. She refused to have her poems included in anthologies selected around gender, and her work defied the artistic camps—new formalist, free verse, beat or confessional—that were pitched around her. In so many ways Bishop lived a life apart, and with that came both loneliness and individuality. The poems that she left reveal a rich talent, but for a sense of the woman Lowell knew so well we must turn to her letters, the memories of her friends and our own imaginations, and ultimately content ourselves with imperfect discoveries.
“My eyes have seen what my hand did”
By Nora Sørena Casey
When he was 13 years old, Robert Lowell’s classmates started calling him “Cal.” The big bully of a boy reminded them of Shakespeare’s wild Caliban, and also of Caligula, the mad emperor of Rome. The name stayed with him for the rest of his life, as did the forceful presence that inspired it, which would manifest itself in everything from his brazen and evocative poetry, to his defiant political gestures, to his strident manner when teaching at Harvard and clever quips while drinking at the writer’s colony Yaddo.
Born on March 1, 1917 to the Somerset Lowells and the Boston Winslows (both first families of Massachusetts), Lowell was raised by conservative parents. He played football, baseball, ice hockey and wrestled at prep school, but amidst these classic schoolboy pursuits Lowell already yearned to become a poet. He attended Harvard in 1935 and, while he had never gotten along well with his parents, their relationship plummeted that year when he scandalized them by getting engaged to a woman he had only known for a couple months, Anne Tuckerman Dick. Years later, he recalled a particularly bad fight he and Anne had with both their parents in a poem:
I see your pink father—you, the outraged daughter.
That morning nursing my dark, quiet fire
on the empty steps of the Harvard Fieldhouse in
vacation…saying the start of Lycidas to myself
fevering my mind and cooling my hot nerves—
—excerpt from “Anne Dick 1. 1936”
Lowell’s ability to transform his emotions into rich images and sonorous lines would shape his work, but during those Harvard days he was still experimenting endlessly—blank verse, heroic couplets, free verse, sonnets—in search of his own poetic style. During his sophomore year, this search also inspired him to leave college with the novelist Ford Madox Ford to meet the poet Allen Tate in Tennessee. With the house already full of guests, Lowell pitched a tent on Tate’s front yard, determined to study and write poetry.
The image of the 19-year-old Lowell—sun-tanned, often drunk, absent from the Ivy League, completely dependent on others for money and shelter and absolutely set in his ways—encapsulates the manner in which he was to live. His single-mindedness could be reckless, invigorating, selfish and inspiring. And even then, years before any of his poems would be published, Lowell was clearly talented. Although initially perplexed by the young man living on his lawn, Tate soon became Lowell’s mentor, and in 1937 they attended the Colorado Writer’s Conference, where Lowell met Jean Stafford, a promising fiction writer. His engagement to Anne fizzled out, and he pursued Jean through letters as he returned to school, now studying classics at Kenyon College in Ohio. Encouraging and dismissive in turns, Jean confided in her friends that she thought Lowell “an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.”
In spite of this, the two married in 1940. The marriage was marked by constant fighting, drinking and writing. While working for a literary review, reading criticism and converting to Catholicism, Lowell continued to write poems, and was first published in 1943. That same year he was drafted, and made headlines when he explained his refusal to serve in a personal note to President Roosevelt that he also sent to the newspapers. Lowell was arrested and sentenced to a year and a day, and when he was released after five months was “more often recognized as a draft-dodger than a poet,” according to Jean, whose latest book, Boston Adventure, was a best-seller.
But Lowell’s poetic star was also on the rise; in 1944 he published his first volume, Land of Unlikeness, and his second work, Lord Weary’s Castle, earned bright reviews and the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. Lowell had established himself as a major American poet at the age of 30. A current of rebellion flows through the symphonic second volume, as Lowell’s poems explored war, materialism and religion (although by this time Lowell’s religious fervor had dwindled). Lowell’s preference for epic themes—reflecting his love of Milton and classical writers—resulted in a collection that was described by Randall Jarrell, a poet and friend, as “little interested in people [and] more about the actions of you, God, the sea, and cemeteries.”
That same year Lowell’s positive review of Elizabeth Bishop’s North & South set the wheels in motion for their friendship, which would take form through numerous letters and visits in New York, Cambridge, Yaddo, Maine and Brazil. As the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress from 1947 to 1948, Lowell invited numerous writers to make recordings of their readings and encouraged them to go with him to visit the poet Ezra Pound, who was confined to the prison ward in St. Elizabeth’s hospital for treason. Lowell would always be closely connected to America’s finest poets, and over the years his mentors, peers and students would often simply become his friends.
As a poet and as a husband, Lowell was constantly revising. After fighting with Jean in New Orleans, in New York, in Boston and in Maine, the two separated in 1946 (they were divorced two years later), while Lowell was involved with another woman. He would leave her, and propose to and leave another, before meeting the novelist Elizabeth “Lizzie” Hardwick in 1948 at Yaddo, during a period of manic energy and intense drinking. “Is it true that you are drinking too much and going to pieces and that that ungainly bird [T.S.] Eliot is worried to death about you?” Jean wrote him that winter, and things only got worse when Lowell visited Tate in Chicago and held him out a two-story window while reciting Tate’s poetry. The episode led to Lowell’s arrest and hospitalization, when he was formally diagnosed as manic-depressive.
Lowell left the hospital in July of 1948 and married Lizzie Hardwick that month. Manic episodes, accompanied by affairs and ending with hospitalizations, persisted throughout their marriage. They spent several years abroad in Europe before returning to the States in 1953, where Lizzie gave birth to their daughter, Harriet, in 1957. Lowell taught poetry across the country, although over the years Harvard would come to be his academic home, somewhat ironically given that abandoning the university had been one of his first steps as a poet. Nevertheless, he was a daunting professor with clear ideas of quality, and often intimidated students. Anne Sexton would recall him, “In this thin classroom, where your face / was noble and your words were all things…You are so gracefully insane.” In addition to poetry, Lowell’s translations and plays were well received: The Old Glory, the first play in his trilogy based on classic American stories, won five Obies after its premiere in 1963.
During this time the voices of American poetry clamored in debate—Eliot’s formal verse pitted against William Carlos Williams’ free verse, with the Beat poets entering the fray in the mid ‘50s—and Lowell made his unique contribution in 1959 with Life Studies, a volume which pioneered confessional poetry. While Lowell had always had an eye for transforming the details of his life into lines, Life Studies broke new ground, drawing on his parents’ marriage, ancestors and mental illness:
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.
—excerpt from “Waking in the Blue”
These lines reveal Lowell’s transition into freer verse than his earlier work, contributing to the rough, emotional honesty that shone through the volume. With confessional poetry he forged a path between his predecessors and peers to emerge with a new voice of his own. “When I finished Life Studies, I was left hanging on a question mark,” he said in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award. “I am still hanging there. I don’t know whether it is a death-rope or a life-line.”
It may have been both, for while Lowell worked to access the truth of his experience through poetry, his new style also took a toll on those who figured into his personal life. In 1970, Lowell had an affair with the writer Caroline Blackwood while teaching in England. She gave birth to their son the next year, and the two were married in 1972, two days after Lowell’s divorce. The process, already painful for Lizzie, was made excruciating when it became the subject for Lowell’s 1973 collection The Dolphin. Criticism of the book blurred with criticism of the man: “I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book,” wrote Adrienne Rich in American Poetry Review. Lowell protested that his aim was to be neither flattering nor cruel but simply honest:
I have sat and listened
to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps
too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself—
to ask compassion…
this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man
for the eel fighting—
my eyes have seen
what my hand did.
—excerpt from “Dolphin”
The Dolphin won Lowell his third Pulitzer; while the life behind the poetry was easy to criticize, as an artist, Lowell remained exceptional. Over the next three years, he would return to teaching at Harvard as his marriage to Caroline fell apart. He spent his 60th birthday with Lizzie and their daughter, and later traded jokes with Bishop over their dental history. Six months later, he died.
Lowell ceaselessly sought for the profound not only in the collapse of a family, but in things as simple as the prowling of a skunk or the song coming over the radio. Sometimes chaotic and brutal, sometimes generous and kind, Lowell anchored his life in poetry; there is a neatness to his elegant lines that reality could never have.
Words on the stage: on poetry, letters, and playwriting
By Julie McCormick
Sarah Ruhl is a woman to be reckoned with. One of the most highly sought-after playwrights of her generation, her plays have appeared in theatres around the world and garnered a number of awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as a “genius grant”), the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Helen Merrill Award and nominations for a couple of Pulitzers and a Tony Award. Sarah and director Les Waters have been frequent collaborators at Berkeley Rep, with productions of Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and Three Sisters. Her spare and poetic writing is imminently theatrical—each play finds beauty in the mysterious mundane and demonstrates a willingness to live in the interstitial spaces of the human heart. It is perhaps this ability to see into the in-between places that makes Dear Elizabeth such a unique endeavor: the dialogue in the play is drawn in its entirety from 30 years’ worth of letters between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Sarah graciously took some time from her busy traveling schedule to answer questions from Berkeley Rep about the genesis of Dear Elizabeth, poetry and the lost art of letter-writing.
Julie McCormick: What drew you to Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell? How did you discover that there was a play in their letters?
Sarah Ruhl: I’ve always been a big Bishop admirer, and came to know Lowell through Bishop. A playwright friend gave me their collected letters when I was on bed rest with a pregnancy, and the book seemed to save me from torpor. I found it impossible to put down even though there is no narrative structure in the usual sense; I found myself so drawn to the people, to their individual minds and to their relationship. My first thought was just wanting to hear their voices with actors, to hear that language with actors, I wasn’t sure whether or not there was a play. So I spent a lot of time at my kitchen table reading the letters out loud with friends.
We heard that you were working under some pretty strict restraints from the poets’ estates, and had to use their words and only their words—you could not add or change a single thing. What was it like putting this piece together?
I was happy to have those restrictions because I love the language of the letters themselves and was happy not to embellish. But it was a little like tying my hands behind my back to invent a play. I love those kinds of challenges. Like: how can you tell a play without dialogue in the strict sense? How can you imagine the spaces between the letters without inventing dialogue? So it was a really interesting process for me. Language that seemed dramatic to me on the page wasn’t necessarily dramatic when read out loud. So there was a lot of trial and error involved.
Is there something inherently dramatic about letter-writing? In other words, do you feel like this form would make sense for correspondences between other people, or is there something unique about Bishop and Lowell?
I think so. I think of those wonderful old epistolary novels like Clarissa or Dangerous Liaisons where there’s always a maid hiding in a closet and a man about to violate you. They’re page-turners. And letter-writing is a form of dialogue with space between the dialogue for life to happen.
What is your personal relationship with poetry?
I started as a poet; I still write the occasional poem for the drawer, and I read a lot of poetry, and spy on a lot of poet friends to see what they are up to.
Is poetry still important? Does it have a place in daily life?
I have to believe that it does!
Dear Elizabeth is the latest in a long line of collaborations with director Les Waters—does anything about him still surprise you?
He continues to make me laugh during rehearsals. We sit in the back and cackle away. It surprises me that he likes it when I do a bad English accent when I get ready to order out chicken vindaloo. I love Les. He is one of the most clear-eyed directors alive. He sees what’s on the page and he’s like an archeologist holding a light saber, or a sculptor in a Zen garden holding a sword, and he makes what he sees without much fuss.
Over their careers, Bishop and Lowell wrote a number of poems to and about each other. Who would you want to write a poem (or a play) for you?
Oh gosh. Who would I want to write a poem for me…Mark Strand? Sharon Olds? Louise Glück? Plenty of dead poets?
When was the last time you wrote a letter? (A real one…)
I’ve been thinking up a letter in my head to write to Paula Vogel and send to her new address. I used to write her actual letters all the time. And I still haven’t had the chance to write her one. I used to correspond with a poet named Mark Tardi when we lived in the same house. We would send each other letters. I miss letters and what they represent. The feel of the page, the feel of absence that is softened by paper…
Besides Bishop and Lowell, do you have favorite poets?
I love Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, Donne, Shakespeare, Rumi (although I think a lot of translations are bad, but what do I know, I don’t know Persian), Ann Carson, Seamus Heaney, anyone Irish, oh let’s see now…Emily D, Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas to my dad on his death bed—those were his favorite poets, so I have a special place in my heart for them. And I have Dylan Thomas’ lamp shade in my office.
Both Bishop and Lowell led peripatetic lives, constantly shuttling between New England, New York, DC, Key West, Brazil and Europe. How do you think this informed their work? Where has been your favorite place to escape and write?
Yes, true. I think place is specially important to Bishop. Place and distance and imaginary temporary homes.
I’m looking for a place to escape and write. It’s hard because I have three kids. I had to escape to the Berkshires to finish this play, leaving vomit in my wake. I think all my kids were throwing up at the time. Now I have an office in Cobble Hill that I am hopeful about. Anywhere near the sea is good for me.
A sneak peek at the poets
Take a look at Sarah Ruhl’s beautiful new play, Dear Elizabeth.