Friday, April 4, 2014

Dear Elizabeth

Last night, Francisco and I went to see "Dear Elizabeth," the play cut from the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I'd been dying to see it since it premiered at Yale and Berkeley last year, but at the time I was living in St. Louis, which was close to neither. Francisco just happened to stumble on the fact that it is playing at People's Light Theater, a little theater only 30 minutes from our house. And of course, though I've been complaining that I'm busy and drowning in busyness, I booked tickets for the night after I found out the the play exists.

The play was delightful. There are no words in the play that are not in their letters--Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell meet, but their meetings are silent, unless they include lines from their letters. And the letters themselves are charming and witty and poetic; it is wonderful to hear them read out loud. And some of their poetry--especially the poems that they dedicate to each other--makes it into the play. The play is about intellectual friendship, about the sharing of their struggles with art and their struggles with their bodies (Lowell is in and out of mental hospitals; Bishop has asthma and drinking problems; both have happinesses and many difficulties in love). The play makes me want to run home and pick up letter writing again immediately (which I've been sadly neglecting). It's the celebration of a friendship that lasts over distance and over a lifetime.

Some bones to pick: The play is also about love. The playwright, Sarah Ruhl focuses on one letter in which Lowell writes to EB: "Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.” It's nice and delightful to add romance into a play, and some sort of moment seems to have been had between them, but I just don't see from Bishop's side if the attention was desired at all. Ruhl interprets this as her reserve and shyness (and the acting shows her pitching and moaning about him; I exaggerate, but still), but I think it's possible that she just wasn't that into him (plus, he didn't seem to be a great husband to any of his wives, from what you gather from the letters). Lowell is a bit macho--in real life, he's handsome and well respected and he moves through three wives, the last one quite a bit younger than he is. And then he acts as if there's some great and unexplored thing in between them and that clearly she wanted it and he just never made the move at the right time. I found it a bit condescending. (Maybe this is the right interpretation of the letters; maybe it comes out a bit more in the play, since the letters are cut down and this whole romance bit is played up--I see the romance as at most as one little piece of something that became very different and much greater over their lifetimes.) 

Also: In real life, Lowell was 6 years younger than Bishop. And a pretty cute guy, before he hairline starts to recede: 

In this performance, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell seem to be the same age, and she's more attractive than he is. He is played as a paunchy and disheveled and slightly tipsy middle-aged man. Again, this sells the romance a bit more than a fit and well-groomed, rich, younger man does. But it's not quite as easy on the eyes, either. Plus, the Robert Lowell actor was always on the verge of forgetting his lines, which is anxiety-inducing in the audience. The woman who played Elizabeth Bishop, on the other hand, looked exactly like I imagine Elizabeth Bishop looked, and was quite good in the role.

(Elizabeth Bishop has been on this blog many times before: for her art, for her quotes, for her poems, for her friendship with Lowell.)


Cardigan said...

You should go to the Hedgerow Theater soon. It seems like a spot that both you and Francisco would like.

Emily Hale said...

Ohhh--I will look it up!