Elizabeth Bishop wrote just 101 poems in her lifetime, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Robert Lowell racked up innumerable awards (National Book, Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle) and was considered to be THE poet of the post-war era. Any brief bio of one mentions that the two were "friends" and colleagues in a rarified literary world. If you love poetry, you already know their achievements and their histories. If you have never, or barely, heard of them, you can still love Dear Elizabeth, just opened on Saturday night at Northern Stage.
Not to diminish the centrality that writing held in their lives, individually and together, but this play could be about any two people who yearn to escape loneliness to find that thing called love. Their relationship turns out to be a non-traditional one, carried out mostly on paper with occasional face-to-face visits. Both are wealthy, and they each ping from one place to the next, their
letters flying through the air from New York, Boston, Key West, Brazil, Rome. Their correspondence documents the mundane--a calf being born at Bishop's farm, homely details of the food offered during Lowell's stays at the artist colony Yaddo, gossip about who was seen where and when and with whom. They delight in the other's professional triumphs and critique each other's word choices. Woven throughout, sometimes spoken of, is their longing to be in the other's company. They persisted--through her periods of heavy drinking and his hospitalizations for mental illness, through marriages and other partnerships--for thirty years until Lowell's death in 1977 in a New York City taxicab.
Was it ever meant to be otherwise? Lowell, ever the wordsmith, delivers the most poignant line of the evening to Bishop: You are the might have been for me, the other life that might have been had.
On a minimal set (for indeed they are writers often living at desks), David Mason and Susan Haefner bring Lowell and Bishop to life, reading from the trove of their actual letters that so intrigued playwright Sarah Ruhl. They age convincingly, Mason in his posture and physical gestures, Haefner in her voice and with a growing weariness. Emblematic of their life in words, their discarded letters lie scattered across the stage.
Dear Elizabeth runs until October 28, in repertory with a second play, Oslo, (reviewed here). Mason and Haefner are on stage in this production until October 17, when they will be replaced by Thom Miller and Northern Stage's Producing Artistic Director Carol Dunne. For tickets and further information, see Northern Stage's website.
Photos by Kata Sasvari, courtesy of Northern Stage.
(An aside about pondering the "might have beens:" another poet, Carl Dennis, presents a different perspective in "The God Who Loves You." You can read it here.)
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