'Dear Elizabeth': An all-enveloping friendship

Ellen McLaughlin as poet Elizabeth Bishop in "Dear Elizabeth."
Ellen McLaughlin as poet Elizabeth Bishop in "Dear Elizabeth." (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: April 04, 2014

An alcoholic manic depressive poet.

An alcoholic depressive lesbian poet.

Perfect together.

For three decades, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, two of the 20th century's most influential poets, were heartfelt pen pals. They spoke of their lives, their art, their takes on the world and each other. Much of that time, she was living in Brazil, and he was shuffling among England, New England, and wherever else the life of a lionized academic and poet could take him.

They first met in 1947, and only a handful of times thereafter. Both won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards; both were U.S. poets laureate. Both had ecstasies and demons.

Their bond, one of the strangest and most moving in literary history, has been made into a play by Sarah Ruhl titled Dear Elizabeth . Running through April 27 at the People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, it stars Ellen McLaughlin as Bishop and Rinde Eckert (McLaughlin's husband and a Grammy-winning composer who also did the music) as Lowell.

McLaughlin and Eckert have never worked together this way before. "I'm more of a straight-ahead actor and Rinde is more of a performer," she says. "He has a lot of Lowell's performative energy.

"I've loved Bishop since I was introduced to her by Harold Bloom at Yale when I was an undergraduate," McLaughlin says. "The power of her personality and beauty of her spirit is so strong, especially in the letters."

Playwright Ruhl's love of Bishop and those letters led to the creation of Dear Elizabeth. While she was pregnant and on bed rest, a friend gave her Words in Air, the 2008 collection of the Bishop-Lowell letters.

"I devoured it," Ruhl says. "It was the only thing I could read. I wondered why this held me the way it did. I was just dying to learn what was going to happen in the relationship, and in the two lives. And then I got to thinking I'd like to hear an actor read these letters. They sounded like performances."

How to turn letters into drama? "I had a 200-page draft at first," Ruhl says, "and my friends just plodded through it, and I just kept paring and paring. Some things were not theatrical at all when read out loud. I came to see that the only thing that matters was the relationship."

Director Lisa Rothe says as the script developed, many of the trappings of letters - many dates and places, for example, reflected in subtitles during the play - melted away. "I wasn't paying attention to those," Rothe says, "so struck was I by the conversation between these two luminaries over so many years, so intimate."

As time went on, it became clear to writer, director, and players that, in Rothe's words, "this wasn't a biopic - it was a drama about two people."

And there was plenty of drama. "He made her braver," McLaughlin says, "expanded her world, gave her a sense of being anchored in a friendship; he learned reticence and dignity from her. She was wary of his manic episodes, and she tried to limit the time they spent together. I think she knew anything more would destroy them. But in the letters, there doesn't seem to be jealousy. They appreciate each other."

Few who have read the letters can doubt Lowell and Bishop loved each other. "I seem to spend my life missing you," he wrote. She was much more circumspect, but her care and affection come through repeatedly - not least in the way this reticent woman opens up to him in the letters.

Life and the world intervene. Lowell lapses into mania, undergoes repeated treatment. "We watch what happens to both when one attempts suicide," Rothe says. Bishop loses the love of her life, falls into drink, falls and hurts herself.

And there is moral strain. In the early 1970s, Lowell planned a book of poems based on intimate correspondence with his then-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Bishop, horrified, tried to talk him out of it: "One can use one's life as material - one does anyway - but these letters - aren't you violating a trust? . . . art just isn't worth that much." It was a moment of supreme moral courage. He didn't listen.

"He was always walking an edge she didn't care to walk," McLaughlin says.

And yet, says Ruhl, "how well they understood each other on an artistic plane - it's so rare as an artist to find somebody who can meet you on the same level. There really was a meeting point cerebrally and emotionally, in a really profound way. I was moved by the 'almostness' of the relationship, which in many ways was not quite realized."

What moves McLaughlin most of all is the chance to play Bishop: "It's been one of the great pleasures of my life as an actress to inhabit the spirit of a woman I have loved for so long."


THEATER

Dear Elizabeth

Through April 27 at People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern.

Tickets: $26-$75. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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