BOX OFFICE 610.644.3500

Dear Elizabeth

By Sarah Ruhl

A play in letters, from Elizabeth Bishop, to Robert Lowell, and back again

Directed by Lisa Rothe

April 2-27, 2014

Steinbright Stage

A lyrical, intimate, and moving portrait of two acclaimed American poets: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Using her trademark intelligence and whimsy, Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, Eurydice) breathes life into a relationship that defies category and delicately adapts Bishop and Lowell’s correspondence into “a play that is exquisite poetry in itself.” (Connecticut Arts Connection)

Approximate run time is 1 hour, 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. This show is best enjoyed by ages 14 and up.

Scoop on Sunday: History, Context, and Gossip
People’s Light continues Scoop on Sundays: History, Context, and Gossip, a lively discussion before Sunday 7 pm performances. Producing Director Zak Berkman will share the inside scoop about such things as the rehearsal and production process, design choices, and the world of the play. The program begins at 5:30 in The Farmhouse Bistro on April 27th. Cost of $15 includes light fare. Call the Box Office at 610.644.3500.

Dinner & A Show Packages

Enjoy a prix fixe dinner and a show package for $70 (Wed, Thurs, Sat matinee, Sun eve) and $80 (Fri, Sat eve, Sun matinee) at The Farmhouse Bistro prior to the Wed-Sun evening performances. That's a savings of up to 15% off the single ticket price! Call 610.644.3500 or order online. View the full menu here.

Ellen McLaughlin* as Elizabeth Bishop
New York credits include: Angels in America (Broadway) Blue Window (Manhattan Theater Club), and A Bright Room Called Day (Public Theater). Regional credits include: Good People, (George St. Playhouse, Seattle Rep.) A Delicate Balance (Arena Stage, Yale Rep.) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (McCarter) Ghosts, Hedda Gabler (Berkeley Rep), Homebody/Kabul (Intiman Theater), Threepenny Opera (Trinity Rep.) and Cryptogram (Yale Rep). TV: Law and Order. McLaughlin is also an award-winning playwright.

Rinde Eckert* as Robert Lowell
Rinde is a writer, composer, singer, actor, and director whose work has been performed throughout the United States and abroad. His work includes: An Idiot Divine, And God Created Great Whales, Horizon, and Orpheus X (2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist). Awards include: the Guggenheim Fellowship, an Obie Award, a Grammy Award (Lonely Motel), and the Alpert Award. He was a member of the first group of artists to receive the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.

Director: Lisa Rothe
Set Design: Jason Simms
Costume Designer: Theresa Squire
Lighting Designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Composer/Sound Designer: Rinde Eckert*
Associate Sound Designer: Elizabeth Atkinson
Production Stage Manager: Kelly O’Rourke*

Dramaturgs: Zak Berkman & Gina Pisasale
Line Producer: Zak Berkman



* Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers.


INTRODUCTION


In 1947, influential and highly acclaimed mid-century American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell began a correspondence and profound friendship that would last for over 30 years. Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee, Sarah Ruhl, uses the text of these stylistically brilliant, revealing, witty, incisive, and often times very funny letters, to create her own theatrical poetry, Dear Elizabeth.

“With her trademark care, precision, and whimsy, Sarah has crafted a tribute to a kind of love rarely explored in our culture. Friendship for many is not a Facebook click, but the strongest tether to a sense of meaning in this upended world,” asserts Producing Director, Zak Berkman, who became friends with Sarah Ruhl ten years ago and produced her Passion Play in New York City.

One of the most distinguished playwrights of her generation, Ruhl began her writing career as a poet and had long admired Bishop. After reading a collection of Bishop and Lowell’s letters she became captivated by their dramatic relationship. In this production, Bishop and Lowell will be portrayed by Ellen McLaughlin and Rinde Eckert, award-winning theatre veterans and real-life husband and wife. "I’m thrilled to be working with the brilliant Rinde and Ellen,” says Ruhl. “I've wanted to work with them ever since I met them. The roles of Bishop and Lowell demand luminous intelligence, which this pair has in spades."

Eckert is a Grammy winning composer as well as a renowned writer, director, and performer. McLaughlin, best known for having originated the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, is also an internationally produced playwright. Her appearance at People’s Light is a return of sorts as her play The Persians was produced on the now Leonard C. Haas Stage in 2008. Dear Elizabeth is the first time the couple will be sharing the stage together in a piece that hasn’t been written by either of them. They will be directed by Lisa Rothe who recently directed McLaughlin’s Penelope.




JUMP TO:
The Story
The Playwright
Forward to Dear Elizabeth
The Poems of Bishop and Lowell
What is Yaddo?



THE STORY

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are two of the most celebrated and honored American poets of the 20th century. In 1947, they began an extraordinary friendship that lasted until Lowell’s death in 1977. Their remarkable and dramatic relationship is chronicled in over 450 letters between them with postmarks from places far and wide – from New York, Maine, Washington DC, and Key West to Italy, Brazil, and London.

Their letters captured their incredibly entertaining senses of humor as well as their sublime lyrical sensibilities. In the introduction to Words in Air: The complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, editor Thomas Travisano explains:

“Through wars, revolutions, breakdowns, brief quarrels, failed marriages and love affairs, and intense poetry-writing jags, the letters kept coming. For these were not merely intimate friends, ready to share each other’s lives with all their piquant and painful and funny moments, but eager readers – eager for the next letter, eager for the next poem. For each, personally as well as artistically, these letters became a part of their abidance: a part of that huge block of life they had lived together and apart over thirty years of witty and intimately confiding correspondence.” (Thomas Travisano, ed., Words in Air, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.)

In Dear Elizabeth, award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl uses the text of Bishop and Lowell’s letters to craft a dramatic, funny, surprising, and moving portrayal of the relationship between these two literary giants.








THE PLAYWRIGHT

Sarah Ruhl’s plays include:

Stage Kiss (Playwrights Horizons, Goodman Theater), In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Broadway, Lincoln Center Theater, Pulitzer Play finalist, premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theater, subsequently at Victory Gardens)

The Clean House (Lincoln Center Theater, Pulitzer Prize Finalist, 2005; The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, 2004, premiered at Yale Repertory Theater, also done at the Goodman Theater

Passion Play, a cycle (Pen American award, The Fourth Freedom Forum Playwriting Award from The Kennedy Center, a Helen Hayes Awards nomination for best new play, premiered at Arena stage, also produced by the Goodman Theater, Yale Repertory Theater and Epic Theater in New York)

Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Playwrights’ Horizons, Steppenwolf Theater, premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theater)

Melancholy Play (premiered at the Piven Theater Workshop)

Eurydice (premiered at Madison Repertory Theater, then at Berkeley Repertory Theater, Yale Repertory Theater, Second Stage, Victory Gardens)

Orlando (premiered at Piven Theater Workshop, subsequently at Classic Stage Company and Court Theater)

Dear Elizabeth (Yale Repertory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Late: a cowboy song (Piven Theater Workshop)

Her plays have been produced across the country as well as internationally, and have been translated into Polish, Russian, Spanish, Norwegian, Korean, German, French, Swedish, and Arabic. Originally from Chicago, Ms. Ruhl received her M.F.A. from Brown University where she studied with Paula Vogel. In 2003, she was the recipient of the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award and the Whiting Writers’ Award. She is a member of 13P and New Dramatists and won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. She was a recent recipient of the PEN center award for a mid-career playwright in 2010. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.


FORWARD to DEAR ELIZABETH

Ruhl discusses the "making of" her play in the forward to Dear Elizabeth:

The great poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were great friends, and they wrote over eight hundred pages of letters to one other. When I was on bed-rest, pregnant with twins, a friend gave me their book of collected letters Words in Air: the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I already had a long-standing obsession with Elizabeth Bishop; my obsession with Lowell and their friendship now began. I could not put the letters down. I hungered to hear them read aloud; I particularly longed to hear letter number 157 read out loud. Number 157 is Lowell’s most confessional letter to Bishop, and I think, one of the most beautiful love letters ever written. In it, he says, about not asking Bishop to marry him: “Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Reading these eight hundred pages, these strands of two lives, intersecting, rarely meeting--I thought: why do I find this narrative so compelling, even though theirs is not a story in the traditional sense? I was desperate to know how the “story” would come out—how each life would progress, how the relation would end. But I also loved how the letters resisted a sense of the usual literary “story”—how instead, the letters forced us to look at life as it is lived. Not neat. Not two glorious Greek arcs meeting in the center. Instead: a dialectic between the interior poetic life and the pear-shaped, particular, sudden, ordinary life-as-it-is-lived.

Life intrudes, without warning. Elizabeth Bishop’s great love and partner Lota commits suicide without much warning. Bishop has multiple asthma attacks, and often needs to be hospitalized for alcoholism and depression. Robert Lowell dies suddenly of a heart attack in a taxi cab en route to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. As he died in the taxi he held a painting of his third wife, painted by her ex-husband, Lucian Freud. Lowell had bipolar disorder, and often found himself quite suddenly in a sanitarium. Bishop and Lowell’s carefully built, Platonic poetic worlds are intruded on constantly by the vagaries of life and the body. And through such sudden disturbances, their letters were like lanterns sent to one another across long distances. Bishop lived in Brazil most of her life, and Lowell lived in New York, Boston and London. Their friendship was lived largely on paper, though they met at crucial times in their lives.

Bishop was in New York when Lota commited suicide, and she stayed at Hardwick and Lowell’s apartment. They paid for her ambulance ride through Central Park, a result of a bad fall she took, perhaps induced by too much drink, after Lota’s suicide. Bishop was plagued her whole life with alcoholism; at one point a friend eliminated all the liquor in her house and Bishop was reduced to drinking rubbing alcohol and ended up in the hospital. Lowell visited Bishop in South America and was hospitalized in Argentina for a manic episode.

Their correspondence spans political epochs—coups in Brazil, the Vietnam war—personal epochs, and literary epochs. Bishop observes Lowell’s trajectory as he creates the confessional movement in poetry. I love, in the letters, the extraordinary dialectic between Lowell’s more confessional mode and Bishop’s formal restraint. Her disgust for the confessional, however, didn’t keep her from loving Lowell’s poetry. They both carried each other’s poems in their minds and in their pockets. Lowell carried Bishop’s Armadillo (a poem she dedicated to Lowell) in his wallet, a kind of talisman for how a poem ought to be. Lowell wrote Skunk Hour for Bishop, as well as many sonnets, and a poem called “Water”, about a seminal weekend the two of them spent in Maine.

After Lowell divorced Jean Stafford in July of 1948, he visited Elizabeth Bishop in Maine. It’s a visit they would both return to again and again in their letters and in their poetry. It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened; we know from letters and poems that they spent the weekend together, at one point standing waist high in water, and Bishop said to Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Bishop wrote later that they were: “Swimming, or rather standing, numb to the waist in the freezing cold water, but continuing to talk. If I were to think of any Saint in his connection then it is St. Sebastian—he stood in a rocky basin of the freezing water, sloshing it over his handsome youthful body and I could almost see the arrows sticking out of him.”

We know that shortly after that visit, Lowell told some friends he was going to marry Bishop. Soon after, they had a drunken weekend at Bard where many poets were gathered. Lowell was rumored to have proposed to her that weekend. Bishop wrote to another friend, “Saturday night was worst—a really drunken party, I’m afraid, with everyone behaving very much the way poets are supposed to.” In another account, Bishop remembers that she and Elizabeth Hardwick had helped a drunken Lowell back to his room, taken off his shoes and tie, loosened his shirt, upon which Hardwick said, “Why, he’s an Adonis!” and Bishop said “from then on I knew it was all over.”

We also know from their friend Joseph Summers that at the end of the Bard weekend, “He and Elizabeth seemed to be very much in love that weekend. He was saying, ‘Now let me know when you are coming back.’ And she said, “I don’t know.’ “Let me know where you are,” and so on.” Another friend reports, “She told us at one point she loved Cal more than anybody she’d ever known, except for Lota, but that he would destroy her.” And from another friend: Lowell “was the one of the few people Bishop addressed in her poems. She said that he had proposed to her, and she had turned him down.” Apparently her greatest regret was not having a child, and she considered having one with Lowell early on, but worried about the history of mental illness in both of their families.

The gaps between their letters, the mysterious interludes in which Lowell and Bishop actually saw each other, leaves much to the imagination. Their letters are so hyper-articulate that one almost has the impression that no bits of life were lived without been written down. These silences between the letters fascinated me as much as the letters themselves. But rather than invent dialogue for these interludes in which they actually met, it felt important to me to let Bishop and Lowell speak only in their own words. Bishop’s reserve, and her insistence on not mixing fact and fiction, was always with me as I arranged the letters. All the words from the play are taken from their letters and from their poetry.

There are many ways to do this play. One can imagine the full spectacle I have suggested in the stage directions, complete with planets appearing and water rushing onto the stage, as in its premier at Yale Repertory Theater. I wanted to see the images in their letters made three-dimensional, to somehow see the reach of their imagery. But I’m also interested in how much the language can do all by itself. One can imagine, for example, a simple book club version. I saw pictures of one such event in Illinois and was very moved by the simplicity of non-actors who loved poetry reading the letters out loud to fellow travelers. One could also imagine doing the play in a library, at a poetry foundation, or even doing the play on the set for another play on its dark Monday night. You really need nothing more than a table and two chairs for two wonderful actors who could even read the letters straight from the page rather than memorizing them. You might then use someone to read stage directions rather than projecting subtitles.

Regardless of how the play is performed, in a theater or in a room, when I first read the letters, I felt that they demanded to be read out loud, whether by actors or by lay-people. Bishop and Lowell had unerring, consummate ears, and they wrote poetry for a time when Lowell could command massive crowds in Madison Square Gardens, all gathered to hear him read his poems out loud. I offer this arrangement, then, in the spirit of a contemporary hunger to hear poetry out loud. I think we are starved for the sound of poetry. I wonder if Bishop and Lowell are among the last great people of letters to write out their lives in letter form. Their letters become almost a medieval church constructed in praise of friendship. It’s difficult to write about friendship. Our culture is inundated with the story of romantic love. We understand how romantic love begins, how it ends. We don’t understand, in neat narrative fashion, how friendship begins, how it endures. And yet life would be unbearable without friendship.

--Sarah Ruhl



THE POEMS OF BISHOP AND LOWELL

In 1957, Bishop wrote Armadillo and dedicated it to Lowell. Lowell kept the poem in his wallet, “a kind of talisman for how a poem ought to be.” Later that year, Lowell wrote and dedicated Skunk Hour to Bishop. When he began the poem, he wrote “…I have six poems started. They beat the big drum too much. There’s one in a small voice that’s fairly charmingly written I hope (called “Skunk Hour,” not in your style yet indebted a little to your “Armadillo.”) If I can get two short lines and a word, I’ll mail it to you.”


The Armadillo
For Robert Lowell
by Elizabeth Bishop

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it's hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it's still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!



Skunk Hour
For Elizabeth Bishop
By Robert Lowell

Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill—
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
nobody's here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

Articles
'Dear Elizabeth': An all-enveloping friendship
by John Timpane, Philadelphia Inquirer

Ellen McLaughlin is 'Dear Elizabeth' at People's Light & Theatre
by Rita Charleston, Montgomery News

Reviews
An ode to love at People’s Light
by Ellen Wilson Dilks, Delaware County News Network

'Dear Elizabeth' - People's Light & Theatre Company
by Neal Zoren, Neals Paper

'Dear Elizabeth' at Peoples Light & Theatre
by Anders Back, Daily Local News

People’s Light and Theatre Company’s DEAR ELIZABETH Celebrates the Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
by Kelli Curtin, Theatre Sensation

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