Poets Engage in Personal Relationship through Letters

Carrie Jay Sayer as Elizabeth Bishop and Joel Mitchell as Robert Lowell

By Daniel Skora

Theatre Nova is currently presenting “Dear Elizabeth”, a play based on the correspondence between two 20th century American poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. In their exchange of letters, which continued for some thirty years, the two carried on a relationship that was filled with mutual love and respect. Though the themes of their poetry took them down different paths, it was the art of their shared craft and their need for support that made them kindred spirits.

The two became acquainted at a chance meeting at a literary party, but would meet only occasional for the remainder of their lives. Each went their separate ways, travelling extensively. Bishop had an inheritance which negated the need to hold a job or worry about money.

Carrie Jay Sayer and Joel Mitchell All photos by Daniel C. Walker

Lowell was appointed to the post of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress. He married three times and became an anti-war political activist and conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. A manic depressive, he spent considerable time in and out of hospitals for treatment. He often credited Elizabeth Bishop as being an influence on his writing. In his poetry, Lowell became a chronicler of his personal experiences and the emotional turmoil that characterized it.

Bishop was a perfectionist who suffered from alcoholism and depression.  Her lifetime output of poems was minimal compared to that of Lowell.  She spent a significant number of years in South America in a lesbian relationship with an architect of some renown who later committed suicide. Bishop shunned the confessional style, her poetry reflecting instead the viewpoint of an impartial observer of the world around her. Both poets went on to win National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes.

Their letters defined their friendship and would keep them involved in each other’s lives for decades. The dialogue in “Dear Elizabeth” by playwright Sarah Ruhl is taken entirely from those letters. They provide an interesting look into the minds of two accomplished poets and their artistic careers. They also contain a smattering of gossip, both literary and otherwise, comments on works-in-progress, and verbal snapshots of people and places visited.

Carrie Jay Sayer

Though the script can and has been performed with two actors seated at a table reading the letters, Theatre Nova’s fine production of “Dear Elizabeth” is no “Love Letters”. The actors move freely about the stage, and words originally written on paper become conversational exchanges between the two. Director David Wolber has done an exceptional job of giving the show energy and excitement and allowing the intensity generated throughout the letters to show through in his actors. Carrie Jay Sayer as Elizabeth Bishop and Joel Mitchell as Robert Lowell make for a compelling couple. Bishop comes off as being the most affected by a relationship that was never able to escape the limitations of the written word, giving Sayer the more emotional and dramatic role. Mitchell is the beneficiary of Lowell’s wit as well as his habit of writing everything, including his letters, with the same literary excellence he gave his poetry.

Carrie Jay Sayer and Joel Mitchell

To soften the blow of the play’s considerable fluctuations of time, place, and context, certain key events are made more clear in the form of backlit notations projected onto the set’s background. Daniel C. Walker’s lighting helps too, and his set design of two opposing desks on opposite ends of Theatre Nova’s stage place the two characters firmly in an epistolary environment. Carla Milarch does sound and costume design.

In the course of its brief 90 minute excursion, Ruhl’s selections from the hundreds of available letters cut a generous swath through the lives of the two poets. A brush-up course on the two poets would undoubtedly be beneficial for a greater enjoyment of the show, but is by no means necessary. The show can easily be enjoyed in its simplest of terms: a man and a woman with an almost unspeakable attraction to each other, though separated by commitments and the far and wide, are yet able to carry on an endearing relationship through their letters.

“Dear Elizabeth” runs through September 25th. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $20 and can be reserved by calling 734.635.8450. Theatre Nova is located at 416 W. Huron Street in the Yellow Barn a stone’s throw off the road in downtown Ann Arbor.

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