In “Elizabeth,” a life in letters

Jefferson Mays plays Robert Lowell in the show’s world premiere.
Jefferson Mays plays Robert Lowell in the show’s world premiere. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

In “Dear Elizabeth,” a world premiere opening at the Yale Repertory Theatre this Friday, renowned playwright Sarah Ruhl distills over 800 pages of letters between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop into a story for the stage.

The letters portray the two writers’ evolving friendship and love and paint a unique picture of their relationship, which did not fit into the model of “usual romantic love,” Ruhl said. She added that the letters explore everything from the struggles of solitude and alcoholism to the challenges of writing. Lowell, for instance, describes in one letter how he spent two weeks working on the arrangement of two words.

“We might never again see this kind of representation of lives in letters in this digital age,” Ruhl said.

Jefferson Mays ’87, who plays Robert Lowell, explained that letters lend themselves to the form of a play since, as a form of communication, they naturally fall between thought and speech. The stage directions call for the lines to be “spoken as living thought,” he added.

The play’s basis in letters, however, means that it is very “quiet” and almost “anti-theatrical,” Ruhl said. While every spoken line in the play is drawn directly from the text of the letters, Ruhl had to invent the physical, theatrical motions and the dramatic structure necessary to transform the raw material of the letters. She explained that she created scenes that portray events not necessarily spelled out clearly in the letters, such as a meeting between the two poets on a beach in Maine. In this way, the show departs from the realism of the two poets sitting and writing to each other, instead making use of more imaginative visual elements.

While Bishop and Lowell’s poetry and letters already evoke water themes, water actually floods onto the stage in one of Ruhl’s constructed scenes. Such moments allow the play to explore the emotional subtext of the letters, Mays said.

“It’s a wildly theatrical expression of what’s bubbling beneath the surface of the letters,” Mays said.

Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Elizabeth Bishop, said that interpreting Ruhl’s stage directions has been a challenging experience for the show’s two actors. She added that the stage directions are often “poetic gestures in themselves.”

“‘A planet appears, she gets on it’ is a sample stage direction, or something like, ‘They are waist-deep in water,’ and you go, ‘Okay how you do that on stage?’” Fisher said.

Fisher said the play does not follow the Aristotelian structure of having a clear beginning, climax and conclusion, and is not “plot-driven” in a traditional sense. Instead, the show gives the audience a more reflective, emotional experience as it watches Lowell and Bishop’s friendship unfold and deepen onstage.

This loose structure reflects how the letters themselves portray “the ordinary fate of life,” Ruhl said, adding that the play expresses the collision between the ideal form people project onto their lives and the “arbitrary, accidental way things really happen.”

The letters span 30 years in the poets’ lives, and the actors must portray the characters at many small moments over the course of their long relationship, Mays said. He added that approaching his character in such a “fragmentary way” is unusual, and that the play leaves the audience to fill in some of the resulting gaps.

Since the Rep’s production of “Dear Elizabeth” is a world premiere, the play’s text is not yet set in stone. Director Les Waters, who has collaborated with Ruhl often in the past, said the play underwent many textual changes during the rehearsal process. The group reordered and cut some material, and Ruhl constructed new scenes on-site. Ruhl added that she expects to learn from the show’s run at the Rep and that it will continue to evolve through its first few runs.

After working on “Dear Elizabeth” for over 18 months, Waters said he is excited to see how the audience will react to the world the play creates.

Sarah Ruhl’s play “Eurydice” premiered at the Rep in 2006.

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