When praising Elizabeth Bishop, the poet James Merrill wrote, “… The unpretentiousness of her form is very appealing… The way her whole oeuvre is on the scale of a human life; there is no oracular amplification, she doesn’t go about on stilts to make her vision wider. She doesn’t need that. She’s wise and humane enough as it is.” This praise is equally true of Sarah Ruhl, one of today’s most celebrated and strikingly original playwrights, and it is especially applicable to her newest work, “Dear Elizabeth,” which is currently in its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater through December 22. The brief summary provided on the poster states that “Dear Elizabeth” is “a play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again.” Which is also to say: “Dear Elizabeth” is the story of the sympathetic and lively connection of two of this century’s greatest poetic minds. WKND corresponded with Ruhl, alas by phone not post, as she took the train into New Haven to attend the play’s afternoon rehearsal.
Q. It’s clear that Bishop and Lowell’s correspondence is unique — both in volume and for the level of lyrical excitement they are able to maintain, even when composing casual, quotidian prose. But among all the letters in the world, what drew you to Bishop and Lowell’s correspondence in particular? Did you already know you wanted to write a play about letters, or was the content of their letters your initial inspiration?
A. Someone gave me [their collected letters] while I was on bedrest … I had ambitions about reading much more lofty things while I was on bedrest, but I was so anxious about my baby that I couldn’t focus on anything. For some reason, “Words in Air” — their complete correspondence, had, for me, a real narrative drive. I was so attached to these two people, and I just wanted to stay with them. And I just wonder[ed] what it would be like for actors to read some of this out loud because I felt — they were poets, there was something very oral about the letters and, [something] in a way, performative. I think I never would have set myself the task formally because it’s such an impossible task to write a play without dialogue, but it was more just [about] spending more time with those two people.
Q. Was the fact that they present a lot of similarities as people — both being such incredible stylists, full of wit and restraint, both being upper-class, both having had troubled childhoods and ill mental health at various stages throughout their life — at all difficult when it came to distinguishing between them as characters?
A. It’s funny that you ask that because for me they’re so different. I mean, they’re both obviously witty and smart and literary and have that in common, but Bishop is so reserved and her wit is so dry, and Lowell is so expansive and so big and larger than life in his persona and in his writing. I don’t think restraint interested him terribly, even though form interested him. And his sense of humor is more expansive and less dry than Bishop’s.
Q. When you began to arrange the letters, did you always know you wanted to stick to their recitation, or did you ever consider formatting them as dialogue, as if the two were talking?
A. Well, it’s hard for me to remember because before I started the writing process, I had to inquire into the rights from the Lowell estate and the Bishop estate, and they were quite strict about not meddling with the letters. So I think it would have been my impulse anyway to stay quite faithful to what they’ve written, but it was also the estate that felt strongly about that.
Q. You were talking about how putting letters on stage is already a difficult formal task. Moreover, these letters are about poetry and the poetic process, if not small works of poetry themselves. As a lot of your plays often take what might seem like an ordinary moments and imbue them with a sublime poeticism, was it at all a challenge to work with material that was already so inherently poetic and crafted in its nature?
A. Well, I think part of the experiment was, “Can I write a play with no dialogue?” and “What is the status of poetry on stage right now?” That’s something I think a lot about when I watch other people’s plays.
When Lowell was alive he would read in the Boston Common, and all of these people would listen to him, so he was a little bit like a rock star. And I thought when Lowell and Bishop read these poems onstage like set pieces, how will that function in an age where poetry’s not the culture in a broad way? I think about how much poetry is in Shakespeare’s work and how it’s sort of celebrated in and of itself, and I was just interested to look at it as an experiment. For me, I also find it very pleasurable to hear those poems read out loud. So for selfish reasons, I enjoy it.
Q. And in terms of the status of poetry, I’m more familiar with Bishop’s work so I’m curious about the sense of the theatrical and scene-setting in her poetry. She seems to create all these kinds of surfaces that are also always sort of breaking. Has this play changed the way you think about the relationship between poetry and playwriting? Has it changed or complicated your own relationship to the two media, and perhaps the way you might approach future work?
A. I started out writing poetry, and then started writing plays when I was in my 20s, but the relationship between the two forms really fascinated me — thinking about how much poetry you can slide by with onstage. It might affect my next play, who knows? And I think it also interests me with every play, in terms of pushing the limits a little bit, I’m wondering if each play is actually a play.
Q. Having never read the letters before, I was struck by how witty they were without being snarky or smug. The way they were talking to each other seemed like a sort of necessary, even ethical, irony. So I’m wondering if there was a specific formal element to the way they were talking that the audience was supposed to latch on to as the play’s central constitutive element, or was everything fair game in terms of being a point of access? In other words, is it right to feel that these little things matter and count? Because it sometimes seemed as though the most “human” or relatable moments were in these ironized asides, if that makes sense?
A. Completely … I think “ethical irony” is quite beautiful and accurate for both of them. Because they gossip a lot, but they aren’t snarky. And in terms of the level of detail, there’s something I love so much about Bishop’s “smallness” and how you can learn as much about her thoughts from something small as from a deeper confession. I think there’s something affirming about her work. I think it’s rather different from Lowell’s work because he goes head-on to a larger extent with these sort of large themes. I always felt an affinity for Bishop and came later to Lowell’s poetry, which I first learned about from the letters.
Q. In terms of a pleasurable smallness, this play is kind of quieter in a lot of respects than “Passion Play” or “Eurydice.”
A. You said quieter, right? This train is so loud. Yes, it is much quieter, and I will confess to you that that is hard for me, because I am not used to it, but I also think it’s good for me to trust it and see what it’s like to write a quieter play … The form and the content sort of dictate that quietude. In a way, a new level of attention is required of the audience. They really have to come to it, they have to throw their full selves at it, at the silences, and at the scenes where they don’t know what’s happening.
Q. I guess that also connects to thinking about the status of poetry or about testing that limit between theater and recitation. Like poetry that cultivates in the reader a new sort of attention. The audience has to really be a part of it and immediately engage. There aren’t any pyrotechnics.
A. Yeah, and I think that might be part of why the status of poetry is an activity of mine and it also takes a quiet, both in the world and in your consciousness, to receive poems. So in a way, it’s redefining the quality of attention that you’re asking for. And I confess to you that I find it deeply uncomfortable asking that much of the audience, but when they are all watching it together, I also find it quite beautiful.
Q. What’s your favorite Bishop poem, if you have one?
A. “One Art.” Always. It’s always been “One Art.”
Q. Have you seen that edition with all of her different drafts and versions?
A. Yeah, it’s so incredible.
Q. Yeah, and just the fact that she’d hang poems on her wall with words missing and wait until the right word came to her, sometimes for months, to fill them in.
A. I love some of her new poems in the new book of uncollected poems that she didn’t want published in her lifetime. And I think that some of them are personal and quite lovely. “Edgar Allen Poe & the Juke-Box.”
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add about the production?
A. I think it’s a very unusual love story to be able to tell, and I feel very humble about being able to tell [it.] It’s kind of a difficult romantic comedy. It is about friendship, and it is about how life comes in eventually. There is a structure of art that we want to look at tightly and orderly, but suddenly someone commits suicide or someone has a heart attack. For me, it’s the opportunity to show a theatrical structure that is more similar to what I think the shape of life actually looks like, but I think it can be a stretch for an audience because it’s not the structure we normally see on stage.
Q. What do you think is the status of plays that are more about friendship in theater or art right now? Or a love that isn’t consummated?
A. I think they are very untold. Count the great narratives about friendship that you know.
Q. Yeah. Not many.
A. There are not many friendships between men and women actually enduring. You could argue that in terms of evolutionary biology, we’re not wired to even accept that as a narrative. People want to have sex and procreate — that’s like the whole thing. Have sex or die. So it’s very moving to show the shape of a life and the shape of a mind over time, as it’s not a story we normally get access to.