Lettering the Stage

Sarah Ruhl on her latest play Dear Elizabeth, and why the Bishop-Lowell correspondence is so compelling and what poetry can accomplish that theater cannot.

The playwright Sarah Ruhl has been described in the past as “a poet who is able to drive plot” and “a poet by nature.” It’s a flattering convention to describe a playwright as a lyrical poet, but in this particular case the comparison is apt: Ruhl began her writing life as a poet, publishing a chapbook at age 20. The encouragement of playwright Paula Vogel, her professor at Brown University, changed her career path, though she says that “if I’d found a similarly encouraging poetry teacher at that time in my life, I might have written poetry instead.” Still, it’s hard to question the notion that Ruhl has found her medium. At just 38, she has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist twice, for “The Clean House” (2005) and “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” (2010), and a MacArthur Fellow. Her latest play, “Dear Elizabeth,” is based on the 30-year correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Its premier production is running at the Yale Repertory Theatre through December 22, and the play will move to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in May. She spoke to the Poetry Foundation from her home in Brooklyn, New York.

How did it first occur to you that Bishop and Lowell’s letters could work on the stage?

I’ve always been kind of a Bishop zealot, and when I was on bed rest in my last pregnancy, a friend recommended I read Words in Air, the letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. I found it to be completely captivating. Somehow I felt it had a narrative draw even though ostensibly there’s no plot.

You use Bishop’s “One Art” in the play, and snippets of other poetry, too. How did you choose the pieces of their own work to include?

“One Art” has always been a touchstone poem for me, so I think that’s probably why I chose it. But also I think it’s such an amazing crystallization for me of Bishop’s toughness and her vulnerability. The ambivalence in the poem about accepting loss, and her apparent breezy attitude toward loss. But also actual deep terrible loss that Bishop had experienced in her life. I think it’s a perfect poem, so I had to have her read it in its entirety.

Are there other poets whose work you can imagine dramatizing like this?

I can’t say there are. ... I think for me there’s always that lingering question of how do you stage poetry on stage, and how much poetry can an audience bear, and what is the function of poetry on stage now that we no longer write in meter?

In this play, you’re able to turn a friendship initially based on an artistic and professional foundation into something dramatic. Were there challenges to that?

Their relationship was pretty dramatic! I think that’s partly why the letters are page-turners, because you’re just dying to know what happens in between the letters, when they actually meet up. There’s so much nuance in the way they talk about their meetings, but you’re never quite sure what happened. Like Bishop sort of apologizing, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry about X, Y, or Z. I’ll explain when I see you.” But we never hear the explanation. Or she apologizes about being too teasing and opinionated. He tells her that he’s a new man thanks to her and thanks to seeing her in Stonington. So there are these touchstone moments early on in their relationship when you think they might fall in love or they might get married, and in fact, I think both of them had that “what if?” question about each other.

I think the second act is much more about, OK, we’ve done that, we’ve abandoned that question that drives so many narratives. And what else is there in a narrative? What else is there in a life?

I read in John Lahr’s New Yorker profile of you that you published a poetry collection, “Death in Another Country,” when you were 20. But I can’t find much about it online. What can you tell me about it?

Oh god, you’ll never find out anything about it. ... This dear woman Eloise Fink in Chicago has a teeny-tiny press called Troika. I was in a writer’s group that she ran, and she published this chapbook of mine. It was a chapbook with three other writers, so three chapbooks in one volume. The poems are all about the death of my father. My father died of cancer when I was 20, and the poems were a way of dealing with that.

What were those poems like formally?

This is one reason I turned to this Bishop-Lowell project. Part of my leaving poetry behind was a confusion about subject matter and lyricism. ... I had all these poems about my father dying, and then when I finished writing them I wasn’t sure what a poem was or what I would write a poem about.

I think playwriting was attractive because it’s multi-vocal; there are disguises, there are many characters, there’s a different kind of emotional content from that kind of raw lyricism and confession that I had associated with poetry. That fight between Bishop and Lowell about confession also feels very personal to me. Should poetry be confessional? Should it not be confessional? And what’s left over when you leave out the confession? I think that’s fascinating. And it’s one thing I love about the letters: that fight about confession is very much formally in their work, and also in their letters, and also how they live their lives.

They discuss that openly in the letters?

They specifically talk about the issue, particularly when Lowell publishes The Dolphin, which had his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in it. Bishop was just outraged that he chose to use actual personal letters.

It’s also in the letters in the sense that he confesses to her more than she does to him. He writes her this amazing confessional letter saying [she was] “the one towering change, the other life that might have been.” And she answers the letter saying, Gosh, I don’t know why I didn’t write you sooner, my friend’s just returning from Bloomingdale’s. There are all these evasions, these incredible evasions, for Bishop. She’s avoiding his emotionality, which I think scared her.

Are there things a play can do that a poem just can’t?

When I discovered you could take imagery from a poem and make it three-dimensional with designers, that they would actually put an image you wrote on a stage—in a way it’s the great limitation of the stage, because it’s never quite as sublime as you’d hoped for in your imagination. But it’s also incredible to be able to write an image and leave it open-ended and then have a designer actually design it and put it right there to look at.

That’s the one big question when you sit down to write a play: How much of the imagery will only exist in the language, and how much of it will you actually see?

And what about the opposite question: Are there things poetry can do that theater can’t?

Yes. I think there’s an incredible intimacy between the reader and the poem. And it’s hard to have that merging in the theater where you have bodies interfering. But I think some of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had in the theater are when theater rises to that level of poetry, where there’s something invisible, something atmospheric hovering. That the language is soaring to something, almost incomplete, almost there, not quite describable. So I’m really interested in the way that theater can approach a kind of readerly experience that you might have with a poem.

Poetry plays a huge and obvious role in “Dear Elizabeth,” but does it inform your work in ways the casual theatergoer may not have noticed?

I don’t know. I think it would be better for someone else to analyze and describe because in a way I try not to know too much about my work. I will say when I first started writing plays I would actually steal scraps of poetry I had written and stick them in, in a blundering kind of way. I was still making the transition from poetry to plays. The more I started writing plays and the less I wrote poetry, the more the plays felt they had their own vernacular. I didn’t have to go to my journal and steal poems and stick them in.

Some of your stage directions seem poetic to me. Why make them so beautiful?

One battle I feel like I’ve waged is to let stage directions be readerly in that way, for them to not be clunky blocks of blueprint-y directions to actors and designers that a reader has to stumble through and the director then just crosses out and ignores. Stage directions are a vital part of the reading experience. Even though the audience doesn’t hear them or see them necessarily, they inform the aesthetic of what they’re seeing and hearing.

I take great pleasure in the book finally coming out, maybe because I originally wanted to write books. It’s not the kind of thing where you could just gather up all the dialogue that was spoken. … The thing is some kind of whole.

Do you read much contemporary poetry these days?

A little bit … as much as I read anything. I have three kids under the age of six, so if you ask me what I’ve read lately, it’s Goodnight Moon.

I was excited that Louise Glück had a new book out that celebrates 50 years of her poetry. I think she’s extraordinary. I love Wallace Stevens. I love the Irish poets; I love Seamus Heaney. I love so many different poets who are so different from each other. I love Auden, and I also love Rumi. I like E.E. Cummings and I think it’s terrible he’s been turned into this treacly sentimentalist when he was completely avant-garde. I think Anne Carson is a total genius, and I’m really interested in what she’s been doing for the stage lately. I love Latin poetry; I love Catullus and Sappho and Horace. And I like Chinese and Japanese lyric poetry.

I read an interview where you said that all the variables of launching a play that go beyond writingcasting, and staging, and reviewsmake you “just want to write a slim volume of poetry.” Is that a real temptation?

Yes, always after a bad review. I got one yesterday, and one thinks, Oh, it’s just too dependent on materiality, why not write a book of poems? On the other hand, writing plays is like life. It’s not Platonic. It depends on all these variables, and you do the best you can. There’s a lot of luck involved, even after your best efforts, and that’s really what life is like anyway. I think the desire to write a “slim volume” is a flight from that; it’s the desire to be a little more hermetic and have more control over how things are received.

Ultimately you don’t have control over how your work is received. It’s a bit of a fiction or a fantasy that if at least just the words are under your control, and there are no material trappings, you could get a better shot. [She laughs.] I don’t think that’s even true. I don’t think Lowell is in control of how he’s received anymore. It’s funny looking at Bishop and Lowell, and how Lowell was so much more famous in his day than Bishop was, and now Bishop is, I think, much more widely read than Lowell. Maybe it’ll change again in 50 years, 75 years.

Originally Published: December 18th, 2012

Ruth Graham is a journalist in New Hampshire.

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  1. September 22, 2013
     Jennifer O'Grady

    I loved this interview with the brilliant Sarah Ruhl. As a poet and
    playwright, I found her thoughts about both genres interesting and
    illuminating. Thanks for making this available.

  2. March 15, 2016
     Dianne Hood

    I'm very interested in purchasing a copy of the script
    for Dear Elizabeth. Is it available?
    Thank you