Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again
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A moving, innovative play based on one of the greatest correspondences in literary history
From 1947 to 1977, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop exchanged more than four hundred letters. Describing the writing of their poems, their travel and daily illnesses, the pyrotechnics of their romantic relationships, and the profound affection they had for each other, these missives are the most intimate record available of both poets and one of the greatest correspondences in American literature.
The playwright Sarah Ruhl fell in love with these letters and set herself an unusual challenge: to turn this thirty-year exchange into a stage play, and to bring to life the friendship of two writers who were rarely even in the same country. As innovative as it is moving, Dear Elizabeth gives voice to a conversation that lived mostly in writing, illuminating some of the finest poems of the twentieth century and the minds that produced them.
you my last letter, I wanted to write another taking it back. Elizabeth and I are happily back together … after the voyage to Somes Sound. It was rich in undramatic mishaps. We went ashore … Elizabeth had drunk a whole water tumbler of the martinis to which she is allergic. She sprawled on the fore-cabin and began to discuss sotto voce an amazingly frank and detailed reappraisal of our entire marriage. It went on for an hour and a half. She said that we were all leaving the next day for Boston
good—no, gorgeous lines—I’ll show you my underlinings sometime— Well, I’ll see you in Cambridge or New York—and maybe in North Haven next summer— She looks up sharply. She breathes in. Then she stands up and reads the following poem. While she reads, Robert Lowell casually rises from the dead. He leans against a wall and listens to the poem. BISHOP North Haven In memoriam: Robert Lowell The goldfinches are back, or others like them, and the white-throated sparrow’s five-note song,
the audience as though they are in the act of composing them. They should feel in the moment of discovering the thought for the first time. They might even read them from the page at times. My first impulse when creating this piece was mainly to hear these letters read out loud. So I can imagine full productions of the play, including water, ladders, and moons; and I can also imagine stripped-down versions in which the main event is hearing two actors, or two readers, simply read the thing out
gross, slovenly, mean and brutally verbose as you want. She stands with her suitcase. You absolutely must leave Yaddo and your horrible archeologist lover and join us in Florence. She exits. He looks puzzled, and slightly wounded, watching her exit. Dear Elizabeth, Write soon and tell us about Brazil. Why Brazil? Brazilian music. Part Three: Brazil They age somehow. Bishop enters. SUBTITLE: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 21, 1952 BISHOP Dear Cal, I wanted to go around the world
ladder. Or appears to jump off a ladder. But maybe he just disappears into thin air. The record ends. He reappears. She looks up. LOWELL I want you and Lota to know that I am at last in reverse. I am taking my anti-manic pills—75 mgs. of sparine, no more than what my doctor prescribed on the bottle but too much to drive or even see people much. The effect is something like the slowing and ache of a medium fever. I want you to know … Oh, dear, I wanted you to know so many things …