"They had the kind of love that transcends space, time, and the body," playwright Sarah Ruhl says. "I found that very moving."
Ruhl is talking about poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, whose 30-year correspondence and friendship is the subject of Ruhl's new play, Dear Elizabeth, at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Her play's text consists of letters the poets exchanged from 1947 to 1977, when Lowell died. Mary Beth Fisher portrays Bishop and Jefferson Mays — a Best-Actor Tony Award winner in 2004 for I Am My Own Wife (2004) — is Lowell. Les Waters directs.
"A friend gave the letters to me when I was on bed rest for my second pregnancy," Ruhl says — they were published in 2008 as "Words in Air." "I couldn't put them down. I found them compelling. I kept turning page after page to see what happened. I feel that in some way they loved each other, even though they could never have been together."
Bishop was a lesbian; Lowell was divorcing the writer Jean Stafford when he and Bishop met, and went on to marry writers Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood. He was manic-depressive, and later would often be hospitalized. They met at a dinner party in 1947 — she was 36, he 30. They became two of the most renowned and respected 20th-century American poets — he won two Pulitzer Prizes (the first in 1947), she one. They helped each other with their poetry; he considered her the finest contemporary American poet and promoted her career.
Their relationship continued even though — or perhaps because — they rarely saw each other. The letters came from Maine, Key West, London, Brazil.
"I was so moved by the idea of two lives recorded in letters," Ruhl says, "partly because we're in the digital age, where the idea of recording our lives in minute detail in letters is so foreign. And partly because these two individuals were so extraordinary."
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Ruhl, 38, is also extraordinary. She has twice been a Pulitzer finalist, for The Clean House in 2005 and In the Next Room, or the vibrator play in 2010. In the Next Room was also a Best Play Tony nominee. In writing Dear Elizabeth, Ruhl says, she "didn't change the text of the letters much. I arranged them. I edited them slightly. Occasionally I had to change chronology. But I love and respect these writers so much that I wasn't going to wreak havoc with their words."
Ruhl says Bishop has "always been a touchstone to me. I hadn't known Lowell as well. What attracted me to them was this dialectic between them where you have Lowell, who sort of almost started the confessional movement in poetry" — poems of intimate personal revelations — "and Bishop, who was so reserved and restrained. And the way that played out in their poetry and their letters."
There is "this incredibly beautiful letter Lowell writes saying that not asking her to marry him 'might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.' He makes this beautiful confession about what his feelings for her were, and she responds by talking about the shopping she's doing in New York, and why she finds America so depressing, and she really doesn't address the context of his letter. There's this subtext, the dance, the parrying, where he takes an advance and she takes a sidestep emotionally."
It's fortunate that they maintained their distance, Ruhl says. "I don't think they could have gotten along. They would have demolished each other."
(This feature appears in the December 2012 subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)