Sarah Ruhl's Dear Elizabeth Scans the Poetry of Two Hearts, at Yale Rep

By Mervyn Rothstein
29 Nov 2012

Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Inspired by the correspondence of 20th-century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, playwright Sarah Ruhl shapes Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher and Jefferson Mays.

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"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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