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Dear Elizabeth

Dazzling use of language on display in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of the letters of the great 20th century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

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Ellen McLaughlin as Elizabeth Bishop and Rinde Eckert as Robert Lowell in “Dear Elizabeth” by Sarah Ruhl (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Ellen McLaughlin as Elizabeth Bishop and Rinde Eckert as Robert Lowell in “Dear Elizabeth” by Sarah Ruhl (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The great mid-20th century American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were friends from 1947 until his sudden death 30 years later. As they were usually in different cities and countries (Bishop lived in Brazil for many years while Lowell lived in New York City and Boston), they wrote each other over 450 letters which were published in 2008 as Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Sarah Ruhl, an adventurous playwright whose plays tend to be very different from each other, has adapted the letters for the stage in a homage to writing and friendship called Dear Elizabeth in which all of the words are that of the poets. Kate Whorskey’s fascinating production for WP Theater (formerly The Women’s Project) has staged the play much in the manner of last year’s revival of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters and also with revolving casts.

The letters begin in 1947 soon after the poets have been introduced by Randall Jarrell. Bishop writes to “Mr. Lowell” to congratulate him on winning the Pulitzer Prize. Soon she is being asked to call him “Cal,” his long time nickname. Bishop writes of her travels, her move to Brazil to be with her lover Lota (architect Lota de Macedo Soares), her return to America to teach, and the death of Lota. Lowell writes of his divorce from short story writer Jean Stafford, his marriage to essayist Elizabeth Hardwick and the birth of his daughter Harriet, his affair with Anglo-Irish novelist Lady Caroline Blackwood and subsequent marriage to her.

They speak of their travels and their homes: New York, Yaddo (the writer’s colony), Massachusetts, Italy, London for Lowell, New York, Maine, Washington, D.C., Key West , Brazil, Boston for Bishop. They write of their demons: her asthma and alcoholism, his manic depression which leads to many hospitalizations. They also write about poetry and the problems of writing, and of writers they are in touch with (Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Anais Nin, Ezra Pound, Peter Taylor, Flannery O’Connor, Marianne Moore, Stanley Kunitz). They offer each other advice on the work they are doing.

Ellen McLaughlin as Elizabeth Bishop and Rinde Eckert as Robert Lowell in “Dear Elizabeth” by Sarah Ruhl (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Ellen McLaughlin as Elizabeth Bishop and Rinde Eckert as Robert Lowell in “Dear Elizabeth” by Sarah Ruhl (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Their letters are wise and witty, both revealing of their characters and enlightening on the ways of the heart.  They recite their most famous poems in various ways: she records “The Fish,” and later reads “The Armadillo” which Lowell carried around in his pocket the rest of his life, and he dedicates “Skunk Hour” to her and they take turns reading it aloud. He finishes a poem, “Water,” which recalls their meeting one weekend in Maine, and she reads her “One Art” which sums up her philosophy: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” The most dramatic moment is when Bishop writes to Lowell to tell him not to publish The Dolphin in which he has not only used his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters but also altered them to suit his purposes: “Lizzie is not dead – but here is a mixture of fact & fiction, and you have changed her letters. That is ‘infinite mischief,’ I think.” Ironically, the book went on to win Lowell his second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Whoriskey has staged the play with both actors at desks from which they not so much read the letters as say them as though composing them at that moment or talking to the other on the phone. Stage manager Polly Noonan (in all six casts) sits at a desk on stage left and sets the scene for each section of the play. When Bishop and Lowell meet so that there are gaps in the letters, they get up and encounter each other in “Interludes” which are narrated by Noonan. The stage is backed by a cyclorama used for effective mood lighting by Mary Louise Geiger and a set by Antje Ellermann of many suitcases and trunks, some open to pictures and objects that relate to the poets.

The cast under review is made up of Ellen McLaughlin and Rinde Eckert. Both make you feel that they are not so much acting, but that you have met Bishop and Lowell in the flesh. Both are wry and ironic in their delivery, while she seems fragile and uncertain and he appears patrician and self-confident. While he was famous as part of the confessional school of poetry, it is she who seems to be revealing the most of her inner life.  Not for an instant does attention flag and you hang on their every word wanting to know how things turn out and what event or disaster will engulf them next. This is a platonic love affair but one from which both characters take much sustenance. Both Bishop and Lowell told others that each was the other’s best friend. McLaughlin and Eckert make that clear from the very beginning.

Dear Elizabeth is a dazzle of language used at the highest level to convey the feelings and ideas of major poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell as clearly as possible. Playwright Sarah Ruhl has dissected and arranged the thoughts of two of the best minds of the 20th century so that we know them intimately by the end of the evening. The gaps in the chronology or their shorthand with each other will only send you to do your own reading at a later date. In Cast 5, Ellen McLaughlin and Rinde Eckert will mesmerize you into forgetting you are hearing letters rather than dialogue in a play. Kate Whoriskey’s minimalist production allows the burnished words to speak in all their full glory. The WP Theater has gone to a great deal of trouble to place one work by either Bishop or Lowell on each arm rest so that audience member has the chance to go home with “a poem for your pocket.”

Six Rotating Casts of Theater Luminaries:

October 26 – 31 – Kathleen Chalfant, Harris Yulin & Polly Noonan

November 2 – 7 – J. Smith Cameron, John Douglas Thompson & Polly Noonan

November 9 – 14 – Becky Ann Baker, Peter Scolari & Polly Noonan

November 16 – 21 – Cherry Jones, David Aaron Baker & Polly Noonan

November 23 – 28 – Ellen McLaughlin, Rinde Eckert & Polly Noonan

November 30 – December 5 – Mia Katigbak, Harris Yulin & Polly Noonan

Dear Miss Bishop: Poets in Conversation with Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, a series of conversations with important contemporary poets and writers:

December 5 – Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison (Author and Educator, Touched with Fire, An Unquiet Mind) and Dr. Anthony Charuvastra, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, and Educator

Dear Elizabeth (through December 5, 2015)

WP Theater (formerly Women’s Project)

McGinn-Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (793 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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