From the Artistic Director:
The Idea of a Poets’ Theatre
Purcell & Friends: THE TEMPEST
A collaboration with The Poets' Theatre
March 22, 2019 8pm | Cathedral Church of Saint Paul
138 Tremont Street, Boston
Tickets: $60 | $40 | $25 student/ senior
What is the Poets’ Theatre? We get asked this question often. I have two principal answers about our understanding of what we are and why we exist under that name – but both answers reflect a central idea: we are a theatre that uniquely combines the world of poetry and the world of the theatre. To this we naturally add the world of music, which partakes of both. Those three worlds by and large keep to their own specialized spheres. We like to unite them – in our name and in our practice. Thus, we are all about performance -- the fully theatricalized presentation, live, in a theatre, of beautifully crafted language and with them, the majesty of great music.
Our own Poets’ Theatre members, Laurence Senelick and Ben Evett are central to the upcoming concert version of The Tempest. Laurence -- himself a prolific writer, director, and performer, has prepared a “concert reduction” of the complex libretto of this baroque entertainment. Ben Evett, our award-winning principal actor, narrates the evening. Ian Watson conducts (as he did for King Arthur).
This “Poets’ Theatre” business can take many forms. Our reference ideal is an original full-length play in verse, or an opera with a poetic libretto, carefully rehearsed and performed live with the full complement of theatre arts: sets, costumes, staging, lighting, music and movement. Such productions are expensive, and therefore rare. “Floating” a new play by a poet usually requires a donor who believes in the mission. This requires an act of faith. But such donors exist, and their audiences are ready and waiting.
The original founders of the Poets’ Theatre were young poets just starting in their careers. Richard Wilbur, Richard Eberhardt, Donald Hall, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery…. these friends and classmates met as undergraduates at Harvard, and they were inspired by two dominant giants of poetry when they were young men: William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot – both of whom had called for the revival of poetic drama in the twentieth century. Yeats and Eliot had both written ambitious plays in verse, and both explicitly urged fellow poets to follow their example.
In 1950, the year the Poets’ Theatre was founded, the American theatre was not welcoming to poets. Dick Wilbur (whom we only recently lost) remembered that they started their seat-of-the-pants Poets’ Theatre “with a vengeance.” He meant by that that they were animated by a strong anti-commercial anti-Broadway animus: that their ambition was a “higher” thing, inspired by deathless artistic aspirations. When Ben Evett and David Gullette and I revived the Poets’ Theatre in 2014, we consciously harkened to these founders, Wilbur and John Ashbery alike, who gave us their blessing and wished us better luck than had been theirs…. And this year, we have lost them both.
But they readily acknowledged how much they had benefitted from their Poets’ Theatre experience. Ashbery told me he might still have a play stashed away somewhere that he had written and had performed by the Poets’ Theatre in those early years. John also remembered appearing onstage himself (something he was careful to avoid the rest of his life). Dylan Thomas burst on the Cambridge scene in 1953, and while directly engaged with the Poets’ Theatre, he wrote Under Milk Wood and performed its premiere as a Poets’ Theatre offering in Cambridge.
No single comparable work has yet emerged from The Poets’ Theatre, but Under Milk Wood has become our house talisman. We have often revived it, and we launched the current revival with a sumptuous production with an all-star cast. We filled Sanders Theatre at Harvard – site of many of the Poets’ Theatre’s greatest offerings over the years. It was at Sanders that Andreas Teuber, then the theatre’s Artistic Director, assembled an astonishing tribute to T.S. Eliot on the occasion of his centenary. Poets Derek Walcott, Rosanna Warren, Bill Alfred, Donald Hall, Amy Clampitt, Anthony Hecht, Lloyd Schwatrz, William Corbett, Robert Pinsky, were joined by singer/songwriter James Taylor, and actors Stockard Channing, Jerome Kilty, Sandra Shipley, Kathryn Walker, Wally Shawn, Sam Waterston, and Irene Worth. The literary critics Roger Shattuck, Christopher Ricks also participated onstage. I was there and played a small scene opposite Derek Walcott and Sam Waterston…
At the T.S. Eliot extravaganza, scenes from The Confidential Clerk and from The Family Reunion were also staged. All of the poets who participated subsequently did other Poets’ Theatre events with us, and they were joined by Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, James Merrill, Frank Bidart and several others in subsequent years.
In recent years, since our revival, the following poets have appeared on our stages all over Cambridge and Boston: Fred Marchant, David Ferry, Eamon Grennan, George Kalogeris, Marcia Karp, Nguyễn Bá Chung, Lloyd Schwartz, Greg Delanty, Walter Valeri, Regie Gibson, Jill McDonough, Richard Fein, Jennifer Barber, George Kalogeris, Meg Tyler, Martha Collins, Danielle Legros Georges, David Gullette. And we have staged many events that were full theatrical presentations, the proudest of these being an original work by Matthew Spangler and Ben Evett (the latter also performing the solo role) called Albatross, based on the Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This play won multiple awards.
Everything we do is highly theatrical, and everything we chose is highly poetic and text-based: we invite our audiences to spoken-word events…. And to music of the highest order: we staged the 1691 semi-opera King Arthur, text (and play) by John Dryden, music by Henry Purcell. This baroque feast of poetry and music was a collaboration with the Henry Purcell Society of Boston, an organization founded and led by soprano Jessica Cooper, with Musical Director Ian Watson a major force behind our joint productions. We found common artistic ground in our joint venture, and are collaborating again this month on the opera The Tempest.
Short of the ideal of grand works on this scale, we work with “poetic” texts: literature that is highly wrought, that rises to the level poets themselves establish for “Poetry.” This is not as elistist as it may sound, because the art of poetry is not demarcated by class or education, by occupation or wealth. Poetry is an aesthetic, and lyric poems are but one form of that aesthetic. When we identify ourselves as The Poets’ Theatre, it is our way of dedicating ourselves in the theatre to an aesthetic analogous to the tight formal demands the lyric poets place upon themselves.
The Poets’ Theatre was founded by poets, and the Poets’ Theatre has been enthusiastically adopted by actors and directors, designers and musicians, who crave a better level of writing in the contemporary theatre. Thus, there is an “elevation” aimed at in the very name of a Poets’ Theatre. Elevation above the ordinary. Elevation of thought and diction above the daily barrage of chatter and explanation, gossip and commentary, elevation to an unmistakable level of art.
Come see The Tempset on March 22 at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul.