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A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl's Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.
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Robert Lowell. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Lowell. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

They met at a party. Not something from the society page, just a small dinner party. He needed a haircut and his blue suit was wrinkled; she was nervous, but got over her shyness. There was a giant black cat called Kitten.

She was Elizabeth Bishop, and he was Robert Lowell, and the cat belonged to Randal Jarrell. The dinner took place in 1947, and it was the first of only a few times that Lowell and Bishop actually saw each other in the flesh. They were almost always in different cities, usually on different continents. “We seem attached to each other by some stuff piece of wire,” Lowell wrote, “so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.”

Geography being no real barrier to friendship, the two poets exchanged thousands of letters and became real, fleshy friends. Published separately first, and then together, their letters form an extraordinary archive. The 900-page volume, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, is what the playwright Sarah Ruhl found herself reading a few years ago while on bed rest; she “hungered to hear them read aloud,” and so turned them into a play.

It’s an odd thing, though, reading a play that is meant to be performed that is itself a performance of letters that were meant to be read.

I saw Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again when it premiered in 2012 at the Yale Repertory Theater, and was pleased to see it published this month. Ruhl is a careful surgeon, cutting and stitching just the right bits of the letters together to animate the extensive archive, but also give life to the extraordinary friendship.

It’s an odd thing, though, reading a play that is meant to be performed that is itself a performance of letters that were meant to be read. Reading the letters or listening to them being read, whichever way you devour them, you taste so many different things: alcohol and asthma, cornflakes, neon-eyed toucans and Pulitzer prizes, Ernest Hemingway’s swimming pool, lighted cigarettes and drunken nights, and, without ever saying so, friendship. Mainly, the letters are about friendship. Lowell and Bishop were not just poets, but dear friends.

But how do you make friendship into a plot? It’s not a narrative, but two lives twisting and untwisting. It’s two friends telling each other everything, but sometimes nothing; corresponding every few days, and then going long periods without being in touch. In the introduction to her play, Ruhl writes that Bishop and Lowell lived “lives intersecting, [but] rarely meeting,” and that their letters are “a dialectic between the interior poetic life and the pear-shaped, particular, sudden, ordinary life-as-it-is-lived.”

Their exchanges across the decades reveal a deep, abiding friendship, one that sustained them through divorce and heartache, addiction and mental illness. The letters and Ruhl’s play are so compelling because while most of us cannot write the kind of poetry Robert Lowell wrote, much less the perfect poems Elizabeth Bishop constructed, we would like to believe that we can find a friendship like theirs: that we could write letters such as these and deserve to receive such letters, that we are the sort of friend capable of sending and showing such affection.

Like Bishop and Lowell we watch our hairs turn gray, we go to the ocean, we worry about having children, we divorce, and we fall asleep drunk. We do almost all the things they did, so why shouldn’t such friendship and devotion find us the way it found them? That is, at least for me, the most compelling mystery of their lives—not their professional success or romantic failures, but their fixed friendship.

That is why the epistolary play works as well as it does. The awards and books, the marriages and divorces: Those are all successes and failures documented and dissected elsewhere. What matters here, in the letters and in the play, is how they got each other through these things. Lowell and Bishop are only poets in their poetry and often partners in their biographies, but in their letters they are mostly friends. They write not only to one another, but for one another, and all their exchanges across the decades are an archive, but also a template for how to love someone else as a friend.

Sarah Ruhl writes in the preface to Dear Elizabeth: “Our culture is inundated with stories of romantic love. We understand how romantic love begins, how it ends. We don’t understand, in neat narrative fashion, how friendship begins, how it endures. And yet life would be unbearable without friendship.”

That unbearable solitude is proven by the play itself, for whenever life made them lonely, Lowell and Bishop had each other. Their letters, even in those periods of quiet and confusion and chaos, are still full of life. The great gift, then, of their letters and Sarah Ruhl’s play might well be turning our cultural obsession from love to friendship.