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John McCullough

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam. The first part, by poet and theater historian M G Stevens, appeared previously.

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Staring out at the audience of the Pentameters Theatre, David Manson as the poet Robert Lowell distrustfully remarks ‘This is a two-way mirror, isn’t it?’  While in Alfred Corn’s play the Bostonian is informed he is looking at a window, part of the work’s triumph is that we obtain a sense throughout that the events we are seeing have been transfigured by a spectator who is both Lowell the artist and Lowell the man, tormented by his past.  Observation, here, is everything.

The ostensible setting of Lowell’s Bedlam is Pitney Akins Hospital, New York in 1949 where the writer is being treated for bipolar disorder.  The director Daniel Ricken, himself a New Yorker, reveals Lowell’s unconscious largely through offstage noises—muffled thumps, groans and sighs—and the insistent repetition of phrases.  Corn’s play has teasing references to his subject’s work too, to ‘very polite’ murderers in a Federal Detention Centre in Greenwich Village, one of whom is documented in Lowell’s poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’;  Czar Lepke was a gang murderer Lowell made into a dignified version of himself by giving him ‘a ribbon of Easter palm’.  In Corn’s searing drama, Lowell views himself as having ended someone’s life, too, through having been at the wheel in a car crash that left his first wife Jean Stafford disfigured and in considerable ongoing pain.

Most strikingly of all Corn’s summonings of Lowell’s poems, there is the avowal ‘I myself am Hell’, a phrase from Milton’s Satan famously adapted in ‘Skunk Hour’ with the addition ‘nobody’s here’.  That poem of Lowell’s describes a panorama of decay, finishing with the disturbing animals of the title, their  ‘moonstruck eyes’ red fire’ contrasting with ‘the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church’.  In Lowell’s Bedlam, the antagonist is very much the Catholic Church he tried and failed to get away from through divorcing Stafford after the accident; his new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (played by Lowri Lewis), is able to offer scant defence against the onslaught through her tender Southern tones.  The hellish eyes of those skunks loom large in the red light that suddenly floods the sterile bareness of the set when Clair Elsmore as the nurse transforms into Stafford to berate him for abandoning a ‘disgusting patient’ who became ‘too unattractive for a poet to love’.

Nevertheless, the balance of Lowell’s Bedlam shifts markedly with the arrival of Elizabeth Bishop in Act Two.  Bishop—whose quiet cheerfulness and wit are brilliantly captured by Hannah Mercer—provides the model for an alternative approach to both living and writing.  Red becomes simultaneously the colour of not only hell but of the absurdly huge scarlet nose of a Rudolf toy she gives him.  It is both and neither.  Palm leaves are exciting for her not as religious symbols but as part of the secular, tropical flora she includes in poems that reveal the workings of the mind through the observations it makes.  For all her own guilt about her institutionalized mother, she laughs freely about the way she repeatedly contradicts herself, being content to reside in flux.

Perhaps Corn’s boldest move is to explore this idea in ‘Mate’, a Bishop poem centred around chess that is actually the playwright’s invention.  Reciting the poem to Lowell, Bishop tells him that ‘If he found no white pieces, the black couldn’t see / To maneuvre, becalmed in ambiguous fog / With a chessboard and pawns who’ve turned aimless and gray.’  The risk pays off because not only is the poem immediately accessible and relevant to the audience but it is true to the metaphysical cleanness and playfulness of early Bishop poems like ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ and ‘The Gentleman of Shalott’.  The galloping anapaestic metre is perfectly suited to both the poem’s depiction of a knight’s three-square move in chess and the alleviation of a great deal of the play’s tension once Lowell is in conversation with his great friend who may be, it hints, deeper in his affections than either of the women he has married.

Tennyson’s own writing is used to explain Bishop’s different way of looking through her remark that she is ‘immune’ to his physical charms like ‘”Mariana in her moated grange”’—a misquotation that is also a subtle reference to her lesbianism (in 1948, Lowell had told friends of his plans to propose to her).  To Lowell’s objection ‘That’s not the best Tennyson’, she counters ‘I’m not taking on responsibility for the whole poem, just the “moated grange” part’.  The individual phrase and the moment of saying it aloud take precedence over any grander schemes as so often happens in Bishop’s poetry with its love of details and focus on what occurs in the instant of perception.  All acts of observation are partial and reveal as much about the observer as the observed.  It is a portrait Corn renders with great affection, and the play is almost as much about Bishop as it is about Lowell.

Interspersed throughout is the loquacious narrator Dick Jaffee played by Roger Sansom, an unemployed story editor for film who looks back on his time as a fellow patient.  Far from being a simple comic counterweight, Jaffee as a stranger is a clever device for teasing out those parts of himself Lowell is still keen to present to society (he cannot resist the mention of his Pulitzer Prize) and situating the play within a broader dramatic and political context.  There is Bedlam not only in Pitney Akins but outside it in Hollywood’s blacklisting of Communist writers.  Their dialogue also enables Lowell to make a spirited defence of poetic drama—with his Marxist interlocutor adeptly puncturing, for all his dizziness, the Bostonian’s characteristically elevated notion that every writer should exist away from the realm of paying the bills.

Lowell’s Bedlam is an arresting play that brings to life the psychological nuances of two of America’s most celebrated twentieth-century poets with fire and insight.  To its very last, offstage word, it refuses to leave the audience with easy choices to make about what they themselves have observed; how hopefully or pessimistically we view the play’s conclusion says as much about us as it does about Lowell or even Corn.  It urges us instead merely to remain open to Bishop’s idea ‘that you have to live with both light and darkness in your experience, that they’re somehow … reciprocal’.