NEW HAVEN — In one of his letters to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams famously declared: “You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.’’
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop seemed to feel a similar urgency, although poets are perhaps more likely than statesmen to understand that the job of self-explication is never really done.
But they tried, how they tried. For three decades, until Lowell died of a heart attack in 1977, these two giants of 20th-century poetry exchanged hundreds of letters and managed to sustain a close friendship even though (or maybe because?) they seldom saw each other in person.
Sarah Ruhl has fashioned their voluminous correspondence into a quietly absorbing new play, “Dear Elizabeth,’’ now at Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of Les Waters, featuring Jefferson Mays as Lowell and Mary Beth Fisher as Bishop.
Mays and Fisher deliver fine, carefully considered performances. He is suitably disheveled as Lowell, his voice light, his forelock tousled above the familiar black-framed glasses, his manner grandly confident and painfully needy by turns. Periodically Mays slumps to the floor, signaling one of the numerous breakdowns suffered by the manic-depressive Lowell, a Boston native who was treated at McLean Hospital. Fisher’s Bishop is more reserved; there is a precision to her words and an economy to her movements, even as she downs drink after drink, a reminder of her alcoholism.
But this is less a tale of two tormented souls than of two questing spirits. Ruhl’s adaptation suggests that the pair prized their correspondence so highly because it allowed them to express a side of themselves they didn’t necessarily show the rest of the world. They had much to say to each other, and much they didn’t need to say.
The playwright and director have collaborated several times before. Waters directed the 2009 Broadway production of Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)’’, and he was at the helm of last year’s Yale Rep production of her poignant adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.’’ In “Dear Elizabeth,’’ apparently trying to transcend the inherent limitations of a two-character epistolary play, Waters resorts to a few ill-advised gimmicks, literalizing notions (a ladder to the moon, the dream of starting all over again on another planet) that should remain metaphorical.
But on balance the director demonstrates a skilled hand in building this complicated dual portrait, and he incorporates one bit of business that works very effectively: a rush of water onto the Yale Rep stage, forcing Mays and Fisher to climb onto their chairs. It underscores the idea that chaos could enter their lives suddenly and the two poets helped to keep each other afloat, an image further bolstered by Adam Rigg’s set design, with its blue floor and light-blue wallpaper.
The dialogue is drawn from the texts of the letters between Lowell and Bishop, which were collected in 2008’s “Words in Air.’’ Sometimes the actors address the audience, sometimes each other. With eloquence and a disarming peer-to-peer openness, Lowell and Bishop speak of their work, their daily lives, the challenge of solitude, the purpose of art, the overarching struggle to create meaningful poetry. “Oh heavens, when does one begin to write the real poems?’’ Bishop says. “I certainly feel as if I never had.’’
Or they simply swap bits of literary gossip, as when Lowell, writing from the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, informs Bishop that Theodore Roethke “only makes $6,000, which doesn’t cover his drinking, but he has a genius for sponging.’’
Whatever the topic, what comes through on both sides is an unstinting admiration for the other’s talent and craftsmanship. Strikingly, there is no sense of rivalry; even when one of them quibbles with a word choice in a new poem by the other, it registers as an aesthetic objection only. Their personal and professional kinship lends extra voltage to their second-act clash, when Bishop forcefully tells an adamant Lowell he is being “cruel’’ by including excerpts from personal letters written to him by his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, in his collection “The Dolphin.’’
Lowell ended up being married three times; Bishop was gay, and had a long relationship with an architect, with whom she lived in Brazil. Yet Lowell’s feelings for Bishop ran so deep that at one time he nearly proposed to her. In “Dear Elizabeth,’’ he tells her that “asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.’’
By the end of Ruhl’s play, though, it’s clear that the life they had together in letters was plenty rich enough.