NEW YORK — "Dear Mr. Lowell, I don't know how to get in touch with you now that Randall is away but I should think this would reach you through Harcourt Brace. I just wanted to say…."
Three years ago, pregnant with twins and ordered to bed rest, playwright Sarah Ruhl got a present from a friend: "Words in Air," the collected correspondence of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It is a behemoth of a book, three decades of epistolary conversation packed into 875 pages, beginning in 1947 with Bishop's slightly tentative overture and lasting until Lowell's death in 1977, when he was stricken with a heart attack in a New York City cab.
Ruhl, a 2006 MacArthur fellow, had had grand ambitions for her forced repose: learning Greek, tackling Proust. But in need of soothing distraction, she found herself able to read only "Twilight," at one end of the literary spectrum, and "Words in Air," at the other.
"I couldn't focus on much — it was a really difficult pregnancy — and this book I found to be a complete page turner," Ruhl said the other afternoon at a cafe in Brooklyn Heights, near the home she shares with her husband and three children. "And I wasn't sure why, because it's not plot-driven. But I couldn't stop reading it. I couldn't put it down. And I thought, oh, I would love to hear this out loud. And that was sort of the first thought: like, what wonderful oral material. And then the second thought was, well, maybe it's a play."
Signs point to yes. Performances of "Dear Elizabeth," Ruhl's adaptation of the letters, begin Friday at Yale Repertory Theatre, where the piece is making its world premiere. Directed by frequent Ruhl collaborator Les Waters, it stars Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays ("I Am My Own Wife") as Boston native Lowell and Mary Beth Fisher as the Worcester-born Bishop.
"I still don't know that it does seem like a play, to be totally candid with you. Maybe I shouldn't say that in an interview. But in a way that's what I love about the project," said Ruhl, whose acclaimed work includes "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)," "The Clean House," and "Eurydice." "Whenever I start a play, I feel like if you're really honest with yourself, you have to ask that question: Is this a play?"
"Dear Elizabeth: I find that every day I less like writing letters and more like getting them; it's the same with poems. I.e. I am waiting for them to come in dreams…."
The words Bishop and Lowell utter in "Dear Elizabeth" are entirely from their letters, and they speak them mainly to the audience, narrating their own lives. Moments of wordless action come in the interstices.
On the surface, the play has more in common with "Dear Liar," based on the correspondence of George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and with A.R. Gurney's fictional "Love Letters" than with any of Ruhl's other plays. But "Eurydice," which Waters directed at Yale Rep, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and off-Broadway, also makes use of letters: the missives Orpheus sends into the Underworld.
"There is something about the two that is rather similar," Waters said by phone. "They have a kind of emotional quality that is similar, of people trying to stay in touch with each other: that yearning to be in touch with someone who is gone from your life."
Of course, in "Eurydice," Ruhl had the freedom to invent dialogue. Here the task is to take words meant for the page and have them spoken aloud — so it helps, Ruhl said, that poets wrote them.
"Robert Lowell, in his prose, often is writing in iambic pentameter," she said. "If you scan the letters, you're like, oh my God, he couldn't help himself: There's another one, there's another one, there's another one! So in some ways it rolls off the tongue."
After Ruhl began "Dear Elizabeth," she often dreamed of Lowell. "He was very kind in my dreams," she said. But she never dreamed of Bishop — maybe, she speculated, because she had admired Bishop's work since high school.
She'd been less drawn to Lowell's confessionalism. "But when I read his letters, I just fell in love with him," she said. "I just felt like the man was so generous, so brilliant, and something about these two minds overlapping was incandescent to me. And I thought, they couldn't have written these particular letters to anyone else."
"Dearest Elizabeth: I feel rather creepy and paltry writing now to announce that I am all healed and stable again. So it is. Five attacks in ten years make you feel rather a basket-case…."
Human beings live messy lives, and Bishop and Lowell lived theirs in the public eye. But Ruhl said she didn't want her play to concentrate on "the more salacious details" of their biographies.
"I didn't want that to be the theater of it. We know that she was an alcoholic. We know that he had manic depression," Ruhl said. "I was interested in their letters and their relationship and their language. And really, what's moving to me about the letters is that they presented their best selves to each other and that they were allowed to do that. . . . They had the chance to write themselves as really honorable in the letters, so you don't hear about Lowell punching his wife, and you don't hear about Bishop scrounging around in the bathroom for rubbing alcohol when all the alcohol was locked up. You just hear, 'Oh, I had a rough patch.' So it's recollected in a moment of calm."
Or, as Bishop wrote to Lowell in 1963: "I have some wonderful anecdotes when I can get them sorted out of the nightmare parts."
But calm, Ruhl noted, is inherently anti-theatrical. And while she wanted to explore in the play "the ways in which they loved each other, the kind of odd friendship that they had," she sees friendship, too, as dramatically problematic.
"It is what makes us human to a degree, and I feel like we don't talk about it much in literature because we don't know how to tell the story of it somehow," she said. "We're so obsessed with romantic love. We've got the buddy movie, but real friendship between a man and a woman? Where do we see that?"
Ruhl is teaching at Yale this year, and she has plenty of work in the pipeline beyond "Dear Elizabeth." But she's also trying to take it a little easy.
"With this project, it was so hard to find the time," she said. "Last year, they were sick all the time, my whole family. We just were recycling illness. Nothing serious, but someone was vomiting, someone had a fever, someone had a lazy eye, someone had celiac disease. I literally thought my full-time job was going to the pediatrician. They would just laugh at me when they saw me."
About a year ago, her "Dear Elizabeth" deadline glaring, she didn't know where she would get the focus to complete the first draft.
"My husband said, 'OK, go away for three days for your birthday and finish this,'" she said. "So I drove to the Berkshires for three days and I finished it in two days, and on the third day he called me and said, 'Everyone's vomiting.' "
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached