Reflections on Poetry in Performance
Students of theatre history know that at the theatre’s inception in Ancient Greece all plays were written in verse. The “drama,” (which derives from the Greek dram, i.e., “to do something” or “a thing done”) is in fact “a poem that you do,” in other words, embody and enact. Epic poems such as the Iliad differ from dramatic poems in that epics narrate action, whereas dramas imitate action, which the Greeks called mimesis. Aeschylus, Plautus, Shakespeare and their contemporaries were “poets,” not playwrights; by the time we get to the 19th century the replacement of the one term for the other was complete as dramatists no longer composed poems, but wrought (“crafted”) plays using well established paradigms as their models. Verse dramas such as Peer Gynt by Ibsen and later, Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot continued to be written, but these were outliers in an age of melodramas, Naturalism and “slice of life” plays, musicals, and vaudeville. Shakespeare continued to be performed, as did the plays of his contemporaries, so poetry could still be heard on the 20th century stage. But these productions tended to offer boutique experiences to an audience of connoisseurs and are not the popular entertainments they were in their own time. The groundlings standing before the thrust in the pit of the Globe had a more robust understanding of language and poetry than we might give them credit for. If poetry was made accessible to them by means of performance, it seemed to me that it could be made so for anyone. In this essay, then, I’d like to discuss some of my experiences with staging some of Eliot’s poetry, comparing my earliest and most recent experiments.
In the 1980s I started thinking about the potential for non-dramatic poems to be repurposed for the stage. I had been studying comparative literature at NYU and while reading the poetic monologues of Robert Browning, thought they would make for a fascinating evening of theatre. When Seaview Playwrights Theatre on Staten Island staged Spoon River Anthology, some actor friends and I began exploring the theatrical potential of other poems. We commandeered a Catholic school auditorium and produced Shades and Phases, which was one of my first directorial outings. The program comprised works by Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, some original offerings, and the transformation of poems into musical numbers. For example, Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” was performed by a “blind” blues guitarist in a nightclub setting; Ginsberg’s “America” was divided into three characters based on the distinct voices we heard in the poem. And it was during this production when I staged an abbreviated version of “The Waste Land,” a work I would mount four more times over the next 30 years in various locations, most recently in April 2016 in the former Downtown Grill in Casper (see our Production Archive for stills from this production).
While at NYU I met and began collaborating with dancer, choreographer, scholar, and dance historian Martha “Suki” John. We were in a graduate seminar for creatives like ourselves and for our class project, we developed a performance of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that involved me playing the title role, and two dancers who accompanied and were accompanied by the narration, images, and music of the poetry.
“Prufrock” is one of the signal artistic achievements of early 20th century modernism. First published in 1915, the poem is awash in pathos as a lonely, aging bachelor describes his life up to the point of the telling. Prufrock reflects on a life of superficial encounters with society people, his inability to connect with women, and his overwhelming yearning to have some kind of impact on the world before he becomes too old and feeble to do anything at all. A sense of irony and self-deprecation pervade the poem, as by the end, the narrator is drifting into senescence, and finally into existential oblivion. In my mid-twenties at the time of my first performance, I could nevertheless feel quite deeply the spiritual agony of a person whose best days were long behind him, and who “should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” We reprised the performance a few more times in the context of Suki’s choreographic showcases in New York, and afterward, I performed it solo at open mics and other performance events, and even for the students of my literature classes while I was an adjunct lecturer in the colleges of the Big Apple.
Back in August 2022, I dusted it off and performed it in the TotP Studio Theatre during one of downtown Casper’s “Art Walks,” in which people crawl from venue to venue to see art, hear music, buy food, etc. For this solo performance I played ambient solfeggio frequencies in the background, and spoke directly to the audience as if they were friends and confidants. Our studio is quite small, so this afforded an opportunity to create an unsually intimate (in a not creepy way) performance that brought actor and spectators into a relationship of immediacy and, for Prufrock, necessity. Coming back to it 35 years older than I was when I first performed the piece, I found myself connected to the ideas and images in ways that I could truly understand: like Prufrock, “(my) hair is growing thin,” I’ve gotten older, slower; during my recent battle with coronary artery disease, I did indeed feel “the Eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker. And in short, I was afraid.” Prufrock is the anti-hero of myself, the person I don’t want to be in my old age. Playing him from time to time reminds me of that.
The performance is also a fine thumbnail sketch of the principles animating the Theatre of the Poor. The setting is minimal, consisting of thrift store furniture; it is illuminated by the natural light coming through the windows; it is accompanied by a minimal harmonic background; the actor wears a suit pulled from his closet; the performance text is an acknowledged masterpiece re-presented as theatre; and the experience is powered by a direct, transactional relationship between the actor and the audience, who have entered Prufrock’s world to become privy to the thoughts, feelings, and fears of this lonely, friendless man. The eleven minutes spent with him is for the audience an act of compassion. Along with Grotowski we believe that this is where the power of the theatre fundamentally lies: in producing the collective transformation of the thoughts, emotions, and perceptions of actors and audience into a greater understanding of what it means to be human.
William Conte, Artistic Director