In Their Own Words

In ‘Dear Elizabeth,’ passions of poets come to life on stage

Posted: February 25, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Justin Scheuer is Robert Lowell opposite his real-life wife, Virginia Scheuer, as Elizabeth Bishop in ArkansasStaged’s “Dear Elizabeth.”

When poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell met at a New York City dinner party in 1947, their connection was immediate and long-lasting. Their intimate friendship endured until Lowell's death in 1977 -- a bit astonishing, given that the pair were rarely in the same place at the same time. Instead, the couple exchanged hundreds of letters in the course of their 30-year friendship, a treasure trove of prose that illustrates, in their own poetic words, the depth of their affection for each other. Northwest Arkansas theatergoers will have a chance to hear those words performed on stage tonight in playwright Sarah Ruhl's "Dear Elizabeth," presented by ArkansasStaged at Bentonville's 21c Museum Hotel -- a forum as intimate as the letters themselves.

Ruhl pored over the 400-plus letters in the collection to carefully curate the dozen or so that will be performed by actors Justin and Virginia Scheuer under the direction of Debra Capps.


‘Dear Elizabeth’

WHEN — 7 p.m. Feb. 25

WHERE — 21c Museum Hotel, 200 NE A St., Bentonville

COST — $5 suggested donation


"It's such a great script," says Capps. "The language is so rich and beautiful and interesting and complicated -- and very revealing, very personal. As performers, you just have to get out of the way and really just let these two friends reveal themselves through these personal letters."

The relationship was passionate, though -- probably -- not romantic. Bishop was a lesbian, but that did not stop Lowell from considering a marriage proposal. "Asking you is the might have been for me," he writes in one letter, a wistful phrase that speaks volumes.

"There's no evidence that they would have walked off into the sunset together, but there is evidence that they took a great deal of comfort, inspiration and solace from these interactions," says Capps. "This script is a chance to talk about real adult friendships and love. It's not an easily boxed-in definition of both of these things. They were very close; they adored each other. They both worked through tumultuous love lives independently of each other."

The two poets were polar opposites: Bishop was often paralyzed by shyness and awkward in social situations. Lowell was gregarious.. Both had stormy, often tragic private lives. Bishop's longtime lover Lota de Macedo Soares committed suicide. Bishop also struggled with alcoholism while Lowell had three marriages and was hospitalized on and off throughout his life for treatment of bipolar disorder. In their letters, the two discussed these issues as they were living through them.

"In their correspondence, they would often say, 'I can't talk to anyone but you about this,'" notes Capps.

The play's format -- no other lines are used in the production except for those that come directly from the written correspondence -- is perfect for the ArkansasStaged concept of "staged readings-plus," says Capps.

"My goal is to focus on the connection and honesty and the interesting narrative of being able to use the words that these two people actually wrote to each other," says Capps. "Ruhl strictly used the actual letters, though she did kind of cut some of them and intermix them in some ways. But the words were all created by these two poets. I think that it's lovely, to not be focused on any other technical element other than these two people and these words they shared between each other over a lifetime."

NAN What's Up on 02/25/2018