the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Robert Frost: This Verse Business (2013)

Vermont Frost

Lost Nation Theater, a Montpelier Vermont based playhouse,  produced a one man show about Robert Frost. It brings to mind the apocryphal figure who brought coals to Newcastle. What could anyone say about our beloved state icon that we don’t already know? It is de rigueur for any New England higher educational institution to have a black and white photo of the ruffled white haired gentleman shaking hands with the former President of the College or head of the English department. One senses the old man spent his later years on a perpetual reading tour.  He is a superstar whose celebrity eclipses the claustrophobic hyper-literary world where most poets reside. There is a strong chance that even the jockiest Vermont highschooler would be able to identify his image and maybe even recite a line or two: “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors...” He is, after all, our small state’s claim on culture... President Kennedy gave a speech in his honor the year of his death. But what do we know of the person? What is behind the scruffy, hard-edged yet avuncular, knowing, old man?

A.M. Dolan’s answers that question in “Robert Frost: This Verse Business”. This is a succinct 75 minute monologue, performed by Gordon Clapp. The playwright could have no better vehicle to embody the old Vermonter that this seasoned stage performer.  The direction and set design were also first rate.  All the elements combined to deliver the presence of the poet.  Dolan’s challenge is to include enough of the poet’s work in conjunction with the right amount of biographical detail. If he tilts far in one direction it would seem a pedantic exercise in facts; the other extreme would be merely a spoken word recitation. Dolan strikes the balance: we hear the written work as well as personal quips and stories.  The play opens in the latter part of the poets life with him at the lectern addressing “his public”.  The playwright cleverly has Mr. Frost unable to see his notes due to the harsh lightning.  This is inspired by a famous incident in which the poet was unable to physically read the poem he created for President Kennedy’s inauguration due to the harsh glare of the sunlight. He banters back and forth with an unseen presence that is guiding the event.  His requests for less light are met with inaction. Frost never misses a beat and continues on with his ‘business’ and suddenly, apropos of nothing, the lights are adjusted.  This small exchange is a physical illustration of the poet’s belief in the ability to improvise in the face of God’s unexplainable actions. The poet himself might believe I’m reading too much into the moment.  He scoffs at all the college profs and over-eager truth-seekers who delve too deeply into his simply metaphors. But the playwright has a larger design as does Mr. Frost. His poems have a simple clarity which is often met with derision by the experts who are skeptical that the general public would have any notions of “good poetry”.  Many ‘sophisticated’ academics look upon Frost as merely a showman; the way scientists viewed the television astronomer Carl Sagan. The approachability of his work somehow gives way to the notion of being pedestrian. I would paraphrase a moment in the play in which Frost is asked by a college professor questions the plausibility of the horse in “Stopping by Woods” ringing his bells “to ask if there is some mistake”. Can animals have the capacity to ask good questions? Frost turns the query over to a seasoned farmer in the assembly who is reported to have said “sometimes better than college professors”. Frost has the healthy American skepticism of authority, especially the kind dressed up with the moniker of “expert”.

Gordon Clapp’s performance rises above being mere mimicry.  He looks, sounds and moves as the elder frost (at least judging by archive footage and recordings) but to really be the man himself a performer must mix what is inside his own being.  It’s paradoxical that in order to fully inhabit someone else one must bring themselves into the picture. There is no clue as to the Mr. Clapp’s off stage personality, but what is being experienced on the boards is more than simply hitting the right notes. Mr. Frost was there in Mr. Clapp and vice versa. This was especially true during the sequence in which he recites the blank verse poem, “Death of a Hired Man”. As someone who has run farms I have met many a “Silas” - the subject of Mr. Frost’s harrowing portrait.  This farm hand is a broken man who deserves no favor; but does.  There is nothing logical about the wife’s sympathy as Silas is, by any definition, a wayward narcissist. But it is in the illogic of finding reason to be kind where we find our humanity. One can’t help but wonder if Mr. Frost’s own passion for the curmudgeon underdog had something to do with his own personal fortunate misfortune. This is touched on during the play with opaque references to pre-deceased children, one by suicide. Mr. Dolan strikes this minor chords in passing... making them all the more haunting.  It prompted me to do some digging to confirm what I had suspected: not only was Frost and his spouse plagued with depression; but as a young man he had to commit his sister to a mental hospital where she perished soon after. His grandfather bought him a farm and supported him financially in the beginning. But the real good fortune was his ability to focus on his work and establish his mark on the world by winning a Pulitzer prize at age 50 in 1924. He lived another four decades.... but one wonders if playing the grand old man was more burden than relief.

My father was a college student in the late 1950s and had the honor of escorting Mr. Frost around the campus before one of the command performances.  By that point everyone wanted to see him as there might not be another opportunity given his age. Frost asked my father to go to the college library and check out a book of his poems as he had forgotten his own. The eager young student knocked on the hotel room door and presented “The Complete Poems of Robert Frost”. The elder poet looked at my father and said “I guess if I write another poem I’ll have to do it on the back of this book”.  This was the man Mr. Clapp became at the Lost Nation production: self-deprecating star of the show. He held the audience in rapture with “I’m going to show you how I write a poem”. This was followed by him on the front porch of his cabin clutching pen to paper while sitting in a chair. He held that pose and all the audience with him for what seemed an eternity; only to say: “sometimes it takes time.”  The cabin appears in the closing third of the play and gives rise to soul bearing.... from a man who has skepticism of soul bearers.  In real life an incident occurred in the actual building a couple of years back.  Some highschoolers had a illegal kegger and trashed the place. Being Vermont, the penance was to have a noted Middlebury Professor give them a lecture about the man and his work in order that they realize the gravity of their crime. I felt a cackle from Frost’s grave when I heard the ‘punishment’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the old man would have approved.  The professor chose the poem “Out, out” which tells the story of a young man who cuts off his hand with a chainsaw and bled to death. It is not one of Frost’s major works and not featured in the play. It no doubt captured the imagination of  the captive boys who know the dangers of chainsaws... or at least chainsaws. The closing line is revealing in a way that one could only know from having knowledge of the world’s steely nature:

...................................And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs

No doubt it was lost on the classroom prisoners, who were probably planning another party. Frost would have approved. He might not have shown... but he would have wanted to be invited. He’d grown up in the city and personally never partook in the rural social isolation of many of his solitary creations.

Mr. Dolan has a very clever title to this work: “Robert Frost: This Verse Business”.  It is a quote from the script. One takes the word ‘business’ to mean, ‘business’ in the sense of ‘giving them the business’; or poetry is Frost’s ‘shtick’. But in a broader sense ‘business’ can also mean, vocation. The play is peppered with Frost reflecting on the art of forming a poem. He has an aside where he states “Free verse is like playing tennis without a net”. He derides other poets for being too lax in their structure.  One senses the craftsman, not the artist. In other words Frost seemed to imagine himself as a glass-blower, blacksmith or barrel maker. There is a distinctly tradesman-like kinship he shares with his inspirations. Once again Frost was personally more urban and urbane and never had to fear the result of pecuniary burden of losing a crop.  Here is an excerpt from his NY Times obituary which chronicles his career:

Strangely enough, Frost spent 20 years writing his verses on stone walls and brown earth, blue butterflies and tall, slim trees without winning any recognition in America. When he sent them to The Atlantic Monthly they were returned with this note:
"We regret that The Atlantic has no place for your vigorous verse."
It was not until "A Boy's Will" was published in England and Ezra Pound publicized it that Robert Frost was recognized as the indigenous American poet that he was.
-NY Times, Jan. 30, 1963

Tradesman don’t wait two decades to see if something works... that’s the realm of college men... in fact Frost attended two Ivy League schools but never graduated.  He met Ezra Pound while briefly living outside of London... once again not exactly what one would expect from a homespun frugal Yankee... but he wasn’t... he was actually born in San Francisco before being brought East after his father’s death. Mr. Clapp captures this odd contradiction but Mr. Dolan shaded the duality.  My only note on this very fine production would be to witness the disappearance of the beautiful facade that appears after the ‘lecture’ segment. In other words we see Frost sitting on that porch ‘playing’ the rustic. But I feel it would have been more appropriate if the New England cabin facade literally vanished at the end of the play: Frost in a Godot-like emptiness. He could look at the audience and visually communicate his disdain for people who think they have answers.  He might even recite the epitaph which he took from his poem, “The Lesson for Today”. This work imagines a dialogue with failed poets/teachers of the past. Here are the closing lines:

And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

He was good to his word. That last line is on his tombstone in Bennington. That’s what I took away from watching the hardscrabble romantic... behind the tweed jackets, the adoring fans, the cultural posing, the family grief, the not so simple rustic simplicity... was a lover.

1 comment:

David Strong said...

I agree with your excellent review and tribute. Keep up the good work!