A play by David Todd, directed by Anjanette Hall, with music by Ben Chasny.
Playwrights Local, Cleveland, OH, May 12–28, 2017.
How does one dramatize the ambitions, failures, and accomplishments in the life of Wallace Stevens into a central narrative arc with a compelling primary conflict? More complex still, how does one dramatically represent Stevens’s famously difficult poetry? Taken together, these questions only begin to suggest the dramaturgical challenges facing Things as They Are, a bold new collage play by David Todd about Stevens’s life and poetic vision. The ambitiousness of the play is twofold. First, the production, deftly directed by Anjanette Hall, contains a dizzying number of disparate elements. Produced by the theater company Playwrights Local in May 2017 at the Reinberger Auditorium in Cleveland’s Gordon Square neighborhood, the play presents a series of nonlinear moments from the poet’s life that are interspersed with dance and commedia dell’arte scenes inspired by Stevens’s poem “The Comedian as the Letter [End Page 294] C.” The indie-music darling Ben Chasny of the band Six Organs of Admittance accompanies the entire play with live, original music. Throughout, an overlay of kaleidoscopic projections by T. Paul Lowry on a mosaic background of six differently sized rectangular screens enlivens the production. There are also occasional voiceovers of the poet’s personal correspondence and selections from his work by either voiceover or actors, such as “Mozart, 1935” and “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” In addition to this array of elements, the play features nine actors playing nineteen different roles, ranging from young Wally to old Stevens, Elsie, Holly Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and many others.
The second reason for the play’s ambitiousness provides at once the most enterprising and perhaps the most problematic aspects of the play: Things as They Are makes an audacious attempt to both identify and dramatize the central conflict of Stevens’s life in one storyline, and it seeks to show how this conflict characterizes the primary subject matter of his poetic oeuvre in a second plot. As we know, classical dramaturgy demands an agon: a central conflict between two sparring dramatic personas through which the machinery of the play can run its course. Despite its experimentation, Things as They Are is no exception, and indeed is structured by a central conflict between the material and socially conservative expectations of Wally’s father, his unhappy wife, and his demanding professional life (metonymically invoked by his unflappable secretary), and his great yearning for life as a poet. Here, more or less realistic scenes pit Wallace against these forces. Sometimes he bends to them, while at other times he defiantly works against them. This conflict is evident in scenes depicting his first meeting with Elsie Kachel (whom he eventually marries) at a party in Reading, an emotional blowout between the married couple after a debauched night with Marcel Duchamp, Marianne Moore, and others at Walter Arensberg’s New York City salon, and later arguments and rapprochements with his daughter, Holly. Another explosive scene—though less central dramatically—details the infamous Key West brawl between an aging Stevens and Hemingway in his prime. In these scenes, the acting is strong, particularly from Robert Hawkes as a vacillating older Stevens, Jason Markouc as an ambitious younger Stevens, Robert Branch as a ludic William Carlos Williams, and Laura Starnik, who enterprisingly plays (albeit sometimes to awkward pairings) both a younger and older Elsie.
Things as They Are presents this conflict in turn as the primary field of antagonistic position-taking in which Stevens’s poetry moves. At this level, the play implies that Stevens’s poetic discourse exists in the constant tension between his material reality and his poetic imagination. Or, as the character of the Host puts it at the top of the play: “Mr. Stevens’s work is concerned with a single great subject: the relation of human imagination to the real world.” Indeed, a poem like “The Man with the Blue Guitar” seems to yield this reading, bifurcated as it is between the viewpoints of the titular artistic Man and his antagonists, who beg to differ...