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  • Stevens and the Necessity of Distance: International Influence and the Theater Auditorium
  • Hannah Simpson

J. HILLIS MILLER described seeing Wallace Stevens perform at a poetry reading at Harvard University around 1950:

As the hour went on, Stevens got more and more carried away by his own poetry. His voice got softer and softer, more and more inward, until only those in the first two or three rows, where I happened to be, could hear him. People in the back started leaving, but he paid no attention. Nor did he pay any attention to the loud ambulances and fire engines going by on Mount Auburn Street behind him, bells clanging and sirens wailing. He went right on reading, more and more quietly, absorbed in the sound of his own words.


By most measures of what constitutes a “good” public performance, Stevens offered a very poor one, apparently seeking to please only the small world of his own self and a few favored intimates rather than to engage the larger world of the auditorium, or to acknowledge the still larger and encroaching outside world. Miller’s experience echoes Stevens’s own avowed resistance to publicly performing his work: this is, after all, the man who declared, “I am not a troubadour and I think the public reading of poetry is something particularly ghastly” (qtd. in Richardson 225).1 Yet prior to this late-career aversion, Stevens had engaged rather more enthusiastically with the public world of performance: he wrote three plays for the theatrical stage between 1916 and 1917, entitled Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, Carlos Among the Candles, and Bowl, Cat and Broomstick . None of these plays achieved any critical or commercial success in performance, and Stevens would quickly abandon his attempts to write for the stage. Nevertheless, examining Stevens’s early engagement with the theater medium throws new light not only on his later resistance to public performance, but also on Stevens’s careful distancing of larger international “worlds” from his work, and the question of the ideal relation between reality and the imagination that recurs across his subsequent writing. [End Page 82]

Here, I trace first the vexed question of the lines of international influence that shaped Stevens’s plays—with particular attention to Japanese noh and French symbolist theater—and, second, how the crowded material world of the theater medium troubled Stevens’s vision of his work. In both instances, the concept of distance is a crucial defining element. As we will see, Stevens self-consciously distanced himself (geographically and otherwise) from the international theater movements and models that seemed to influence his own playscripts. In turn, Stevens’s unhappy experience of the theater medium—specifically, the inflexible material reality of the stage space itself, and the too-close presence of the audience in the auditorium—would reinforce his sense of the necessity of imaginative distance between the individual and material reality, and of a more literal distance between artist and public. This idea of a necessary distance would crucially inform his conception of the relationship between self and surrounding environment in his later poetry and prose.

Stevens as Playwright: French Symbolism and Japanese noh

Stevens showed early promise as a playwright. His first completed play-script, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, was awarded the $100 first prize for the best one-act verse play by Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in May 1916. The panel of judges praised its “extraordinary poetic beauty,” but expressed concerns as to “its actability,” admitting that “most of the judges doubt if it would ‘get across’ to more than a fraction of the audience” (“Prize Announcement” 160)—prefiguring Miller’s later description of Stevens’s failure to more literally “get his reading across” to more than a fraction of his Harvard audience. The more pessimistic members of the Poetry panel were proved correct. Despite Stevens’s subsequent revisions attempting to make “the play a play and not merely a poem” (L 194), his playwriting career had already peaked. By the time the Provincetown Players eventually staged Three Travelers in 1920, Stevens was so disillusioned with the public response to his plays that he was not even...


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