A line crops up in Eileen Simpson’s “Poets in Their Youth” at the Itchey Foot (the Mark Taper Forum’s literary cabaret) quoting R. P. Blackmur, the distinguished critic, on poetry. It mentions how a poem creates a new idiom and thereby “adds to the stock of available reality.”
In one way, the line points to the insular world in which the poets in this program--John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz and Robert Lowell--looked at things. At least as far as this version of their lives is concerned. In another way, it refers to what a successful moment of art does for us: It makes us see something new, or fresh, and thereby becomes a permanent reference for that thought or emotion.
Would that “Poets in Their Youth” could make such a claim. The most puzzling thing about this program is not what drove these poets to ruin, but how a quartet of actors and a director, all with fairly distinguished credits, could come up with such thin gruel on these prominent American lives.
“Poets in Their Youth” is a book by Eileen Simpson, a novelist, short-story writer and psychotherapist who was married to Berryman. The book, which chronicles the lives and relationships of Berryman, Schwartz and Lowell (and their wives, not including Schwartz’s), has been adapted for the stage by Jeremy Lawrence.
The story is told from Simpson’s point of view, when she fell in love with Berryman as an undergraduate, married him, and periodically rescued him from all but one of his suicide attempts.
We meet the churlish Schwartz and listen in on their literary/academic gossip and hear their deep fears of losing out on teaching appointments at Harvard--which, to them, apparently represented validation as much as a steady paycheck. Later we meet the sly, self-neglectful, pathologically melancholy Robert Lowell and his perky, Dorothy Parkerish wife, the novelist Jean Stafford.
On paper it appears a fascinating theatrical subject, but in actuality nothing is well served in this program. The nature of a staged reading means that an actor hasn’t the chance to blow out the motor of his character. What carries the successful staged reading is language and ideas; here the former is flat, the latter non-existent.
The depiction of this group keeps it hidebound in the New England/Ivy League scope of opinion, as though that Brahmin circuit, with its tantalizing offers of tenure and publication, were the only major league in the English-speaking world. Maybe it was, but now it seems merely intramural. Beyond it, “Poets in Their Youth” offers no social context that weighed against these men or subverted their sense of destiny and self-worth and no individual psychology to show us the way they were and what led them to crack.
Periodically, the poets--Berryman in particular--recall their own lines. No one in the Itchey Foot cast reads well enough to do to us what a recited poem should really do: hang in us like an atmosphere.
Bruce French is a likable if somewhat self-conscious Berryman; Lederer makes a strident, almost metallic Simpson and Tom Henschel as Schwartz, Marnie Mosiman as Stafford and John deLancie as Lowell do what they can in underdeveloped, and underrehearsed, roles.
“Poets in Their Youth” is--let it be said--an entertainment of a sad sort, though odds are none of the figures depicted would care to be remembered that way. William Woodman directs.
Performances Sundays at 5:30 p.m. at the Itchey Foot Ristorante, 801 W. Temple, (213) 972-7337 or TTY (213) 680-4017), through Oct. 20. Doors open at 4 p.m.