Reaching “The Audience Beyond”:
I am destined to have an audience. There is very little sign of it now—my friends are only a few at best scattered here and there across the globe: that does not disprove me, does not make me doubtful: I see the audience beyond: maybe in the tomorrow or the tomorrow of tomorrow.
—Walt Whitman, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1889)
Several years ago, I set out to adapt Walt Whitman’s first edition of “Song of Myself” into script format for theatrical presentation.1 At the time, I assumed I was embarking on a project that had never been attempted by a dramatist. As it turned out, I was only half correct. No one had ever written a dramatization of “Song of Myself” based solely on the first edition, but a significant number of playwrights, screenwriters, and actors had re-enacted Whitman’s writings in dramatic and/or theatrical contexts. Throughout the period of writing the first several drafts of my script, I remained blissfully ignorant of these other dramatists’ efforts. In the years since my play’s production, though, I have chronicled more than 70 “Whitman dramas” that have been written and produced since Whitman’s lifetime—an odd assortment of plays, films, radio and television dramas, and other performance pieces. Most have featured a dramatized portrayal of Walt Whitman or his poetic persona, and many have incorporated Whitman’s poetry—or prose—into the scripts. So many “Whitman dramas” have been written, in fact, that I now realize my adaptation represents just one more contribution to a largely uncharted canon of dramatic works inspired by Whitman, dating back to 1913. Countless literary critics have identified dramatic tendencies in Whitman’s poetry—namely, the elements of conflict, action, orality, and physicality—without necessarily considering their theatrical applications.2 Clearly, when setting out to adapt “Song of Myself” for the stage, I had not been alone in feeling the dramatic force resonating from Whitman’s poetical texts or in helping Whitman to reach “the audience beyond.”
Oscar Wilde may have been the first dramatist—certainly the first prominent one—to recognize dramatic potential in Whitman’s poetry. Writing to a friend in 1876, Wilde noted that during a recent visit to Oxford he had gotten “a delightful viva voce” in a class devoted to Aeschylus, where he and the students had “talked of Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and the Poetics” (15). One can only imagine what aspects of Whitman’s poetry Wilde highlighted that day in his discussion of the American poet, sandwiched as it was between discussions of the world’s greatest dramatist and the father of Western dramatic theory. Regrettably, Wilde never adapted Whitman’s writing for the stage—he probably never considered it—but something in Whitman’s poems sparked his recognition of dramatic tendencies, enough to justify bringing Whitman’s poetry into a lively Oxford debate concerning ancient Greek drama. After Wilde, other noted dramatists from George Bernard Shaw to Sam Shepard to Tony Kushner would register their appreciation of Whitman’s poetry, either through written commentary or direct reference to Whitman in their plays.3 Among dramatists, none has professed greater respect for Whitman than filmmaker D. W. Griffith, who once allegedly remarked that he “would rather have written one page of Leaves of Grass than to have made all the movies for which he received world acclaim” (qtd. in Gish 47). Griffith would pay tribute to Whitman by borrowing one of the poet’s key images for his film Intolerance (1916), which featured Lillian Gish as “The Woman Who Rocks the Cradle”— “a fairy girl with sunlit hair—her hand on the cradle of humanity—eternally rocking” (Gish 167). Of course, such tribute from dramatists is only of cursory interest when considering the dramatic applications of Whitman’s poetry. If Whitman’s poems truly manifest the elements of conflict, action, orality, and physicality identified by Whitman scholars, then one might look directly to the “Whitman dramas” for evidence of the poetry’s successful application to stage and screen.
A “Whitman drama” may be regarded as any dramatic representation of Walt Whitman’s life or his writings, in any dramatic medium. By treating stage, screen, radio, and television plays equally under the designator of “drama,”4 we see that Whitman’s writing lends itself as well to the screen as to the stage. Interestingly, a film, not a stage play, provided the venue for the first dramatized portrayal of Whitman: the 1913 Vitagraph silent film The Carpenter, adapted by Marguerite Bertsch from William Douglas O’Connor’s short story by the same name.5 Though Whitman was not identified by name, the benevolent character called “The Stranger in Gray” (Charles Kent) was clearly Walt Whitman. O’Connor’s story had originally appeared in 1868, featuring a Christ-like hero patterned after the good gray poet. True to O’Connor’s portrayal, in the film “The Stranger” softens the bitterness between brothers driven apart by the Civil War, saves a marriage from adulterous dissolution, and restores a family’s fortune by discovering hidden wealth behind a portrait of the family’s beloved patriarch. Regrettably, no print of The Carpenter has been found, and from the promotional releases and reviews it seems that none of Whitman’s writing was incorporated into the script. Nevertheless, this film stands as the first dramatic representation of Whitman—appropriately so, perhaps, since O’Connor’s is regarded as the first fictionalized treatment of Whitman.
Just twenty-one years after Whitman’s death, then, the first known film portrayal of Whitman had appeared—a portrayal that, probably for legal and financial reasons, had attempted to blur any direct association with Whitman.6 In 1916, Whitman would appear in his first stage performance—and in much more recognizable fashion. In the second episode of Martin H. Weyrauch’s The Book of the Pageant of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a stage pageant written to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the newspaper Whitman had edited from 1846 to 1848, Whitman was briefly dramatized as a young editor asking his employees to work while he went for a stroll. By the early 1950’s, Whitman would be presented on both radio and television—in Morton Wishengrad’s radio drama entitled “The Legend of the Mountain” (1951) and in a 10-minute televised segment of cultural programming produced jointly by WPTZ of Philadelphia-Camden and the University of Philadelphia (1952). Whitman first appeared in a Broadway play in December 1966, in Richard Baldridge’s We, Comrades Three, and in his first off-Broadway musical in 1971, in Stan Harte’s Leaves of Grass. By the early 1990’s, Walt Whitman was available to viewers on home video in Beautiful Dreamers (1990), a large-budget film about Whitman’s summer with the Buckes in Ontario in 1880, and could be seen appearing at a number of regional theatres throughout Canada and the United States in a masterfully constructed drama bearing the simple title Democracy . . . One Whole Day Beside a Pond (1991) by respected Canadian playwright John Murrell. In 1995, Whitman became the subject of his first opera—in Peter Child and Alan Brody’s Reckoning Time: A Song of Walt Whitman, a concert opera based on Whitman’s life and writings that highlighted the poet’s final moments on earth. In the ten years since the centennial of Whitman’s death in 1992, in fact, Whitman dramas have only become more popular, with nearly one-fifth of all known Whitman dramas being produced during the past decade.7
Over the 90 years since the first Whitman drama, Whitman has been portrayed by such distinguished actors as James Whitmore, Will Geer, Burl Ives, and Rip Torn (in two different portrayals). Several actors have made secondary careers out of impersonating Whitman in monodramas that have toured throughout the United States, while at least one performer has spent an entire summer impersonating Whitman in the context of a touring Chautauqua show, the type of lecture circuit Whitman once envisioned for himself in his dream of becoming a “wander-lecturer.” Since The Carpenter, Whitman and his writings have been performed through every major dramatic venue and presented in such varying formats as monodramas, large cast pageants, choral readings, musicals, plays with music, children’s plays, docudramas, improvisational sketches, dance theatre pieces, and multi-media performance art events, in one-act, two-act, three-act, even six-act structures. Among this array of Whitman dramas, Whitman the poet has almost always been the featured character. However, Whitman’s poetry has not always served as the textual basis for dramatization. This distinction—between dramatizing Whitman or his writing—emerges as perhaps the most important factor in classifying the 70+ Whitman dramas.
“Whitman dramas” defy easy classification by structure or by genre. They are more easily categorized, however, in terms of their dramatic objective with respect to Whitman:
1) to dramatize Whitman, the man, in historical context;
2) to dramatize Whitman’s themes, with minimal regard for the historical Whitman or the dramatic application of his poetry; or
3) to dramatize Whitman’s poetry, with open acknowledgment of Whitman as its poetic persona but with minimal regard for the poet’s historical context.
The first type may be considered “biographical Whitman dramas,” since they are primarily concerned with biographical facts about Whitman rather than his poetical texts. The second type may be called “thematic Whitman dramas,” since they are concerned primarily with the themes of Whitman’s writings, frequently citing lines from Whitman as sources of inspiration. The third type, “poetical Whitman dramas,” simply seek to adapt Whitman’s poetry for dramatic representation, either in whole or edited fashion. While some Whitman dramas may seem to fall under more than one category, most adhere to a single objective with respect to dramatizing Whitman.
Biographical Whitman Dramas
The biographical Whitman dramas are primarily concerned with depicting an episode in Whitman’s life or the historical personage of Walt Whitman. Simply put, they are history plays. The first film, The Carpenter, and the first stage play, Weyrauch’s The Book of the Pageant of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, belong in this category, as do the first brief radio and television dramatizations previously mentioned. This category also includes a range of other noteworthy Whitman dramas:
· Christopher Morley’s Walt: A One-Act Portrait (1924), a well-crafted play intent on delivering one message—Whitman was a heterosexual with a secret past;
· Randolph Goodman’s I, Walt Whitman (1955), a pageant that surveys the major events in Whitman’s life, with Whitman (portrayed as both boy and man) flanked on stage by 28 minor characters, a chorus of readers, and dancers;
· Paul Shyre’s A Whitman Portrait (1965), a play that covers the entire life of Whitman—from some unspecified point in his early manhood just after the publication of Leaves of Grass at age 36, to a point where he reflects back on his childhood, then to his death, with stopping points at ages 42, 56, 64, and 76;
· William L. Moore’s Haughty This Song (1969), a six-act pageant chronicling the last 45 years of Whitman’s life, focusing on Whitman’s struggle to win acceptance for his explicit, unconventional poetry at a time of prudishness and moral bigotry in America;
· Carol K. Cote’s Walt Whitman: Poet of Democracy (1971), a “choral reading play” for children, covering 73 years of Whitman’s life in 20 minutes;
· Joseph Scott Kierland’s Drum-Taps (1975), in which the central characters of Whitman and Abraham Lincoln are developed through their own Civil War writings;
· Joel Heller’s Song of Myself, telecast as part of the CBS series The American Parade (1976), a television drama “based on the life of Walt Whitman” but primarily concerned with Whitman’s homosexuality, stormy relationship with his father, and loving relationship with Peter Doyle;
· Randell Haynes’ Look for Me under Your Bootsoles (1982), a one-man drama about Whitman’s life;
· Willard Manus’s Walt, Sweet Bird of Freedom (1984), a play so unabashedly biographical that it prompted a public apology by the playwright to biographer Justin Kaplan;
· Aileen Lucia Fisher’s Walt Whitman’s Lincoln (1985), a play for children in which Whitman narrates events surrounding the assassination of Lincoln and reveals his profound respect for the President whom he never met, except on the street in passing;
· William W. Whitman’s Walt (1986), a three-act play about Whitman’s life—not to be confused with Walt Veasy’s Walt! (1989), a musical survey of Whitman’s life involving more than a hundred different voices;
· Dorothy Ives’ The Mystic Trumpeter: Whitman at 70 (1988), a one-man play depicting Whitman on the day following his 70th birthday;
· John Harrison’s Beautiful Dreamers (1990), a film that dramatizes Whitman’s colorful visit to the home of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (Whitman’s later biographer) and his wife Jessie Bucke in London, Ontario, during summer 1880;
· Walt Whitman: Song of My Self (1990), a second play by William L. Moore depicting moments in Whitman’s life;
· Philip E. Schmidt’s Walt Whitman: Sweet Bird of Freedom (1991), a film portraying an elderly but passionate Whitman as he prepares for a Philadelphia poetry reading;
· Comrades and Lovers (1992), an arrangement of poems, letters, and diary entries by Whitman and his contemporaries that focuses on the homoerotic tensions in Whitman’s life, compiled by gay studies historian Jonathan Ned Katz;
· “The Body Electric,” an episode of the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1997), in which Whitman travels to Colorado and is snubbed by townsfolk who learn of his homosexual tendencies;
· Jewel Seehaus-Fisher’s Fanny and Walt (1997), focusing on the friendship between Whitman and newspaper columnist Fanny Fern; and
· Erik Rosen’s Whitman (2000), a self-proclaimed “biographical musical” about Whitman.
Though too numerous for detailed description here, plot synopses of these and other biographical Whitman dramas can be found in a separately published “Chronology of Whitman Dramas.”8
The biographical Whitman dramas have left few major life episodes or personality traits of the poet unexplored. They have depicted Whitman at nearly every phase: as a baby in his mother’s arms, as a boy sorrowing over the death of his brother, as a young newspaperman meeting Poe, as an editor being fired for his politics by Eagle publisher Isaac Van Anden, as a lover in New Orleans, as a bohemian poet writing Leaves of Grass, as a wound-dresser to the Civil War soldiers, as a garrulous old man at Camden who banters with Horace Traubel and other admirers amid the consternation of his orderly housekeepers, and as a reflective old poet within moments of his death. The conflict in these dramas has been constructed from the major challenges confronting the historical Whitman. They have portrayed him as a writer struggling to gain public acceptance, a poverty-stricken artist surviving through the generosity of friends, and a privately sensitive man displaying a falsely confident exterior. They have dramatized both Whitman’s heterosexuality and his homosexuality, with Rip Torn’s portrayal over network television in 1976 in “Song of Myself” being the first to openly depict Whitman as homosexual.
Quite expectedly, sharp disagreements have arisen between scholars and artists over the artistic license in dramatizing Whitman’s life. Criticism has occurred when these dramas have portrayed the poet’s homosexuality and, most recently, when they have failed to portray the poet’s sexual relations with men.9 At least one frustrated scholar has issued a simple warning in response to televised portrayals of Whitman:
Let W. W. be. (qtd. in Rubin 30)10
Understandably, dramatists have often shaped the facts of Whitman’s life along the lines of certain political or artistic agendas, even while attempting to delineate some facet of Whitman’s personality. Some have even placed Whitman in historical contexts never experienced by Whitman, such as Murrell’s dramatized encounter between Whitman and Emerson at a pond outside Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, or the televised portrayal of Whitman’s visit to Colorado Springs in 1872 (a trip that actually happened in 1879), during which Whitman delivers a poetry reading that is boycotted by the townspeople due to his reputed homosexuality. Since Murrell’s drama portrays the historical Whitman primarily as a means to dramatize thematic concerns of Whitman, it is more accurately labeled a “thematic Whitman drama.” Conversely, although Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman ignores historical details of Whitman’s trip to Colorado, its goal is to dramatize eight days in the life of Whitman as a means of examining nineteenth-century social intolerance. Despite its dramatic license, then, it may still be considered a “biographical Whitman drama.”
Of greater concern than the debate over Whitman’s historical veracity in these biographical dramas is the role of Whitman’s poetry in their scripts. Whitman’s contribution to these scripts is best measured not by the quantity of original Whitman texts they employ—often very little—but by the manner in which Whitman’s texts have been incorporated. In many of these plays, Whitman’s poetry is “recontextualized”—removed from its original context within one of Whitman’s poems and woven into the dialogue as poetic fiber. Most often, the selected passages are Whitman’s well-known lines of poetry, easily recognized by the audience, which helps the dramatist to quickly establish the identity of Whitman or his poetic credentials. The effect of hearing Whitman’s famous words in new contexts is often jarring, as demonstrated by the dialogue of one of the most representative biographical dramas, Haughty This Song: A Drama for the Stage out of the Essence and American Times of Walt Whitman, by William Luther Moore.
Originally telecast over Czechoslovakian television in 1969, Haughty This Song toured for several decades and was published in Calamus, the Whitman journal edited by Moore in the 1970s. Moore’s recontextualization of Whitman’s poetry—which includes paraphrasing, abridgement, and even rearrangement of word order—reveals how the rhythmic and structural components of the poems are sacrificed for their thematic content. As with many biographical dramatists, Moore borrows indiscriminately from Whitman’s poetry and prose; unlike most other dramatists, Moore is meticulous in citing the source of every line borrowed from Whitman, but this practice only serves to underscore the patchwork quality of his script.
A passage from Act 5 offers a good example of Moore’s practice of recontextualization. In this scene, John Burroughs counsels Whitman upon his dismissal from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Burroughs and O’Connor have just defended Whitman before a mostly hostile crowd of Americans, telling them the poet “must be justified and explained . . . on entirely new grounds”—a phrase from O’Connor’s The Good Grey Poet (5:50). Escaping with Burroughs to a pond beneath a clump of trees, Whitman confides his frustration while turning to nature for solace. In this representative exchange, I have indicated the sources of Moore’s lines—even at times where Moore has failed to do so—to demonstrate the many ways in which Whitman’s poetry has been recontextualized:
WW: (affectionately) John, John, what were you saying! “I must be explained on entirely new grounds.” What grounds? What explanation, boy? Good Lord, I cannot even explain myself. [O’Connor, The Good Grey Poet and “Song of Myself,” section 44]
BURROUGHS: But your embracement of Nature and human nature must be justified to those howlers.
WW: Nature will justify me. You must not try, John. Leave all free to come to me in their own way and in their own time, as I have left all free. [“Myself and Mine”]
BURROUGHS: (after a pause) Did you listen to O’Connor?
WW: William is like an Arthurian hero … hard as steel … chivalric to the bone … impeccably true to his own soul, come what may. [Traubel, Volume 5]
BURROUGHS: What did you think of his defense of you?
WW: It serves William’s cause. But, John, when I hear the contenders contending, I head for the bank by the wood and become undisguised. [“Song of Myself,” section 2]
(They have reached the clump of trees with the pond at the foot. WW ducks behind the trees to undress. He emerges for an instant in flesh-colored drawers, enters the water, wading, splashing water on himself. He sits down and douses his head and beard; he is partly hidden by the rushes. Burroughs sits well dressed on the bank. A farmer and his little son come along back stage pulling a wagon of fruit and watermelons.)
WW: Slip over and buy a melon and a half dozen Elbertas, why don’t you?
BURROUGHS: (as he goes) You going to stay here the rest of the day?
WW: Long enough to soak away the pulling and hauling of friends and sophisticates. (musing delightedly and loudly) … The feeling of health … the full-noon trill … the song of me rising … all delicious … [“Song of Myself, sections 4, 2]
(Burroughs returns and splashes the melon into the pond. He throws WW a peach, then takes off his coat, sits, leans against the tree eating a peach.
WW lies back in the water, eating and sloshing in the juice. He wipes his face and goes half-singing off-pitch into an improvised line of a ballad:)
WW: John Burroughs … O John Burroughs … O John Burroughs O …
BURROUGHS: It’s the 13th century. I see your peddler’s pack on the bank, and you dipping in the Thames.
WW: Who knows? Maybe that was me there then as this is me here now.
BURROUGHS: (with affectionate sarcasm) And in either time, in either place: (flourishing toward WW) “An accumulation of all that has been … An acme of things accomplished … An encloser of things to be.” I can’t imagine why it is people accuse you, such a modest fellow, of egotism. [“Song of Myself,” section 44]
The above brief passage contains six cuttings from two poems, as well as lines from O’Connor’s biography and Traubel’s conversations with Whitman. Some of the poetry is paraphrased, some abridged, but all of it recontextualized.
On the whole, the biographical Whitman dramas incorporate Whitman’s poetry freely and randomly. The recontextualized nature of Whitman’s poetry generally prevents these plays from showing the dramatic viability of Whitman’s poetry. The poems are not incorporated in a manner that exploits the action or conflict contained within the original texts. The random lines may still exhibit the orality and physicality that pervades Whitman’s poetry, but the biographical dramatists have rarely chosen it for that reason. Rather, they have been attracted to the poetry for its keenly (auto)biographical content. Since their objective is to dramatize an episode in Whitman’s life, they have typically exploited Whitman’s poetry for purely biographical purposes, endowing the central character with lines from his most recognizable poems. By doing so, they have transformed Whitman’s poetry into dialogue, not drama. While the biographical Whitman dramas offer myriad interpretations of the historical Whitman, they do not offer proof of the dramatic viability of Whitman’s poetry or its ability to hold an audience on its own, relying on its own elemental dramatic resources.
Thematic Whitman Dramas
The “thematic Whitman dramas” seek to dramatize Whitman’s themes, or ideas, as expressed in his poetry or prose, often with little regard for the historical Whitman. Even if Whitman is included as a character, the focus is on Whitman’s abstract ideas rather than on biographical details of Whitman’s life. Typically, these dramas apply Whitman’s ideas to contexts unrelated to Whitman’s life and times, as evidenced by the following list of dramatic titles:
· D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), which turns Whitman’s phrase “out of the cradle endlessly rocking” into a central, unifying image for four disparate stories depicting human intolerance through the ages;
· Alfred Hayes’ “I Hear America Singing” (1940), a pageant piece loosely based on Whitman’s poem, part of a two-hour pageant entitled Labor Sings produced at the Labor Stage at Madison Square Garden;
· Now, Voyager (1942), a film by Irvin Rapper and screenplay by Casey Robinson, which dramatizes Whitman’s theme of self-discovery through the journey of a wealthy New England spinster toward personal fulfillment;
· Dance for Walt Whitman (1958), a dance with narrated excerpts from Whitman’s poems, choreographed by Helen Tamiris, which highlights Whitman’s “celebration of the individual”;
· Specimen Days (1981), a multi-media event employing “dance, music, film, drama, and tableaux,” presented by performance artist Meredith Monk at the Public Theatre, which dramatizes the insignificance of human suffering within the cosmic order of things; and
· Dead Poet’s Society (1989), a film by John Weir that illustrates the dramatic energy behind all poetry, but particularly Whitman’s, to incite a class of boys at a New England prep school to “yawp” their poems both inside the classroom and out while challenging them to “seize the day.”
To these titles may be added other dramas that attribute Whitman—if not in relation to the play’s major theme, then at least to a minor theme or thematic motif:
· Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Street Scene (1929), in which nine lines from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” are contemplated for their pastoral content by the central characters at the end of Act One;
· The film version (1931) and opera based on Street Scene (1947, music by Kurt Weill and libretto by Langston Hughes), featuring the same lines from Whitman;
· Against the Storm (1939-1952), a “highbrow” radio drama that featured a fictitious professor reading from literary works, often the poems of Whitman or Edna St. Vincent Millay;
· James Agee’s “The End and the Beginning,” a televised episode of Abraham Lincoln—The Early Years, one of the earliest television portrayals of Lincoln (1952), which featured a narrator reciting “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” during the funeral train sequence;
· John Guare’s Lydie Breeze (1982) and its companion plays Gardenia (1982) and Women and Water (1984), three plays in a tetralogy that examines a group of nineteenth-century New England idealists, and all of which allude to Whitman’s “On the Beach at Night Alone”;
· Peter Parnell’s Romance Language (1986), a spoof of American mythology in which Whitman heads out West with Huck Finn to find Tom Sawyer, who has signed up with General Custer to “fight Injuns”;
· Black Roses (1988), a horror film in which a famous line from section 22 of “Song of Myself” (“Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me—I stand indifferent”) establishes the premise of a film that portrays small town teenagers being seduced by a rock band named Black Roses, whose lead singer is none other than Satan;
· Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988), featuring Susan Sarandon as minor league baseball fan Annie Savoy—a woman who considers baseball her “religion” and who methodically selects one member of the Durham [North Carolina] Bulls each year to indoctrinate through a seductive blend of spiritual/sexual/poetical metaphysics, including bedtime reading from Walt Whitman;
· Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me (1992), whose title is derived from line 157 of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”;
· Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (1992), in which the Angel paraphrases the closing lines from “Song of Myself”;
· Paul Mullins’ An American Book of the Dead (2002), which features Whitman as one of an army of major world writers, including Dickinson and Rabindranath Tagore, who stand on pedestals before the audience and antagonize them with cosmic profundities; and
· Christopher Shinn’s Where Do We Live (2002), a play exploring social interaction and isolation in post-September 11th New York that cites Whitman’s “Elemental Drifts” as an epigraph to Part Three.
Whereas the thematic Whitman dramas are more concerned with Whitman’s ideas than his language, they often feature specific lines from Whitman that have inspired, or support, an idea in the drama. As the above list reveals, such lines are most often incorporated into the script as an epigraph, as a quotation directly attributed to Whitman in the dialogue, or as the title of the work. Now, Voyager (1942) demonstrates all three practices. The title of the film is drawn from Whitman’s two-line farewell poem, “The Untold Want” (1871)—one of the “Songs of Parting” in Leaves of Grass: “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted, / Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.” Early in the film, these lines are directly attributed to Whitman and set forth as a dictum that guides the action of the plot. In fact, Whitman’s poem serves as the catalyst for Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) to follow the advice of her psychiatrist (Claud Rains) to free herself from the tyranny of her mother, a wealthy, demanding, and insensitive Beacon Hill matriarch (Alice Cooper). Because of Charlotte’s insecurity and self-loathing, she has been consigned to a sanitarium in the country where, freed from her mother’s scorn, she has quickly recuperated. As the hour nears for Charlotte to return to her mother’s home, her psychiatrist advises her to strike out on her own. In counseling Charlotte, the doctor pulls up his chair to offer his patient a strange sort of literary prescription:
PSYCHIATRIST: This morning, Charlotte, I referred to a quote. Do you remember?
CHARLOTTE: Oh yes, Walt Whitman’s.
PSYCHIATRIST: Well, I had it looked up and typed up on a slip of paper for you. If old Walt didn’t have you in mind when he wrote this, he had lots of others like you. He’s put into words what I’d like to say to you now. And far better than how I could ever express it. Read it. Bye.
Music. PSYCHIATRIST leaves.
(Reading) “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.”
Music swells. Blast of a ship’s horn. Cut to scene of water swirling behind an ocean liner on the high seas.
Charlotte takes Whitman’s advice quite literally, to “sail . . . forth” on a cruise ship bound for Rio de Janeiro. It is an ill-fated trip, romantically speaking, but a voyage of tremendous self-growth for Charlotte who satisfies the “untold want” in her life by daring to “seek and find” her own happiness. Many of Whitman’s “Songs of Parting” employ sailing motifs, including the penultimate farewell poem, “Now Finalè to the Shore,” which serves as a perfect summary of Charlotte’s achievements:
Now finalè to the shore,
Now, land and life finalè and farewell,
Now Voyager depart, (much, much for thee is yet in store,)
Often enough hast thou adventur’d o’er the seas,
Cautiously cruising … (lines 1-5)
Charlotte’s voyage has returned her safely to the shores of self-knowledge, and Whitman has been the pilot quietly steering the ship. Despite its tenuous connection with Whitman’s poetry, Now, Voyager dares to dramatize Whitman’s ideas about risk-taking and self-discovery. As with all the thematic dramas, this film represents a dramatist’s attempt to respond to Whitman through creative interpretation. As such, the thematic dramas are efforts to “talk back” to Whitman—the term coined by Folsom in describing the efforts of poets who have similarly responded to Whitman through creative interpretations of his themes.11
As mentioned earlier, most thematic Whitman dramas are unconcerned with the historical Whitman. One notable exception is Murrell’s Democracy . . . One Whole Day Beside a Pond (1991), which places Whitman’s ideology squarely within the context of history, confining both Whitman and his ideology to a specific historical moment. Murrell’s play employs neither Whitman’s poetry nor his prose; rather, it is loosely inspired by a few entries in Specimen Days pertaining to Whitman’s summers in Washington, D.C., including “A July Afternoon by the Pond.” None of Murrell’s dialogue is verbatim from Whitman; in fact, the only lines directly taken from Specimen Days (the lyrics to the song “My Days Are Swiftly Gliding By,” sung by Whitman in the play) are not even Whitman’s.12
In his play, Murrell depicts a fiercely combative, passionate Whitman, who, like the historical Whitman, is in his natural element by a pond. This pond is located outside Washington, D.C., and the poet is presented at a fixed moment in time—July 1863, from precisely 9:00 am to 8:00 pm. Accompanying Whitman are two young soldiers—one a wounded Union private named Jimmy and the other a Confederate deserter named Pete (somewhat representative of Peter Doyle). However, Murrell’s play mostly concerns itself with the arrival of Emerson and a heated debate that erupts between the two poets regarding human nature and democracy, particularly in the light of wartime atrocities. Murrell wonderfully dramatizes the philosophical contrast between the great Transcendentalist and the Poet of the Body without incorporating a single phrase from Whitman’s—or Emerson’s—texts. Yet, the dialogue seems strangely familiar to the listener. A sample exchange from Scene 6 shows how Murrell’s oblique allusions to the poetical imagery of “Song of Myself” (Whitman’s “gigantic beauty of a stallion,” alluded to by Emerson) and to one of Whitman’s favorite poetical themes (the value of contradiction, which he alludes to himself) successfully evoke the themes of Whitman’s poetry without relying on the original language to do so.
In this scene, Emerson has just returned to the pond after witnessing the ghastly spectacle and “bloody-mouthed animal defiance” of a young solider alternatively nursing his wounded brother and beating him to death:
EMERSON: Here is what I had to put before you, Walt. Here is proof incontrovertible that—if the flesh contains an occasional wisdom or tenderness—there is not constancy in it! I despise it, what it can become in three minutes! How it can turn to stupid staring malevolence! Unprovoked! Walt?! Your horse with the wild eye, the one that’s running fastest—he does not always run from night into morning! He’s more likely to run on into a night that grows darker every minute—and, the less he knows the path, the faster he will run! He is flesh! No idea guides him, only the blood! And the blood makes monstrous mistakes! Monstrous ones! How can you doubt that in these evil days?!
(Pause. WALT takes out his handkerchief and wipes his face.)
WALT: (Softly, under his breath, at first) Yes. All right. Good. Mr. Emerson. Good.
I hear this. I see this. And, somehow, this also has to be good—this also has to be beautiful to us. Turn—turn and look again. It’s not just monstrous, it’s not just madness. Even those two young boys—our brothers—their gentleness, turning to horror. It is the flesh and the blood. That’s what it is. And we must take it entire. The darkness as well as the light. The fury as well as the tenderness. The saint or the beast. There’s no such thing as contradiction! We must comprehend and accept and embrace it all. All! (48)
Murrell’s dialogue does not rely so much on paraphrased versions of Whitman’s language as it does on thematic essences of Whitman’s poetry. In taking this “non-textual” approach to portraying Whitman’s ideas, Murrell has written perhaps the most engaging thematic Whitman drama to date—a claim endorsed by the play’s wide production and generally favorable reception.
If Whitman’s poetry provides fiber to the dialogue of the biographical dramas, to the thematic dramas it provides ideological force. Yet, neither biographical nor thematic Whitman dramas demonstrate the dramatic viability of Whitman’s poetry. The only Whitman dramas that can demonstrate the dramatic power of Whitman’s poetry are those constructed entirely from Whitman’s poems. Freed from the intrusion of language derived from other sources, Whitman’s poetry itself becomes the dramatic text. Placed alone on stage or screen, Whitman’s poems are forced to rely on the dramatic elements with which the poet intentionally or unintentionally endowed them. Such dramas comprise the final type of Whitman drama, the poetical dramas—those composed wholly, or primarily, from Whitman’s texts.
Poetical Whitman Dramas
The poetical Whitman dramas seek to dramatize Whitman’s poetry. In these dramas, biographical and thematic concerns are secondary to the dramatic qualities inherent in Whitman’s poems—action and conflict, orality and physicality—all of which are afforded the opportunity to demonstrate their theatrical viability. The poetical dramas have been written primarily as works for the stage. Beyond that, they have diverged in their approach to adapting Whitman’s poetry, either attempting to build a play out of several shorter works, or, less frequently, basing the script on a single, central poem.
Adapters employing the first approach have favored Whitman’s shorter Civil Wars poems. These dramatists have written scripts that are by nature fragmented, and their attempt to impose an external shape to disparate poems often negates the poems’ inherent action and conflict. In an effort to stage these fragmented dramas, producers have been led to impose an assortment of production elements—scenery and props, lighting and sound effects, music and dance. Despite these efforts, critics and audiences often have not reported seeing “plays.” In fact, the nearly unanimous response of six critics viewing We, Comrades Three, a play based on a variety of poems from throughout Whitman’s life, was that the production should abandon the theatrical impositions and simply render the language through reading.
Only two scripts have been based primarily on single poems14—the earliest poetical drama Salut au Monde (1922) and my own Leaves of Grass (1991), based primarily on the 1855 “Song of Myself,” with lines incorporated from other first-edition poems. These plays are concerned as much with the action and conflict inherent in the poems they dramatize as they are with the orality and physicality of Whitman’s poems—features exploited by all the poetical Whitman dramatists. Because Whitman’s orality often suggests a human voice speaking directly to his audience of listeners, as well as an implied physical presence, the central character in most poetical dramas has not surprisingly been portrayed as the poet Walt Whitman, even if sometimes he has not been embodied in the flesh. (This practice accords with the way in which Whitman invested his timeless identity into several of his poems by endowing the speaker with the name “Walt Whitman”). On a whole, the poetical Whitman dramas offer varying proof of the adaptability of Whitman’s poems to dramatic and theatrical contexts.
The earliest poetic Whitman drama, the 1922 production Salut au Monde, seems to have preserved a unified Whitman presence while assigning the language of the poems to several characters. This production was conceived of as a theatrical “festival” organized around Whitman’s poem “Salut au Monde!” (1856), attempting to dramatize the poem and its “theme of the brotherhood of the world and of all races and all centuries” (Young 316). Presented at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse in April 1922, the production no doubt was conceived to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Whitman’s death. According to reviewer Stark Young, writing in the May 1922 issue of the New Republic, Salut au Monde was “one of the most important events of the theatre year … an experiment in terms of poetic idea interfused with and commented upon by light, music and dance forms,” seeking “to establish a rhythm out of a synthesis of all these elements” (316). Considering the humble nature of The Carpenter and The Book of the Pageant of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the daring artistry exhibited by this early poetic drama—only the fourth known Whitman drama—is all the more remarkable. Young described the atmosphere in the theatre:
The scene is a darkened space from which the poet looks through a great circle that is like a crystal sphere, into the heavens and into time and sees there the shifting images of his vision. He sees the forms of the air, freighted with meaning; he sees the story of man danced there, the rituals of man’s religions and the dream of his labor. (316)
Thus, in this production, Whitman was presented not so much as a man of the nineteenth century but as a poet whose poetry is being dramatized before him.
Whitman’s poetry was innovatively incorporated into the performance, it seems, as both a vehicle for establishing mood and for inciting the play’s ritualistic action. Juxtaposed to Whitman’s poetry was original music by Charles T. Griffes, whose “music alone would have made the venture necessary,” said Young,
not only for its originality and its strange effect of austere leanness and authentic sensuous ritual of the spirit, but for its very interesting and provocative arrangement of pauses and intervals of silence in relation to the poetry and the incidents. (316)
The “incidents” referred to by Young were rituals representing various “races” or cultures of humankind, such as the Jewish, the Hindu, and the Greek. The Greek ritual in particular stood out for Young as a key moment, demonstrating the successful dramatic application of both Whitman’s imagery and orality:
[T]he figures from Greek in worship of Dionysus, especially of the maenads, the crimson garment, the wine cup, and of the young men, the white robe with its black-figured borders, and the gilded thyrsos, had such moments of sudden and breathless beauty against the music and the poet’s thought as our theatre rarely sees.
And I shall never forget the catch and excitement of one of the poet’s verses at least—
I see the temples of the deaths of the bodies of Gods.
I shall not forget the beautiful, flowing precision of the cadences, of the blows on the syllables, as Mr. Ian MacLaren spoke them against the far-off voices beyond him and the line of the music nearby. (316)
Ultimately, Young characterized the style of performance delivery as “recitation,” hoping that American theatre might have more of it, “more poetry read, and especially poetry with music” (316). Whereas Young felt the festival performance lacked “the impress of a pattern, a unified basis of design, of style,” and that the “management of the recitative voices” sometimes resulted in “mere musical effect” rather than clearly enunciated and meaningful samples of Whitman’s poetry, he admitted that, for early twentieth-century American theatre, it was “too much to ask that such an experiment, new in the theatre here, spring full blown from the producers’ foreheads” (316). Young’s comments may at first suggest that Salut au Monde was merely a staged reading of poetry, not drama. Yet, this review belies the fact that Whitman’s poetry seemed particularly well suited for dramatic enactment, from which stunning visual and oral effects were derived, multiple characters were drawn, and ritualistic action was devised. Endowed with music, dance, and other theatrical production elements, Salut au Monde seems to have held up admirably well on the stage. Just as Whitman’s poem had helped to break conventional barriers of poetic expression in 1856, the dramatization of this poem had inspired a refreshingly unconventional night at the theatre in 1922.
Richard Baldridge’s We, Comrades Three (1962/1966) was a landmark poetic drama based not on a single Whitman poem but on a number of Whitman’s most recognizable poems, particularly those from Drum-Taps. Baldridge placed the poems within a two-part structure, bearing the titles “The War” (pertaining to the issue of slavery and the Civil War, concluding with Lincoln’s assassination) and “The Reconstruction” (pertaining to the War’s aftermath), followed by an epilogue that included “some of the poet’s broader reflections on life” (Watt 197). “As far as a single hearing can detect,” said another reviewer, “the only material from another source seems to be the Lord’s Prayer, spoken in counterpoint to a poem describing the miseries of war” (Taubman 66). Not surprisingly, when We, Comrades Three was staged in the mid-1960s, the play’s conflicting themes of patriotism and pacifism were perceived to be a commentary on the Vietnam Conflict.
In We, Comrades Three, Whitman is portrayed as three characters representing the poet at different ages of his life. The three Whitmans simultaneously shared the stage in an effort to represent what one reviewer called “the poet’s imagining that he was three persons—the old man, the middle-aged one and the young one, all in contention and yearning to merge into a single, satisfied identity” (Watt 197). Baldridge’s approach met with varying degrees of acceptance. When We, Comrades Three premiered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1962, reviewer Howard Taubman merely noted, “No one remains strictly in character; all have various assignments.” When it debuted at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway four years later, maintaining several original cast members including Will Geer as the older Whitman, reviewers were more critical. Daily News reviewer Douglas Watt wrote:
. . . by passing lines about from one player to another, at the same time assigning different emotions to each, the pure poetic effect of the original piece becomes confused and debased.
And this is further aggravated by having the actors constantly change character. In one notable passage, the young Whitman first falls to the stage-grass floor and dies, a war victim; then writhes as, another casualty, his leg is amputated; and, as a third soldier, rises to bend over the grave of a fallen comrade. (197)
New York Post critic Richard Watts, Jr., concurred, saying, “Mostly these three Walts talk and argue between themselves . . . The trio of Walts never seems to get down to points in their lyric debates and lectures” (199). And perhaps most skeptically, Norman Nadel of the World Journal Tribune complained:
It simply does not word to make a three-way dialogue out of poems that are reveries, introspections, surges of private feelings. Whitman is no trinity, he is one man, one lyric force, one observer, one who feels the pains, the ecstasies and the myriad wonders of life as an individual and who sings of them for all to hear. To pass the sentences around among three Whitmans, like cards in a poker game, is to violate their intimate character as the thoughts of one man. (200)
Baldridge’s stated intention was to create a staged “arrangement” of Whitman’s poems, not necessarily to write a proper play. Martin Gottfried deemed it a “staged reading,” complaining that this type of stage presentation is “a theatre form that must fight obstacles it itself creates and if it succeeds at all, the success is usually a relief rather than a satisfaction” (199). Specifically, Gottfried noted:
Mr. Baldridge dispensed with the lecterns, leatherbound books, armchairs and lamps that are standard props for readings and set out to make a genuine theatre piece of the selections from the writings.… As a dramatic version of literary material, “We, Comrades Three” may be doing as much as is possible with a basically futile genre. That is not enough. (199)
Watt complained along similar lines:
One of the things wrong about the enterprise is that the talk is, of necessity, not theatre talk. No matter how much [the] directors … have tried to engage the five players, even by the use of broad pantomime, we are ever aware that they are merely declaiming.
It was all very earnest and loftily intended, but the sad truth is that it is almost incredibly tedious … while the dignity and eloquence of the lines remained intact, the attempt to transform them into a straight dramatic narrative destroyed all of their interest and value … the trouble here is that with all the dialogue being taken from his poetry, the confrontations become artificial, mannered and self-conscious and lose their dramatic impressiveness. (199)
When Nadel posed the crucial question, “Can Whitman Be Staged?” he was forced to answer, “Walt Whitman, yes; ‘We, Comrades Three,’ no” (200). Despite the attempts by Baldridge to construct dramatic action and conflict independent of those elements in the poems, and despite the efforts of directors to augment Baldridge’s poetic script with special effects, the staging became intrusive, a “theatrical distraction” that was “out of key more often than not” with Whitman’s poetry (200).
And yet, in all the critics’ reviews, Whitman’s poetry was not deemed unstageable. Nadel asserted:
… somehow Walt Whitman survives, and there are times when he is spoken sensitively and well. We rise to remembered phrases: “By bivouac’s fitful flame,” “observing a spear of summer grass . . . ,” “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking,” “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed [sic] ….” (200)
Gottfried agreed, noting that “Baldridge chose many of Whitman’s loveliest works and while his determination to use them in a cohesive form stretched them, divided them and put them to unnatural use, they remained wonderful” (199). Perhaps Taubman said it best as the first of all the reviewers to witness the power of Whitman’s poetry in this unconventional, staged context:
Although it flies in the face of nearly all the drama’s laws, “We, Comrades Three” often fills the theater with incandescence.
Why not? The words are almost all from the poems of Walt Whitman, ranging from the “barbaric yawp” to the song of “a shy and hidden bird.” The theater rarely hears intoxicated language of this order . . . It is impossible to sit through a reading and theatricalized visualization of lines from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” without being scorched by their brooding grief. It is difficult not to be moved by Whitman’s bitter lamentations on the Civil War and its killing of brother by brother. (66)
While faulting the adaptation, the direction, the acting, and even the production elements in Baldridge’s poetical drama, the critics conceded that Whitman’s language maintained a resonant power not unsuited to the stage. The inherent orality of the language, as well as the physicalized presence of the speaker in many individual poems, was found especially compelling. In the view of the critics, though, the dramatic potential of the poetry still lay untapped.
Stan Harte, Jr.’s, Leaves of Grass: A Musical Celebration followed the approach of We, Comrades Three in attempting to weave a variety of Whitman’s poems into a cohesive stage drama. The important difference, of course, was the fact that Harte had set all of the poetry to music. This play, comprised of 24 songs based on over 40 Whitman poems, opened at off-Broadway’s Theater Four in September 1971 with a cast of four singer-actors. A Wall Street Journal reviewer called the show “simplicity itself”:
Four performers, two men and two women, mostly stand before the audience and sing, individually or in various combinations…. The main failure of the exercise is that no attempt was made to build a framework for the performances, which means that they are merely a medley of songs, interspersed with occasional recitations. As such, the offering turns out to be rather thin. (“A New Musical” 218)
Again, the major complaint was that the individual pieces did not add up to a cohesive whole. Harte had relied on music to coalesce the production, without apparently attempting any heavy-handed imposition of external action or conflict, as did Baldridge.
With such openness being displayed by Harte’s adaptation, one would not have expected a single identifiable Whitman character to emerge, and none did. The four performers equally shared the wealth of Whitman songs, appearing uniformly dressed in modern clothes that “strangely were suggestive of pioneer garb” (Abelman 217). As such, they assumed a variety of characters patterned after the speakers in the individual poems, and, through song, dramatized the particular situations contained in them. For instance, at one moment a singer embodied “the virtues of youth and health” with his “vigorous and lusty rendition of ‘Song of the Open Road’” (Neilson 127); at other times the whole ensemble of singers represented the family whose son is killed in battle in “Come Up from the Fields, Father.” Although not physically embodied, Whitman’s watchful presence was never forgotten, as the show’s simple set was “dominated by a back-drop metal construction etching of Whitman, bearded and slouch-hatted” (Abelman 217). Ultimately, this scenic element was an attempt to evoke the presence of a central character without dramatizing him. Even without a central character, a central theme emerged, said Kenneth P. Neilson, who commended the play’s poignancy in applying Whitman’s dual views of patriotic idealism and dissension to the political crisis of the day—the Vietnam Conflict (127). Thus, in Harte’s Leaves of Grass, the dramatic viability of the themes, situations, and language of individual poems was clearly demonstrated, even while the overall production seemed to lack any dramatic framework.
An approach similar to Harte’s—without the songs—was taken by Charles Pike, adapter/director of The Wound-Dresser, a compilation of Whitman’s Drum-Taps poems offered in summer 1992 as the premiere production of Chicago’s Terrapin Theatre. In The Wound-Dresser, Whitman is portrayed during his years as a nurse among the soldiers wounded in the battlefields near Washington, D.C. In the production, the character was presented as a Christ-like figure in body-length, cotton tunic, roaming bare-footed among the other five performers as they recited Whitman’s poems in character as soldiers, mothers, lovers, doctors, nurses, and military officers. The Christ-like Whitman delivered only those lines that established him as the originator of an emotion; he then listened intently as a critical, responsive observer to the other characters who completed the delivery of the lines while enacting the incidents of each poem. Despite the fluidity of Pike’s adaptation, in which the language of Whitman’s poems was distributed evenly among the characters, Pike’s staging resulted in a less than fluid delivery, in that the poems were treated as isolated entities rather than components of a larger drama. From an oratorical standpoint, the most stirring delivery was of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” while the most successful dramatic enactment exploited the highly self-contained action of “Come Up from the Fields, Father.” If the performance progressed to a climax, it was at the close of the show—an enactment of “A Sight in the Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” during which the Whitman character situated himself behind a silken-haired soldier who, as the poem’s speaker, undertook to identify the “Three forms … on stretchers lying” before him by examining their faces. When the soldier identified the face of the last corpse as “the face of the Christ himself,” the Whitman character stretched out his arms in the shape of a crucifix, while the young soldier simultaneously stretched his arms as if in a yawn, brought on by weariness at staring death in the face. The silken-haired soldier then collapsed into Whitman’s outstretched arms; Whitman kissed his head and embraced him sadly, comfortingly, for in The Wound-Dresser, Whitman was ultimately portrayed not as a human being, but as a human savior.
Thus far, in the poetical dramas considered, the character of Whitman has been presented as a timeless poet, a trinity, an invisible presence, and even as Christ. Some poetical dramas present the character of Whitman more identifiably within a nineteenth-century historical context. As such, one might argue that these dramas are biographical Whitman dramas. However, since their portrayal of the historical Whitman arises predominantly from Whitman’s poetry, and since they do not seek to dramatize any particular episode of Whitman’s life, they are considered here as poetical dramas.
Bruce Noll’s adaptation of poems from Leaves of Grass, entitled Pure Grass, portrays Whitman as a historical figure, but one more orator than poet. Noll’s one-man show is highly variable, as he tours the production to colleges, high schools, and conferences, presenting it within a variety of theatrical and non-theatrical environments. As advertised, Pure Grass highlights Whitman’s themes of “nature, love, death, war, equality of the sexes, and similarity of human experience.” Noll uses minimal props—a few blades of grass, a chair—and appears in period costume reminiscent of the first edition daguerreotype engraving of Whitman. Noll’s performance is more an oratorical experience than a dramatic event. In selecting his texts, Noll has favored poems with oral immediacy. With so much emphasis on oratorical delivery, Noll may have been better served to use the available poems from the 1855 edition, with their oratorical transcription and tendencies.
Noll’s portrayal is perhaps more properly termed a “dramatic impersonation” borne out of a highly developed personal relationship with Whitman’s poems. In a private interview, Noll confided he had “lived” with Whitman for at least twenty years before deciding to personify the poet, at one point carrying a copy of Leaves of Grass with him as a Bible. Such personal conviction comes through in the performance, as one Midwestern audience member attests:
Bruce Noll doesn’t really perform Walt Whitman … he summons him. In a dark room he lets Walt talk his poems, and after an hour, an eerie and lovely thing happens: Walt is alive in a room in the Midwest, reminding us of why we love him, and what he tells about America. (Qtd. in “Pure Grass” N. Pag.)
As a vehicle for dramatic personification, Pure Grass seems something less than pure drama. Noll capitalizes on intimate audience interaction, at times even touching his audience members. Even though he offers Whitman up close as a physical specimen for audience perusal, he keeps him at a psychological distance, in terms of acting styles. Perhaps this is the desired end of oratory, what Whitman described as “a great art, combining much physical with equally much mental,” and one which is “not theatrical, but more determined and live than that” (Notebooks 6: 2231; 2225). In this manner, Noll offers Whitman in the flesh, relying heavily on Whitman’s orality and physicality without necessarily seeking to underscore the dramatic action or conflict of his poems.
By utilizing only Whitman’s poetry, Noll has distinguished himself from several other performers who have offered dramatic impersonations of Whitman in formats not wholly dependent on Whitman’s poems. Daniel Barshay, who tours the one-man show The Whitman Trilogy, considers himself the only full-time Whitman impersonator, having been busy “absorbing the poet’s persona as his full-time job” since 1979 (Grimes C30). His show, patterned after Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight and Julie Harris’ portrayal of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, is more appropriately classified as a biographical drama, since it presents Whitman “at three crucial points in his life: as the 36-year-old author of the newly published ‘Leaves of Grass,’ as a 45-year-old hospital volunteer caught up in the Civil War, and as a 54-year-old prophet, half-paralyzed by stroke, inveighing against the excesses of the Gilded Age” (Grimes C30). Like Noll’s, Barshay’s personification arises out of deep personal conviction: “It’s more than a role. It’s a calling, a mission” (qtd. in Grimes C30).
With similar devotion to Whitman, American literature professor Carroll Peterson spent a summer impersonating Whitman in a touring scholar-in-residence program, “The American Renaissance Chautauqua,” joined by actors portraying Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Fuller, Douglass, and Louisa May Alcott. Audiences in several states gathered under large tents for a five-day program of public presentations, dialogues, entertainment, workshops, and informal study events, in the spirit of a nineteenth-century Chautauqua circuit. Peterson often “headlined” beneath the main tent in “Whitman and Company” or appeared in character before groups of young children (to show them how to “build a poem”) or senior citizens (to read and discuss “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”) (Great Plains N. Pag.). In certain communities, Whitman and Melville visited local pubs to read their Civil War poetry. Peterson’s personification seems even further removed from Whitman’s poetry than Barshay’s, often relying on improvised dialogue with his fellow performers and audiences.
Another one-man poetical drama attempted an impersonation of Whitman while drawing almost exclusively on a single Whitman poem—my own adaptation of Whitman’s 1855 “Song of Myself.” This play, eventually titled Leaves of Grass and premiered by Serpent’s Tooth Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1991)—attempts to exploit the action, conflict, orality, and physicality contained in Whitman’s longest and most well known poem.
To me, “Song of Myself” chronicles the journey of one person toward self-discovery. At the same time, it seeks to define an individual’s relationship with the whole of humanity. It does not, however, offer a clearly delineated plot. In shaping the dramatic action within this fluid, non-linear poem, I envisioned a free-ranging progression of incidents that relied on what production director Michael L. Geiger would later call psychological action. Motivated by the desire to explore various dimensions of his own identity,15 the central character would embark on a psychological journey, confiding to the audience his discoveries along the way. The greatest challenge lay in deciding how to stage the psychological action. During the script development process, the director, actor, and I agreed that the script would offer the most exciting visual interest at those moments when we could “see” the character in action—as Whitman urges us to do even in reading the poem. Consequently, I eliminated passages that seemed to narrate past events in favor of passages that related present observation. In its final form, the play was comprised of 29 “incidents” that conveyed the psychological action of the central character Walt.16 If a plot is to be found in my adaptation, it is contained in the progression of these incidents.
The action in my adaptation revolves primarily around Walt’s alternating acceptance and rejection of humanity, which also provides the tension, or conflict in the play. In the play, audiences are meant to play the role of silent humanity, not only witnessing Walt’s psychological action and conflict but participating in it. Their role is to be Walt’s companion, a confidante with whom he shares his discoveries and expresses his personal beliefs. The power of Whitman’s language—specifically, its orality and sense of implied physical presence—greatly contributed to the willingness of the audience to follow Whitman on his journey. Whitman often interacted physically with the audience, at one point commanding them to rise from their passive point of observation with lines from “Who Learns My Lesson Complete”:
Come my children,
Come my boys and girls, and my women and intimates,
Now the performer launches his nerve . . . .
It is time to explain myself . . . . let us stand up.
Throughout the run of the production, the audience never failed to stand up!
The greatest threat to the confidential relationship between Walt and his audience was the arrival of the Universal Form, the most radical conceptual liberty taken with Whitman’s text during the Serpent’s Tooth Theatre production. A faceless dancer in black representing an androgynous figure of humanity, the Universal Form was devised as an ever-changing manifestation of Walt’s inner thoughts. Through highly stylized movement, the Universal Form personified a slave at auction, a lover, a traveler, a swimmer, an “emptier of privies,” and any number of other ladies or gentlemen referred to by Walt in his conversations with the audience. In part, the Universal Form was intended as a mere visual complement to Whitman, a dancer shadowing Whitman and dancing to the songs I had composed from selected passages of “Song of Myself.” Although some audience members were distracted by the presence of the Universal Form, in the end he served as the sublime “work of art, work of nature, work of wonder” toward which Whitman’s general conception of humanity tended.
Ultimately, responses to the production seemed to favor my decision to dramatize “Song of Myself.” As one reviewer noted:
The Walt Whitman who has passed into American literary history is essentially an actor’s mask, a disguise for a man whose true identity is nakedly revealed, yet cleverly hidden, in his writings. It seems fitting that a theater should be the place to explore his odd, lifelong masquerade. (Sharp 3)
More important was the receptiveness of audiences to Whitman’s poetry—proof of its living force, or what scholar Mark Bauerlein has called “live feeling.” According to Bauerlein, Whitman maintained an “impossible” goal to retain “live feeling” in his printed texts.17 The production of Leaves of Grass had effectively removed Whitman’s poetry from the printed page and infused it with live feeling, it seemed, thereby quelling Bauerlein’s concern over Whitman’s “impossible” goal. In being dramatized, the poetry had become a dialogue between “I” (Walt) and “You” (the audience/the Universal Form). Not only had Whitman’s original goal been rendered possible, theatrical performance of Whitman’s poetry had captivated listeners in a way that the printed poetry alone might never have done. Whitman had met “the audience beyond” he so desperately sought for in his poems. And my production—as every production of a Whitman drama before and since—had simply afforded Whitman one more opportunity to meet them.
While the idea to dramatize Whitman’s “Song of Myself” had been my own, I left the production with a newfound respect and reverence for the poetry of Walt Whitman, which had withstood the test of dramatic performance. I had done little more than reveal the hitherto untapped dramatic potential of Whitman’s longest poem. If my adaptation bears any special claim, it is in distinguishing itself as the only Whitman poetical drama, to my knowledge, since the 1922 Salut au Monde that has relied primarily on a single Whitman poem to demonstrate Whitman’s dramatic potential. Admittedly, I took many liberties in adapting, simply dispensing with lines that did not suit my needs as dramatist and adding thematically-related lines from other first-edition poems, but I had never set out to prove that “Song of Myself” is a performance script, rather only that it contains a forceful combination of dramatic elements that function as drama once adapted for the stage.
In the years following the production, it has fascinated me to learn of the other attempts to adapt Whitman for the stage and the growing body of Whitman dramas. Whitman has tantalized many a worthy dramatist and stepped before many an eager audience. One can only hope that Whitman’s audiences “in the tomorrow or the tomorrow of tomorrow” may be awakened, through such dramas, to the dramatic force of Whitman’s poetry.
1My script, which integrated passages from other first-edition Whitman poems, came to be called Leaves of Grass. It was premiered in August 1991 by Serpent’s Tooth Theatre, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
2The elements of conflict, action, orality, and physicality—as identified by Whitman scholars throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—are discussed at length in Dramatizing Whitman, my Ph.D. dissertation, U of Minnesota, 1994.
3In 1920, when asked to estimate the level of Whitman’s popularity, George Bernard Shaw remarked that “Whitman is a classic, not a best seller. Curious that America should be the only country in which this is not as obvious as the sun in the heavens” (qtd. in Fawcett 6). Shepard’s one-act play Action (1975) makes two passing references to Whitman, who serves obliquely as an inspiration for the central character Jeep. In his Afterword to Angels in America (1992), Tony Kushner praises the American literary legacy of overly ambitious writing that borders on pretentiousness: “It’s the sound of the Individual ballooning, overreaching, a sound that attains its most glorious expression in Whitman. We are all children of ‘Song of Myself.’”
4In defining “drama” broadly, I am adopting the viewpoint articulated by Martin Esslin in An Anatomy of Drama:
[T]he mechanically reproduced drama of the mass media, the cinema, television and radio, different though it may be in some of its techniques, is also fundamentally drama and obeys the same basic principles of the psychology of perception and understanding from which all the techniques of dramatic communication derive. (12)
5Using the Vitagraph release as her only guide, researcher Florence B. Freedman notes many departures from O’Connor’s original story.
6Freedman notes that no mention of Whitman appeared in the film’s promotional release or single extant review. However, in a letter, one of Whitman’s friends reported the film’s producer had promised “it would always be announced that Walt Whitman was the great character in the Play”—a promise that was never kept (qtd. in Freedman 32). Similarly, O’Connor’s name was never mentioned as author.
7Some of the recent titles include Walt Whitman Speaks (1992), Comrades and Lovers (1992), The Wound-Dresser (1992), Songs of Love and Remembrance (1993), Fanny and Walt (1997), “The Body Electric,” an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1997), American Dreamer (1998), 3 Days in the Life of Walt Whitman (1998), Unlaunch’d Voices: An Evening with Walt Whitman (1999), Voices from the Spirit Land (1999), and Whitman (2000).
8The 70+ Whitman dramas are listed in a “Chronology of Whitman Dramas,” which includes plot synopses, production and publication information, and lists of Whitman texts employed in each script. The “Chronology of Whitman Dramas” is available at http://www.kjpierson.com/SCHOLARLY/Whitman/chronology
9In both his essay “Walt Whitman in Ontario” (1992) and an op-ed in the Toronto Globe and Mail (1990), Michael Lynch expresses concern over the heterosexual context of Whitman’s portrayal in the film Beautiful Dreamers (1990).
10Rubin borrowed these lines from a note of graffiti he saw scribbled on a chalkboard the day after Torn’s televised portrayal in 1976.
11Whitman’s significant impact on poets has been chronicled by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion in their 1981 volume, Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. In addition to anthologizing scores of responses by poets who have “talked back” to Whitman, this collection features an impressive “Bibliographic Chronology” of all known responses by major poets (in poems, commentaries, etc.), ranging from Emerson’s 1856 letter to Whitman to Borges’ 1981 poem “Walt Whitman, Poet of Democracy.”
12Lyrics to this song are transcribed by Whitman in Specimen Days from their original source and cited as an example of the “quaint old songs and declamatory hymns” that were sung by the soldiers in the veterans’ hospitals.
13A possible third poetical drama based primarily on a single poem is “I Hear America Singing” (1940), a pageant piece based on Whitman’s poem, which appeared as part of a larger, two-hour pageant, Labor Sings, at the Labor Stage at Madison Square Garden. Due to sketchy information about this production and its use of Whitman’s poetry, it seems safer to categorize this play as a thematic Whitman drama.
14The speaker in “Song of Myself” is highly suitable for dramatic portrayal because he is a richly-drawn, complex character whose identity is developed on at least three levels: physical, metaphysical, and spiritual.
15The character “Walt” was based on Whitman’s projected image of himself as he reveals it through his poetry in a number of ways. The daguerreotype engraving that appears as the frontispiece in the first edition of Leaves of Grass served as the basis for the character’s physical appearance—a bearded man in workingman’s attire, an open shirt, a broad-brimmed hat, and the famous pose of right hand cocked on the hip in self-assured defiance.
16In analyzing Whitman’s poetics in Whitman and the American Idiom (1991), Mark Bauerlein discusses Whitman’s goal “to compose a writing against itself, a writing that promotes the unwritten, what cannot be written” (12). According to Bauerlein, Whitman’s early poetics created a polarization between the poet’s “favored form of presence—pure, unadulterated feeling” and “the untrustworthy, estranging sign” of written language (8). Whitman’s challenge was to compose “with pen and paper an experience of feeling-exchange that rests upon the palpable presence of all participants.” Bauerlein notes that “live feeling” was a trait admired by Whitman in the sermons of Father Taylor, as well as the orators, opera singers, and stage performers of the day. He then poses the central question that Whitman himself must have considered in his attempt to convey in writing the “live feeling” rendered by these performers:
How, then, is Whitman to sustain the vocal-soulful presence in his poetry—a written, meaningful, signifying literary text? Whitman saw and heard Hicks, Alboni, and the like perform, but his readers have nothing to experience but silent letters that refer beyond themselves . . . . Apart from continually denying his poetry’s “meaningfulness” and “literariness,” how can Whitman make the poetry itself undo its signifying action and replicate the unmediated energy of sound?
Abelman, Lester. “A Paean to Whitman in ‘Leaves of Grass.’” New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, 1966. New York: Critics Theatre Reviews, 217.
Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.
Fawcett, James Waldo. “One Hundred Critics Gauge Walt Whitman’s Fame.” New York Times Book Review 10 June 1923: 6+.
Freedman, Florence B. “A Motion Picture ‘First’ for Whitman: O’Connor’s ‘The Carpenter.’” Walt Whitman Review 9.2 (June 1963): 31-32.
Gish, Lillian, with Ann Pinchot. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. The Lively Arts Series. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1969.
Gottfried, Martin. “‘We, Comrades Three.’” New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, 1966. New York: Critics Theatre Reviews, 1966. 199.
Great Plains Chautauqua. “Guide for Communities.” The American Renaissance Chautauqua: The Scholars Who Interpret the Writers. Bismarck: Great Plains Chautauqua, 1993.
Grimes, William. “New York Is Singing a Song of Whitman.” New York Times 27 Mar. 1992: C1+.
Kushner, Tony. Afterword. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992.
Lynch, Michael. “Putting Whitman back in the Closet.” Toronto Globe and Mail 7 Apr. 1990.
---. “Walt Whitman in Ontario.” The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life. Ed. Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992. 141-51.
Nadel, Norman. “Can Whitman Be Staged?” New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, 1966. New York: Critics Theatre Reviews, 1966. 200.
“A New Musical.” New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, 1966. New York: Critics Theatre Reviews, 1966. 218.
Neilson, Kenneth P. “Stan Harte, Jr.’s Musical Leaves of Grass.” Walt Whitman Review 17.4 (Dec. 1971): 126-29.
Noll, Bruce. “Pure Grass.” Promotional material. N.d. N. Pag.
---. Personal interview. 5 Oct. 1992.
O’Connor, William Douglas. The Good Gray Poet. New York: Bunce and Huntington, 1866.
---. “The Carpenter.” Three Tales: The Ghost, The Brazen Android, The Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892. 211-326.
Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman—The Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.
Pierson, Kenn. A Chronology of Whitman Dramas. 2002. <http://www.kjpierson.com/SCHOLARLY/Whitman/Chronology>.
---. Dramatizing Whitman. Ph.D. diss., U of Minnesota, 1994.
Rubin, Joseph Jay. “Plea to the Media.” The Bicentennial Walt Whitman: Essays from The Long Islander. Ed. William White. Detroit: Wayne State U P, 1976.
Sharp, Anne. “Walt Whitman Takes the Stage.” Ann Arbor News Spotlight. 25 July 1991: 1+.
Shepard, Sam. “Action.” Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class, and Other Plays. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1976. 123-45.
Taubman, Howard. “Walt Whitman: Poet’s Works Staged at U of Michigan.” New York Times 12 Oct. 1962: 26.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 6 vols. 1906-1982. Vol. 6. 15. Sept. 1889-6 July 1890. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois U P, 1982.
Watt, Douglas. “’Comrades 3’ Comes to Lyceum.” New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, 1966. New York: Critics Theatre Reviews, 1966. 197.
Watts, Richard, Jr. “Salute to Walt Whitman.” New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, 1966. New York: Critics Theatre Reviews, 1966. 217.
Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Brace and World, 1962.
Young, Stark. “Forward and Backward.” The New Republic 10 May 1922: 316-17.