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Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again

Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again

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Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again

5/5 (1 rating)
85 pages
1 hour
Sep 2, 2014


A moving, innovative play based on one of the greatest correspondences in literary history

From 1947 to 1977, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop exchanged more than four hundred letters. Describing the writing of their poems, their travel and daily illnesses, the pyrotechnics of their romantic relationships, and the profound affection they had for each other, these missives are the most intimate record available of both poets and one of the greatest correspondences in American literature.
The playwright Sarah Ruhl fell in love with these letters and set herself an unusual challenge: to turn this thirty-year exchange into a stage play, and to bring to life the friendship of two writers who were rarely even in the same country. As innovative as it is moving, Dear Elizabeth gives voice to a conversation that lived mostly in writing, illuminating some of the finest poems of the twentieth century and the minds that produced them.

Sep 2, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ruhl is a playwright, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee, and author of the book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a midcareer playwright, and the Steinberg Award. She is currently on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

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Dear Elizabeth - Sarah Ruhl

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For Elizabeth B and Elizabeth C as in Charuvastra who covered her typewriter with bandages and typed out all the poetry she could remember when she was far from home

Sometimes it seems … as though only intelligent people are stupid enough to fall in love & only stupid people are intelligent enough to let themselves be loved.

—Elizabeth Bishop, from her notebook


I see a postman everywhere

Vanishing in thin blue air,

A mammoth letter in his hand,

Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman’s uniform is blue.

The letter is of course from you

And I’d be able to read, I hope,

My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter

Which constantly grows bigger & bigger

And over and over with a stare,

He vanishes in blue, blue air.

—Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments

Elizabeth told me about Robert Lowell. She said, He’s my best friend. When I met him a few years later, I mentioned that I knew her and he said, Oh, she’s my best friend. It was nice to think that she and Lowell both thought of each other in the same way.

—Thom Gunn, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop

I can remember Cal’s carrying Elizabeth’s Armadillo poem around in his wallet everywhere, not the way you’d carry the picture of a grandson, but as you’d carry something to brace you and make you sure of how a poem ought to be.

—Richard Wilbur, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop

While we were with her, she managed to finish North Haven, the poem [or elegy] for Lowell. She read it to us and walked about with it in her hand. I found it very moving that she felt she could hardly bear to put it down, that it was part of her. She put it beside her plate at dinner.

—Ilse Barker, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop


Title Page

Copyright Notice






Part One: Water

Part Two: Come to Yaddo

Part Three: Brazil


Part One: Skunk

Part Two: Art just isn’t worth that much



Also by Sarah Ruhl

A Note About the Author



The great poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were great friends, and they wrote more than eight hundred pages of letters to each other. When I was on bed rest, pregnant with twins, a friend gave me the book of their collected letters, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I already had a long-standing obsession with Bishop; my obsession with Lowell and his friendship with Bishop now began. I could not put the letters down. I hungered to hear them read aloud; I particularly longed to hear letter number 161 read out loud. Number 161 is Lowell’s most confessional letter to Bishop, and I think, one of the most beautiful love letters ever written. In it, he says, about not asking Bishop to marry him: "But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had."

Reading these eight hundred pages—these strands of two lives intersecting, rarely meeting—I thought: Why do I find this narrative so compelling, even though theirs is not a story in the traditional sense? I was desperate to know how the story would come out—how each life would progress, how the relationship would end. But I also loved how the letters resisted a sense of the usual literary story—how instead they forced us to look at life as it is lived. Not neat. Not two glorious Greek arcs meeting in the center. Instead: a dialectic between the interior poetic life and the pear-shaped, particular, sudden, ordinary life-as-it-is-lived.

Life intrudes, without warning. Bishop’s great love and partner, Lota, commits suicide without warning. Bishop has multiple asthma attacks, and often needs

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  • (5/5)
    Sarah Ruhl has taken two extremely talented poets and their unique friendship and turned it into a beautiful yet strong text. the minimal spine that she has built for the construction is delicious. made me want to put this piece onto the stage