Dramatic Interpretations of Keats's Life

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Dramatic Interpretations of Keats's Life

Postby Malia » Mon Feb 27, 2006 2:31 am

I remember reading the following review when it first came out back in 1996 and thinking that finally someone has figured out that Keats's life is ripe for great drama. Sadly, this particular drama didn't live up to what it *could* have been--according to the reviewer--and considering what he says, I agree with him. For example, the guy they cast to play Keats was 50, yes 5-0 years old! Enough said.

It makes me really heave a heavy sigh because I truly think that Keats's life could make a great drama--though I think it would play out better on film than on stage. The only real hitch, I think, is that Keats's life could--in the wrong hands--become a bit of a mellodrama (sp). But I think it could also be extremely moving. It bugs me that no one has really plummed the depth of this story (the story of Keats) and that those who do make stupid decisions such as casting a middle-aged person as Keats or titling their plays things like "Aged 26" when anyone who's read an encyclopedia article on Keats knows he was 25 when he died (get your facts straight, people!). OK, enough harping. I think I've had waaay too much tea today and am on a serious caffine high. Here's the review--I thought it was very well written.

theater review:

Keats at 50

GRANT SCOTT (Muhlenberg College)


Keats. By David Shepard. Directed by Douglas Hall. With Austin Pendleton as Keats. Synchronicity Space, 55 Mercer Street, New York, NY. 14 August--31 August 1996.

In spite of its dramatic potential, Keats's life has received less interest from playwrights than it has from painters and poets. One thinks of the numerous portraits, sketches, and silhouettes of the Keats circle as well as the various woodcuts and busts of Keats executed for books, memorials, and commemorations. The poetic tributes to Keats's life have also been myriad, Amy Clampitt's "Homage to John Keats" (1986) and Tom Clark's Junkets on a Sad Planet (1994) being among the best recent examples. Keats has been the subject of at least three novels--George O'Neil's Special Hunger (1931), Raymond Knister's My Star Predominant (1934), and Anthony Burgess's Abba Abba (1977)--but rarely has his life attracted much theatrical interest. There have been dramatic readings but few plays; Mary Pakinton's Poet's Corner and Anne Flexner's Aged 26, both written in the 1930s, are the only ones that come to mind. Understandably, far more dramatic and cinematic excitement has been generated by the lives of Byron and the Shelleys, who have spawned scads of plays (most recently Tom Stoppard's Arcadia) and in some cases whole careers (Ken Russell's).

Though it may not have inspired many playwrights, Keats's life has captivated dozens of biographers who have, in their way, imagined his days as an exciting and eventful drama. Although it takes some liberties with the chronology of Keats's life, we might think of David Shepard's new play Keats as a biographical drama, for it derives most of its material from Keats's letters, rather than his poems. The wonder, of course, is that no one before now has seized on the relevance of Keats's final illness, its similarity to wasting diseases like cancer and AIDS in our own time. To his credit, Shepard never attempts to use the play as a vehicle for a political message, but wisely emphasizes Keats's psychological struggle against his isolation and his attempts to maintain his dignity in the face of illness. Throughout Shepard hews close to the spirit of the poet and it is clear that any fudging of biographical details is meant--sometimes wittily as in the staging of Keats's famous "Vale of Soul-making" letter as a party toast--to illuminate the living character of the man.

At first glance, a one-man show would seem exactly the wrong format for recreating and celebrating Keats, whose life was in many ways inseparable from the lives of his friends and relatives. "But what without the social thought of thee," he writes in an early sonnet to his brother George, "Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?" We soon realize, however, that his circle of friends are only materially absent from the stage and that Keats carries on a running dialogue with them throughout. They become spectral presences who haunt about Keats like the figures in the "Ode on Indolence," and he responds to them so convincingly that we almost feel we can see them lingering just offstage.

The play takes place in the early days of 1821 as Keats is dying in his room on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. He is in continuous dialogue with Severn, who is painting in the adjacent room, and Dr. Clark, who comes and goes, typically as the bearer of bad news. Indeed it is Clark who most often interrupts Keats's reveries of the past--a series of flashback conversations with Fanny Brawne, George and Tom Keats, Richard Abbey and Leigh Hunt--and who becomes an ominous figure of Death. Unlike the historical Clark who was nothing if not kind and generous towards Keats, securing his lodgings in Rome and on one occasion searching all over the city for a particular kind of fish for Keats's restricted diet, Shepard's Clark is a rather menacing figure of authority who frequently reproaches Keats for his drinking habits and excessive outbursts.

Taking a cue from W. J. Bate's Dickensian portrait of the evil guardian Richard Abbey, Shepard has represented all the authority figures in this play--Clark, Hunt, Abbey, Wordsworth--as one-dimensional and repressive, forces to be opposed rather than encouraging mentors in Keats's ongoing development. There is only one mention of the other more salutary Clarke and no hint of the positive influence of men like Reynolds, Haydon, and Hunt. The Keats we see here is a witty adolescent complaining about his treatment at the hands of his adult minders.

If Shepard's treatment of Keats's friends is sometimes too allegorical, too thinly drawn, his writing is always deft and even-tempered. Particularly impressive is the ingenious weaving of Keats's own language--lifted judiciously from the letters--with dialogue, language from contemporary reviews of Keats's poems, and an occasional recitation of a sonnet or fragment. Such recitation can be disastrous, especially for a one man play, serving to break the action and tediously showcase the actor. In each case, however, Shepard sensitively integrates splendid readings of Keats's sonnets and fragments into the fabric of the play. By choosing to include situational poems like "Why did I laugh tonight," "On the Grasshopper and Cricket," "Give me Wine, Women and Snuff," and "This Living Hand," pieces that most clearly arise out of a dramatic context such as a sonnet competition or confessional response to a friend, Shepard avoids forestalling the dramatic action, though he clearly sacrifices some of Keats's best lyrics in the process. On the one hand it's refreshing to hear some of the lesser known works recited by a gifted actor; on the other, such performances leave one hungry for more. Any of the lines about tasting and drinking from the odes on Melancholy and to the Nightingale would have been sure bets in a play where Keats is continually pouring and hoisting glasses of claret, as would the hortatory and dramatic stanzas from the "Ode on Indolence" ("How is it Shadows that I knew ye not!" and "Vanish, ye phantoms, from my idle spright!"). Though Keats is composing the famous "Bright Star" sonnet throughout the play's historical present and triumphantly recites it to conclude the play, never do we hear "When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be," one of Keats's most affecting poems and a sonnet that would have smartly underscored the play's central theme of mortality.

Austin Pendleton, a distinguished character actor, plays a Keats who is convincingly tubercular--breathless, feverish, frenetic, petulant, agitated, hysterical, half-insane. This is no pale poet slipping quietly away into Severn's arms and the genteel oblivion of Hallmark cards. On the contrary, Pendleton's Keats sweats and coughs and wheezes his way through his lines in a way that would make Marjorie Levinson proud. Ruddy, rheumy, and dishevelled, often passing his loose silk tunic under his nose and burring his lips, there is little doubt that this is Cockney Keats. It's not hard, for instance, to imagine him sliding behind the chaise for a quiet wank. Nevertheless, there is something lovable and appealing about him, especially when he's defending his choice to be a poet in front of Richard Abbey or sheepishly wooing Fanny Brawne, hands deep in pockets ("Would you mind if I touched your hair?"). Shepard has clearly chosen to emphasize the awkward Keats, the adolescent mannikin not yet entirely comfortable with his own body, though intrigued by its possibilities. This is why the choice of actor is so devastating.

Pendleton is about fifty and though in profile he is a dead ringer for a middle-aged Keats--flushed countenance, slightly equine face, beaky nose, quivering upper lip, exophthalmic, watery eyes--the audience never recovers from this initial blow. Seeing him for the first time on stage is disheartening, like watching a white actor play Othello or experiencing Hamlet minus the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. As the lights go up we feel as though we're looking at a Keats who has climbed into the Victorian period, a posthumous Keats who has "dated on his doom." From the very first moment, then, the play relinquishes a crucial source of pathos and dramatic tension. The whole point about Keats is that he died young. His attraction lies in his agonized struggle against mortality, the tragic sense of creative potential cut short. And yet for an hour and twenty minutes we are asked to imagine Pendleton as a very young dying man remembering an even younger man. This proves perhaps too difficult both for the audience and the actor and robs this well-written play of many of its most poignant dramatic moments. Pendleton is often superb, but he plays a Keats who is a bit too wry, ironic, canny, self-conscious, and above all, worldly; in fine, a fifty-something Keats.

For all its admirable energy, Pendleton's performance also leaves out a crucial side of Keats's character, one that the central stage ottoman quietly intimates. There's plenty of intensity but not enough pale loitering or drowsy numbness here; we feel nothing of the enervated Keats, the gloomily sedate poet-dreamer half-slumbering on his own right arm, looking up at the Elgin Marbles in agonized torpor. Keats's poetry is as full of images of numbness and sleep, poppies and hemlock, as it is of eager exclamations and characters strenuously poised on mountaintops. Pendleton's Keats is so busy pacing and raving, crying for laudanum and gulping claret, that he never actually lies down on the ottoman. How wonderful it would have been to see him, just for a few moments, flung out on the couch like an abandoned effigy, if not in the pose of the dying Chatterton in Wallis's famous Pre-Raphaelite painting at least blessedly supine.

As a matter of history, the final stages of TB left Keats ravaged and exhausted. He spent most of his last weeks in fitful sleep, so weak he could not get out of bed. Severn had to perform all the duties of a nurse, bathing him, feeding him, cleaning up his vomit and stool. And this gruesome drama played itself out in a space that was smaller than most modern bathrooms. None of the three great biographies of Keats prepares you for your first view of that room, which feels like an iron lung. It is high-ceilinged to be sure, but frighteningly narrow and cramped; the walls seem to be closing in as you contemplate the grim little fireplace or the portraits on the mantelpiece. Worst of all, the windows are in the south corner, away from where Keats would have lain in bed, and they open out into a marvelous view of the Spanish steps and the Barcaccia fountain. To imagine Keats lying in this room day after day listening to the splash of water in the fountain, the lively voices of vendors and tourists on the steps, all the hum of Rome's busy life just a few feet away is almost unbearable. The irony of coming to sunny Italy to recover from his illness and instead finding himself imprisoned in a cold, drafty room no doubt drove Keats's imagination over the edge.

It is this tragic sense of physical and imaginative claustrophobia that is missing from the historical present of Shepard's play. The set is period correct, but too carefully arranged, too spacious, not nearly cramped or close enough. We never feel that Pendleton is the least bit confined by his environs where he leaps about with ample freedom. We never sense the enormity of Keats's despair, the cruel contrast between his squalid miserable existence in the room and the teeming welter of warm life outside because the play never acknowledges any outside. Most of all, though, we never really feel that we are in the presence of a dying man. Pendleton fails to communicate the existential terror of a young man facing death. And this is why, in the end, such a moving life fails to move us. We are left with a lot of good lines, some rich poetry, but little compassion for the magnitude of the life lost.
Stay Awake!
--Anthony deMello
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Postby Saturn » Mon Feb 27, 2006 10:48 am

Very ninteresting find there - thanks Malia.

It sounds like one of those Oscar Wilde plays where all he does is spout his own works as dialogue.

When will dramatists learn that poets; as Keats said himself, are "the most unpoetical things in existence" and would not go around talking like the voices they adopt in their work :roll:

And the thought of a 50yr old man playing Keats is ridiculous. As the reviewer points out, the whole point about Keats is that he died young, and no actor, no matter how well gifted, at 50yrs old can ever recapture what it's like to be 25yrs old.
"Oh what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints".
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