I know I've mentioned the play called "Keats" before--and lamented it. The play was a one-man show done in the late '90's and had a short run (for obvious reasons). I found a review of it and thought I'd paste it here primarily as an example of what tends to happen when Keats is the subject of a drama. It seems that so many dramas about Keats (and there are very few of them, to be sure) are badly done. I'm hoping against hope that the impending movie "Bright Star" will NOT follow in the footsteps of dramas like "Keats". As far as "Bright Star" is concerned, I only hope that Campion won't turn it into a feminist study of Fanny Brawne (though to see her as a strong, complex character would be good), that Keats won't end up looking like a totally misogynistic abuser, and that there will be at least a *ray* of sunlight somewhere within the tragic cirucumstances that surround their romance. One can hope!
By WILBORN HAMPTON
Published: August 27, 1996, Tuesday
On Feb. 23, 1821, John Keats lay in his small room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome and called out to his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. ''Severn . . . I am dying . . . I shall die easy . . . don't be frightened . . . be firm and thank God it has come.''
Those poignant words, among English literature's most familiar dying utterances, are not spoken, however, in ''Keats,'' an uninspired and ill-advised one-character play by David Shepard about the poet's last days. In fact, the Keats one encounters in this 75-minute exercise bears little resemblance to the selfless and generous young man described by his friends and biographers.
Keats had gone to Rome the previous September hoping against hope that the Italian sun would wash from his body the tuberculosis that was destroying him. He knew he was dying. He had nursed his mother and a younger brother through their deaths from the same thing, and he had recognized the first symptoms of what he called ''the family disease'' while on a walking tour of Scotland in the summer of 1818. His fears were confirmed with his first hemorrhage in February 1820.
In Mr. Shepard's version, with Austin Pendleton in the title role, Keats denies he is seriously ill. When a doctor takes a blood sample and diagnoses tuberculosis, Keats acts stunned. He seems more concerned with his literary reputation and keeps rushing over to his writing table to jot down a few more lines to shore up his immortality (with Mr. Pendleton stamping his foot, trying to think of the right word, more like he's working a crossword puzzle than creating some of the greatest verse in English literature).
In fact, Keats did not write another line of poetry after his first attack. At the time of his death at 25, he had decided that his work, only about half of which was published in his lifetime, would never be remembered, telling Severn that his name was one ''writ in water.''
The play begins with a coughing fit on a day Keats is being examined by the doctor in his room on the Piazza di Spagna, then unfolds in a series of flashbacks. There is Keats and his friend, Cowden Clarke, staying up all night to read Chapman's translation of Homer; his proposal to Fanny Brawne (who finally accepted him although in the play she rejects him); his renunciation of his medical studies at Guy's Hospital in London for the life of a poet; his battles with editors and critics. But the audience hears only his half of these conversations. ''Keats'' is a one-man show with a cast of a dozen or more, so that Mr. Pendleton is constantly addressing either some unseen person in the room or someone offstage.
To make this credible, an actor must have not only a clear idea of his own character but of all those who remain silent and invisible as well. Under Douglas Hall's direction, Mr. Pendleton does not seem to have a grasp on the character of Keats. In this portrayal the poet is seen as vain and peevish, barking orders for Severn to fetch the mail and impatient for friends and relatives to send him money to return to England. As a result Mr. Pendleton gives a stylized performance, often pausing for effect in mid-sentence (as though again searching for the right word) or emphasizing the final word of one line, then rushing on to the next.
Mr. Pendleton does read the half-dozen or so poems rendered in ''Keats'' with feeling (although the first does not come until 20 minutes into the play). They are, not unsurprisingly, the best part of the evening.