An Interview: A Poet Writes a Play about Gerard Manley Hopkins

by Jacquelyn Malone

Tom Daley is at it again: he has written another play about a poet, this time Gerard Manley Hopkins, which features Hopkins poems as well as his own. He has a flair for all the artistic elements that a one-man performance of a play requires. An earlier one-man show about Emily Dickinson elicited this response from a critic: “Whether by Daley’s poetic gifts, his persuasive delivery or a combination of both, the audience was powerfully moved—some to tears.”

As the date for the Hopkins play nears, we asked Tom these questions about his forays into playwriting and performing:

What is the title of your play?
In His Ecstasy: The Passion of Gerard Manley HopkinsWhere and when is this play being presented?

The play (which had its debut at the Mass Poetry Festival in May of this year) will be performed as a one-man show by me, the playwright, on Sunday, October 19, 2014 at 3 pm at Follen Church, 755 Massachusetts Ave, East Lexington, MA 02420 (near Wilson Farms and right off the Minuteman bike path). The play is sponsored by Lexington Community Education.

Spots ($10) are available by calling Lexington Community Education 781-862-8043. Their office hours are weekdays, 9 a.m.-3:30 pm. Seats are also available at the door.

You have already written a play about Emily Dickinson. What made you choose Emily and Gerard Manley Hopkins to dramatize?
Both Hopkins and Dickinson have an electrifying effect on me. I remember my first encounter with Hopkins’ famous poem, “The Windhover,” and it gave me the same unnerving, exhilarating shock that I received when I read Dickinson’s poem that begins “Because I could not stop for Death.” Both poets manage a hard-to-emulate combination of musical inventiveness and startling vision. Many of their poems achieve something even beyond communicating before being understood, as T. S. Eliot said a poem could do. They arrest, encircle, invade, penetrate, and reach into corridors of the brain to haunt and charm.

The two poets’ very unusual biographies provide rich fodder for a playwright’s cannon. In Dickinson’s case, her complicated connection with her Irish servants offered fascinating possibilities, both narrative and thematic, for setting her work in the context of her privilege and her prejudices, some of which she overcame. She suggested, when she was young, that her brother kill some Irish boys he was teaching because “There are so many now, there is no room for the Americans.” Later, she appointed an Irishman her chief pallbearer and asked him to recruit five other natives of Ireland who had worked for her family to join him in carrying her to the grave.

Hopkins’ poetry is a testament, sometimes suppressed, sometimes overt, to his struggles with issues of faith and belief. Documented in journal entries, his attraction to men led him to scourge himself after he had been wracked by lascivious thoughts. His joie de vivre is counterpointed by his depression; his militant advocacy of Christian belief undermined by serious doubt. These contradictions make for lively material for theater.

What draws you to unite theater with poetry? Do you have a theatrical background?
“A poem is an event,” Robert Lowell once told his students, “not the record of an event.” Poetry has a long history as performance, in spite of attempts to stifle it out of that realm and freeze it onto the page, or to deliver it aloud in “neutral” cadences so as to not “influence” a listener’s interpretation. This annoying habit is particularly true among certain poets of the academy in the United States whose readings might be characterized, as some wit recently quipped, as “an American drone strike.”

While a poetry reading can have a dramatic impact, even some of the best performance poets resort to predictable formulae when they are reciting their poems. The possibilities available in the presentation of poems in the context of a play give them a richer context, make them living, breathing moments that speak to the action and the dialogue of the play. For example, in my play about Emily Dickinson and her Irish servants, Every Broom and Bridget, Emily Dickinson, as channeled by her Irish pallbearer, Tom Kelley, recites “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” after her Irish housekeeper, Margaret Maher, reads a letter to Kelley. In this letter, a draft of which was discovered long after her death, Dickinson writes to Judge Otis Lord, a man she is presumed to have been in love with, about her utter horror at discovering that he has become gravely ill.

I don’t really have a background in theater per se, although I come from a long line of hams, cut-ups, mimics, and storytellers. I did perform in a readers’ theater production of Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine in college in which I played the judge. I lost my place in the script when it came time to deliver the verdict.

Although I am not a slam poet, I have had a lot of exposure to performance poetry as an audience member in the slam world, and through participating in Dr. Brown’s Traveling Poetry Show, a troupe led by Michael Brown, former Slam Master of the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. I produced and performed in several gala productions—“The Musician and the Muse” (with Regie Gibson, Nicole Terez Dutton, Kent Foreman, James Caroline and others) at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center and “The Poetry Vaudeville Show” with Alana Sacks, Rick McIntyre, Trish Ginese, Su Millerz, Lilli Lewis, and others at the Boston Center for Adult Education.

This play has some heavy themes -- Hopkins' theology, his spirituality, sensibility and sexuality. How easy was it for you to unite those elements? + What elements grab the audience and pull them through to the end of the play?
In In His Ecstasy: The Passion of Gerard Manley Hopkins, four aficionados of Hopkins’ poetry in a 21st century reading group are suddenly joined by a spectral priest resembling Hopkins. Some are convinced it is Father Hopkins himself, from beyond the grave. Others are skeptical. But they all engage with the character as if he were Hopkins himself.

One of the characters, a young man who is struggling with burgeoning homoerotic feelings, baits Father Hopkins about Hopkins’ savage repression of his own similar impulses. He then confesses to Father Hopkins that he is a “thrall of lust” in the same way Hopkins was. The character, a self-proclaimed “militant atheist” (his mother remarks that his “militancy” is “rather of the armchair variety”), challenges Father Hopkins and the believers in the reading group on matters of faith and creed.

The characters, including Hopkins, are all performed by me. Four different accents enliven the dialogue. An Irishman who is a bit of a card often interrupts the more serious discussions with a generous sprinkling of Irish wit and with spicy anecdotes that irritate the very proper English matron who is in charge of the reading group—but which bring a smile to Father Hopkins’ face. A woman from Glasgow recites Hopkins’ poem about a stream that flows into Loch Lomond. The matron taunts her son to read Hopkins’ poem, “Tom’s Garland: Upon the Unemployed,” in his “wannabe Cockney” accent. He retorts by wondering where she got her Margaret Thatcher-style of intoning.

The matron and the Scottish woman take turns reciting a few stanzas from Hopkins’ long poem, The Wreck of  the Deutschland, by way of response to the atheist’s question, “Why does a merciful and omnipotent God allow such suffering in the world?” The Glaswegian challenges the atheist’s reliance on a scientific outlook against religious faith: “The same method that brought us hydrogen peroxide gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” There are no winners in this debate, and Hopkins relies on his poems to stake his positions.

The matron, Teresa McCloskey (daughter of Irish immigrants turned perfect English lady), laments the ravages of age with a few lines from Hopkins’ poem, “The Leaden Echo”: “Is there no waving off of these . . . sad and stealing messengers of grey?” Hopkins replies: “Give beauty back . . . to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” In heaven, he consoles her, “Not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost.”

Mrs. McCloskey takes on the question of the difficulty of Hopkins’ poetry when she complains that she can make no sense of Hopkins’ poem, “Harry Ploughman.” She enlists the critic and poet, C. Day Lewis, who wrote a witty send-up of the poem, in her complaint. 

The play begins and ends with two of Hopkins’ most famous poems, “Spring and Fall”  (“Margaret, are you grieving”) and “The Windhover” (“I caught this morning morning’s minion”), respectively. All in all, over twenty Hopkins poems, either in their entirety or in excerpts, are recited or quoted in the play, including the so-called “Terrible Sonnets” (poems of despair), perennial favorites “Pied Beauty” and “God’s Grandeur,” and the lighthearted “Miss Story’s Character.”