A Whitman Alive as You and Me

A review by Mark Schorr

Poets Theater (hold the apostrophe)  can happen anywhere: on a subway platform, in a storefront, or as it did last weekend when the four walls of the Salem Athenaeum opened out into a production in their summer backyard. Ably conceived and directed by Imbroglio (the  g is silent), Salem State Professor Peter Sampieri’s new production company,  the premise is simple: the poetry of Walt Whitman still has important truths for us.

Under a hundred year old chestnut tree and a very contemporary beach umbrella — with a little help from the Theater Arts– six college students effectively conveyed the truths of Walt Whitman’s poems.

To provide context, two of the students enact a dialog between a young and old professor.  This serves as a frame to prepare us for the situation of the poetry we are about to receive. This framing dialog heads off any experiences the audience may have had of Whitman as over-taught and under-appreciated. The protagonist, Jack, a young professor played by Zack Hall, tries to discuss Whitman with Ethan, his senior colleague and mentor, ably played by David Meredith as an absent-minded professor who feels he goes on too long.  But through wine, humor, and self-deprecation, the conversation turns into one of the rare shared moments between junior and senior teacher (based on Sampieri’s conversation with  James Scrimgeour)  that is overheard by an eager audience.

As the professors twiddle and fiddle with the umbrella prop, the other actors– Taylor Rae Boticelli, Jake Crawford, and Paige Fasold, as  wood nymphs and satyrs– romp in the beautiful garden and freely recite Whitman.  Each time they gather, the cast of five forms up into a tableaux vivant. Each vividly depicts one particular aspect of Whitman:

(JACK starts the reading, overlapping with his role as THE RADICAL)

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,

One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,

At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)
These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,

and they don’t forget the Sensualist either:

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.

More than ever in this age of selfies, this romp and recite approach is one more of us should take. The five actors, including the two professors, succeed in giving the famous lines, for which Whitman is rightly known, new context and meaning.

For example, there is a noteworthy section about Whitman’s suffering, his AGONIES, that has often been overlooked by curricula that treat him merely as an emblem of Democratic optimism.

Right, cause here he says “I lie in the night air in my red shirt/The pervading hushes for my
sake/Painless I lay exhausted but not unhappy.” And later on he talks about the 412 young men
who were murdered. And all this about the agony of human beings is connected to heroism too.
With people who survive in spite of…I almost want to say that you can kill the body but you
can’t kill the spirit. Something like Pete Seeger said with Old Joe Hill.

ETHAN (writing)
Oh I love Joe Hill.

Like he says “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night/Alive as you or me/Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten
years dead,”/”I never died,” says he.

This poets theater from Imbroglio clearly gives nuance and depth to anyone who cares to spend an hour’s time with Whitman’s free verse.  I’d love to see this play performed at some of our local high schools, or wherever Whitman languishes on the vine, for a new generation of students to discover his wild and reliable truths.

Mark Schorr, the Director Emeritus of the Robert Frost Foundation, has produced Ben Mazer’s verse play, A City of Angels, at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop and has opened for Jim Vrabel’s one-man show of John Berryman with dream songs from Schorr’s second collection, Recovery (2011) in a poets’ theater production.