The Man In The Newspaper Hat
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
March 11, 2009
ManyTracks is a brand new company that aims to explore theater through different genres of art and wants audiences to leave their shows with things to think about. Their first production, now playing at the 45th Street Theatre, is called The Man in the Newspaper Hat. It is written by poet Hayley Heaton and inspired by the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, "Visits to St. Elizabeth's," which she wrote about her visits to poet Ezra Pound while he was in the mental hospital in 1949-50.
I'm glad I saw it. I didn't know anything about Ezra Pound or Elizabeth Bishop before I got this reviewing assignment. In preparation to get the most out of the show, I looked up both poets on Wikipedia and familiarized myself with "Visits to St. Elizabeth." It turned out this was unnecessary since copies of the poem are available for free at the box office and there are extensive biographies of both poets in the program. The lobby outside the third floor theater is also decorated with clippings of articles and headlines about the poets. ManyTracks provides an abundance of background information.
Ezra Pound was a radical American expatriate poet and during World War I & II he lived all over Europe as a proponent of Modernism in the arts. He unfortunately became a fan of fascism and made radio broadcasts in Italy supporting Mussolini during WWII. After the war he was captured and brought to court in America for treason, but was found mentally unfit to stand trial, after which he was held in St. Elizabeth's mental hospital for 12 years.
Elizabeth Bishop was a New England born, Vassar-educated poet who had been mentored by Marianne Moore (who had been mentored by Pound). She struggled with being a lesbian, suffered from depression, and had very low self-esteem despite her great success as a poet. The play takes place while she is the "Poetry Consultant" at the Library of Congress (equivalent to today's national Poet Laureate).
This is all what I learned from going to see this play, but I learned none of this through actually watching it. For a play by a poet, about two poets, inspired by a poem, The Man in the Newspaper Hat is surprisingly straightforward and literal in both script and direction. In the play we see what are the imagined very realistic scenes between a cantankerous and grandiose poet locked up in the mental hospital being visited by another poet. Angus Hepburn plays Pound as vitriolic, radical, belligerent, and charismatic, as one would expect. The play spends a lot of time between "visits" letting us watch him practice painting Chinese characters, typing, and working with the fantastic set (designed by Elisha Schaefer) of his cell, which is hung with all of his papers, writing, and drawings. It inspires him to be surrounded by this, and I enjoyed the fragility of the collage when sometimes the papers would fall off the wall. Anne Fizzard's characterization of Bishop is meek, mousy, dull, and slightly dim. She is always uncomfortable and a bit forced in the presence of Pound. I found it hard to reconcile her character with her free and pointed poem, but that dichotomy's not so unusual for poets.
It is unclear why she keeps visiting him, though he asks her directly multiple times. Her response is that she wants to visit him, "poet to poet." It is also unclear at first why he permits these visits. It is a study in discomfort. She is looking to him for some sort of connection or approval, though she finds him abrasive and (as she says in her poem) tedious. He seems to be looking to her for a challenge, a spark, someone who can match him spar for spar to alleviate the boredom of his captivity. Yet this visitor gives him silly gifts he doesn't want and runs away when she gets too offended.
The most poignant scene for me is one between Ezra and Elizabeth which occurs without Elizabeth. In this scene she comes to visit him in his imagination and he has a lively relaxed conversation with her. He pauses attentively to listen to what he imagines she has to say and he is genuinely interested by it. He enjoys her company, respects her ideas and is inspired by her conversation. Only then could I see his loneliness and understand why he kept letting her come bother him.
The Man in the Newspaper Hat left me wanting to read more poetry by Pound and Bishop. It made me wonder about different ways to make theater out of a poem. But I'm not so sure the play itself, without its dramaturgical accessories, is wholly effective as a work of theater. There is little plot or drama to be found in these scenes about two poets in forced conversations who can't connect to each other. They interested me but I didn't care about them. But ManyTracks did succeed in its mission: I left with a lot to think about.