“This is a world of books gone flat./ This is a Jew in a newspaper hat” wrote Elizabeth Bishop in 1950. Based on her visits to Ezra Pound during his institutionalization in a mental hospital, Visits to St. Elizabeth’s provided inspiration to contemporary writer Hayley Heaton, whose new play The Man in the Newspaper Hat serves as the inaugural production of theater company ManyTracks. The Man in the Newspaper Hat imagines the exchanges between the two great poets that served as the inspiration for Bishop’s poem. Found unfit to stand trial on charges of treason for a series of pro-Axis radio broadcasts he’d completed in Italy during World War II, Pound spent fifteen years at St. Elizabeth’s (dubbed “The House of Bedlam” in Bishop’s poem) in Washington D.C. During her tenure as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress (a position akin to today's Poet Laureate), Bishop visited Pound on a number of occasions and penned Visits to St. Elizabeth’s in response. What might the celebrated poets have talked about? In Heaton’s dramatic realization, they discuss Shakespeare, how various objects (cologne, a watch, an artichoke) are and are not like poems, and Pound’s culpability.
Meredith Neal’s thoughtful costume design dresses Pound in loose clothing, with a shirt that he undoes to appear at his most crazy and, ironically, free. In contrast, Bishop wears dress suits and tailored pants. It’s a nice reflection of their respective styles of writing; Pound privileged musical rhythms over strict metered phrasing, while Bishop compulsively edited her constrained verse. For the script to achieve its heights of dramatic power, we need the actors to move beyond the poets' smart surfaces to reveal traces of the brilliance that marks their work: the discipline girding Pound’s wild aesthetic and the fervor underscoring Bishop’s rigidity.
Under the light direction of ManyTracks founder Katrin Hilbe, the play never reaches its intended heights. Angus Hepburn's Pound rails against the state of the world, alternately playful and enraged, while Anne Fizzard’s Bishop functions mostly as an expository device with which to explore Pound’s flamboyant eccentricities, not as a complex character in her own right. As a result, what could have been a fraught interrogation of artistic and political ideologies between two of the most influential literary minds of the last century fails to fully develop.
Heaton doesn’t sugarcoat her material; expository voiceovers at the opening of the play contain grossly anti-Semitic excerpts from Pound’s broadcasts. Yet Hepburn picks up on the poet's warmth (Pound was a fiercely generous advocate of his peers' artistry) and resists reducing the character to ether inflammatory zealot or lovable lunatic. That's in keeping with the poem on which the play is based, which attributes a number of idiosyncratic adjectives to its complicated subject.
For her part, Fizzard’s Bishop is a patient, sensible woman who does her best to tolerate the senior poets’ cantankerousness. It’s plausible that Bishop, who eschewed confessional poetry, came across in person as reserved if blandly kind, but it makes a dull play. A more dynamic take would not be hard to imagine; like Pound, Bishop was not only a formidable poet but a fascinating person. Following her tenure with the Library of Congress, she would take a two-week trip to Brazil and stay fifteen years. Such surprising, determined behavior is wholly absent from the Bishop of the play, who equivocates in front of the elder, controversial poet without ever indicating her own quiet intensity. The result is scenework that feels at best static and at worst lopsided.
Production notes stress that the The Man in the Newspaper Hat is a dramatic imagination of real-life events rather than a historic account. That’s rendered most clear by Elisha Schaefer’s set design, which intertwines the real and the surreal to effect both the imagined world of the production and the uncertain psychic space of a mental hospital that sets both characters on edge.
For all of their dissimilarities, the historic figures of Pound and Bishop share more than great prominence in the American poetic landscape. Both writers would live in multiple foreign countries (she primarily in the Americas; he in Europe) and in unconventional romantic relationships (she with a woman; he with two). Yet unlike Bishop’s patent insistence on personal privacy, Pound lived loud and publicly, literally broadcasting his beliefs. With greater directorial awareness of dramatic tension, that disparity could have informed the play in ways that extend beyond Pound's pontifications and Bishop's reluctant criticism of him. As it stands, the richest suggestion of what transpired between the poets is Bishop's poem on which the play is based. Fizzard's recitation of it at the close of the play is the production's most revelatory moment.