A Family for My Art: Poets at the American Place Theatre
In 1963, a small not-for-profit theater called the American Place Theatre was founded in St. Clements Church, a Victorian Gothic church tucked away in Manhattan's Theater District. The theater was founded by the minister and actor Sidney Lanier, acting teacher Wynn Handman, and actor Michael Tolan. Their goal was to foster good writing for theater by providing a place where American writers, both emerging and established, could find support in writing new works for the stage. Their vision shines through the entirety of the American Place Theatre records, recently opened to the public at NYPL's Billy Rose Theatre Division.
A notable characteristic of this fledgling theater was that it sought to give a stage to poets who wished to use the dramatic form. While poetic dramas are not revolutionary, modern verse poets who also wrote plays were a bit of a rarity. Ezra Pound once dictated that "Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose," and at the American Place Theatre, this dictum was recognized. Poets were viewed as writers of quality, artists who had the ability to work beyond the poetic form. Poets who subsequently had work produced at the theater include Robert Lowell, William Alfred, Anne Sexton, Patti Smith, W. D. Snodgrass, May Swenson, and Robert Penn Warren.
The theater's debut production was Robert Lowell's The Old Glory (1964), a triptych of one-act verse plays. Though Lowell's interest in dramatic writing began with his translation of Phaedra, The Old Glory was his first original play. Lowell wrote the plays at a time when his own personal scholarship was steering towards the historical narrative. The plots for The Old Glory were inspired by the writings of Melville and Hawthorne, and in an interview with Richard Gilman in the New York Times, Lowell stated that "using Hawthorne and Melville spared me a lot of work," further elaborating that "plots are boring anyway."
Copies of Lowell's casting notes found in the collection are rich with literary allusions. Lowell described the character of Thomas Morton as "Sleek, competent, oily, something of a Falstaff quality," and the Ferryman character as "Larger then life...Dante figure. White bearded."
The Old Glory was workshopped through the theater's Writers' Development Program, alternatively called Works-in-Progress, which included staged readings for a select audience and post-play discussions. This turned the play into a collaboration between writer, director, actors, and audience, demonstrating the theater's goal to fully develop new plays. A guestlist for the initial reading of Lowell's work shows that Bishop Boynton, Jean Webster, Myrna Loy, William Goyen, and Jean Cantor were in attendance. In a 1964 letter from Handman to one of the theater's many benefactors, he wrote of the importance of the workshop process:
I simply wanted to convey to you our very real excitement over the outcome of the Lowell reading on March 1st. It was enormously valuable to Cal [Lowell] to be able to hear The Old Glory out loud without the immediate pressures of production.
Soon after The Old Glory, the American Place Theatre produced William Alfred's play Hogan's Goat (1965). Though Alfred later received recognition as a playwright, in the early 1960s he was known primarily as a poet and a literature professor. According to Alfred's Harvard obituary, it was Lowell who recommended that Handman produce Hogan's Goat, which was about Irish life and politics in 1890's Brooklyn. While the dialog is lyric, Alfred kept his first play decidedly more conventional in both structure and tone. Though Hogan's Goat was not workshopped, it ran preview performances for American Place Theatre members and other invited guests. Alfred wrote regarding the American Place Theatre:
Without such perfection of mounting the play would never have won the success which it has. No other theatre in this country would or could have given me that perfection.
Both Lowell and Alfred were involved in the production of their plays, but it was Anne Sexton who fully embraced the Writers' Development Program. Sexton did not have the academic background of Lowell and Alfred. Her writing developed from workshopping with other poets in writing groups, supplemented by taking the occasional class. This made her an ideal collaborator with the theater. Production files for her play Mercy Street (1969) document Sexton's wholehearted involvement in the collaborative process.
It was through the workshop process that the setting of her play changed from the 'afterlife' to a church, and one can't help but wonder if the atmosphere of St. Clements affected Sexton's edits. In the transcript of a post-play discussion with Brandeis University students, Marian Seldes, the lead actress, recalled how Sexton gave interpretive directives to the cast and was present at all the rehearsals. "Anne Sexton sat in the same place," she said, "and it was for me like acting in front of a mirror." Sexton wrote to Handman shortly after the play premiered, praising the theater:
Writing is a solitary act. But at the American Place, I have found a community. One is not alone here. The work itself changes and becomes more vital as each day progresses. I have a feeling I never had before—that I had a family for my art. This is to be cherished beyond all things. Not alone, together!
The Old Glory and Hogan's Goat opened to rave reviews, and demonstrated that poets perhaps did have a place on the stage after all. Hogan's Goat garnered Alfred a Drama Desk award for Best Playwright and launched the career of its young star, Faye Dunaway. Lowell, who had moved further away from naturalistic drama, won the Best American Play Obie award in 1965, and it was produced twice more at the American Place Theatre.
Sexton was the poet who had drifted furthest from dramatic conventions, her play essentially a sequence of monologues and flashbacks from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. Still, in a review for the Wall Street Journal, critic John J. O'Connor wrote:
While Mercy Street as it now stands probably would have to be consigned to the chill category of 'interesting failure' the American Place Theatre and its director, Wynn Handman, cannot be praised enough for providing Miss Sexton with a professional, painstakingly intelligent forum.
The very act of writing for the stage was inherently experimental for these poets. Whether it was the only play a poet wrote, or the play that started a career in the theater, the importance of having a place for even an 'interesting failure' is unquestionable.