Walt Whitman turns 200: The Poet as Dramatist

Before he was a poet, Walt Whitman, who was born two hundred years ago today — on March 31, 1819 – was a theatergoer, and an opera fan, and a drama critic…and, some argue, a dramatist.

“I think his work is inherently dramatic, but in a cosmic way, not in a kitchen sink way,” says Karin Coonrod, a theater director who teaches at the Yale School of Drama. “I’ve started to think of him as the American Shakespeare.”

A decade ago, Coonrod conceived “More Or Less I Am,” a musical theater piece drawn from Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself.” Her theater company, Compagnia de’ Colombari, has been presenting it around the city ever since. The hour-long show has been performed every day this week – at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn and Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, at a Department of Corrections detention center and Joe’s Pub and at the Housing Works Book Store, which is where I saw it.

There are two more performances scheduled – today at the Whitman Birthplace in Huntington Long Island and Saturday at Bryant Park.

As Coonrod points out, “Song of Myself” begins with “I”  (“I celebrate myself”) and ends with “you” (“I stop somewhere waiting for you”)

“Through exuberant poetry, Whitman  — the ‘I’ — has spoken to his reader — the ‘you’ —  and ends it without punctuation,” Coonrod says – suggesting that the relationship continues. “I was fascinated the more I pored over the poem to see this connection between the I and the You.”

In performance, it felt as if Whitman’s words broadened the connection from the I to the You to the We.  The lines felt newly created and deeply relevant when delivered by the diverse cast of some dozen actors and musicians, as well as volunteers from the audience, who were given Whitman lines to say or sing.  There felt a new resonance when, accompanied by the pulse of Patrick Richardson Davis’s steel drum, Dietrice Bolden, a young large African-American woman with a devastating voice, sang:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs…
Through me forbidden voices…
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of
Me is a miracle.

Other artists have picked up on Whitman’s inherent drama, although more often basing their works on his life more than his poetry. In 2017, Matthew Aucoin’s opera “Crossing” was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Diane Paulus. Based on Whitman’s diaries from his time nursing wounded soldiers during the Civil War, it imagines a complicated relationship between the poet and a wounded Confederate soldier.  The first line of the opera is lifted from Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “What is it, then, between us?” The last line is the last line of “Song of Myself”: “I stop somewhere waiting for you”

“Crossing” at BAM, 2017

The program notes for that production quoted Whitman as having once said: “But for the opera, I could never have written Leaves of Grass.”

The same must be said about the theater. Whitman began attending plays in New York when he was 14 years old, and in his youth counted himself a “perpetual theatre-goer.” One of his “big treats” was a musical version of The Tempest in the early 1830s. He reviewed another production of “The Tempest” in 1842 for the New York Aurora. Writing as a drama critic in the Evening Star in 1845, Whitman called for a new American theater, since the current one “has worn the tinseled threadbare robes of foreign fashion long enough.” In 1846, he wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle that there were two ways for an actor to move an audience from the stage: “the usual way, which is boisterous, stormy, physical, and repugnant to truth and taste; and another way, that actors rarely condescend to take, which consists in an invariable adherence to Nature, and is entirely mental, and works from within to the outward, instead of being altogether outward.”

According to Floyd Stovall in “Walt Whitman and the Dramatic Stage in New York,” the future poet “loved the dignity and artistic finish of the English school of acting represented in his youth at the Park Theatre; but he also loved the Americanism, the spectacles and the exploitation of powerful personalities that were characteristic of the old Bowery.”

The Booth brothers, sons of Junius Brutus Booth

He was especially enthusiastic about the actor Junius Brutus Booth, who he saw as combining the two schools, polish and force.  ( He was less admiring of  Booth’s three actor sons Edwin Booth, Junius Jr.  and certainly not John Wilkes Booth.) Writing in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death, the poet recalled the senior Booth’s performances as life-changing for Whitman: “His genius was to me one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression. The words fire, energy, abandon, found in him unprecedented meanings.”

As Stovall suggests, there are scenes, and pageantry and even some dialogue in such Whitman poems as Song of Myself. But what the scholar calls Whitman’s “dramatic attitude” owes something to actors like Booth whom he so admired. Whitman himself as much as said this. In 1891, Walt Whitman wrote:

“Seems to me I ought acknowledge my debt to actors, singers, public speakers, conventions and the Stage in New York, my youthful days from 1835 onward — say to ’60 or ’61 -and to plays and operas generally.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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