The Poets' Theatre gives itself a curtain call

A PROMPTER'S whisper away from where Harvard celebrated its 350th a month ago, the Poets' Theatre will celebrate its 35th anniversary at Agassiz Theater, Cambridge, Mass. on Oct. 28 and 29 with double evenings of speechmaking and an anthology of scenes from old Poets' Theatre plays. As far as historians can tell, the Poets' Theatre originated on a June evening in 1950 when one poet, Lyon Phelps, called upon another, Richard Eberhart. The gleam in Phelps's eye was later articulated as a manifesto of purpose: ``To produce and present, with the assistance of volunteers, . . . experimental plays not likely to obtain commercial production, and to encourage poets to write for the stage and to educate them in the techniques of the theater.''

The Poets' Theatre did not come to life in a vacuum. After World War II there was a feeling that civilization had been given a second chance, and everything and everybody that wanted to celebrate the reprieve not only seemed welcome but necessary.

In fact, during those years verse drama was not a complete rarity, even on Broadway. Christopher Fry's ``The Lady's Not for Burning'' was a hit of the 1949 season, and T. S. Eliot's ``The Cocktail Party'' was everybody's conversation piece.

Eberhart, the first president, did not attempt to explain the energies behind the Poets' Theatre. He called it a ``sociological mystery,'' but confessed: ``I've never felt since the excitement.'' In addition to its first corps of poets -- Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi, Archibald MacLeish, among others -- a small but devoted audience felt the excitement too.

The first evening of one-act plays, staged in the Parish House of Christ Church, Cambridge, in February 1951, included John Ashbery's ``Everyman, a Masque'' (with music), Eberhart's ``The Apparition,'' and Phelps's ``Three Words in No Time.''

The audience -- standing room only -- was pronounced by one observer to be ``the liveliest Cambridge audience seen all year.'' So lively, in fact, that Thornton Wilder admonished the crowd in a post-performance lecture that ``poetry on stage should be listened to with reverence for the glory of language.''

Eberhart recalled, ``We all thought it was going to be the Abbey Theatre at least.''

Remarkable and eccentric events took place on the stages around Harvard Square -- especially in an artist's loft on Palmer Street, converted into a 47-seat theater, that became the Poets' Theatre home. A sampling of repertoire suggets the company's scope: William Alfred's ``Agamemnon,'' Mary Manning's adaptation of ``Finnegans Wake,'' V. R. Lang's ``I Too Have Lived in Arcadia,'' and Richard Wilbur's version of Moli`ere's ``The Misanthrope,'' which moved the poet Peter Davison, playing the role of Alceste, to write, ``For the first time I was participating in poetry from the inside.''

Under Poets' Theatre auspices, Dylan Thomas delivered what was probably the first reading of ``Under Milkwood,'' then unfinished in 1953. But the most money the company ever raised was the $2,000 collected from celeb-crazy patrons, flocking to an evening with the then-very-chic Sitwells.

The poets came. The poets went. The enterprise did not so much die as do a fadeout in 1968. But it constituted an influence beyond its local radius and its restricted audiences and its times. Plays written for Poets' Theatre were published and produced by other ``little theaters'' in the United States and abroad. Harold Gaarder, stage manager of the Poets' Theatre, recalls ushering an ambassador from German theater circles up the steep dark stairs to the hole-in-the-wall premises. ``You mean,'' the reverential pilgrim gasped, ``you do all dat with ziss!''

How long ago this little experiment, with its quaint emphasis on the word, must seem to theater audiences today, conditioned to high-tech multimedia spectacles that rival motion pictures.

All the more reason to honor Poets' Theatre. Mary McCarthy, a drama critic during those postwar years, divided theater into two main schools. ``The commercial theater,'' she wrote, ``manipulated your emotions for two hours in a thorough yet perfunctory manner,'' giving the audience ``a certain bargained-for satisfaction.'' The major repertory companies of the time, like the Worthy Causes they were, ``DEMANDED YOUR SUPPORT.''

But then, on the fringes, there were the small, permanently broke companies who charmingly ``asked your indulgence'' as they presented with some style, some wit, and some passion their originals. Toward these rare groups, Miss McCarthy observed, an audience could ``feel, for the first time in many seasons, an unguarded emotion, a sense of camaraderie.'' She might have been describing the Poets' Theatre.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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