Last weekend, my wife, Rosemary, and I enjoyed a matinee performance of “The Verse Business” by A. M. Dolan, the one-man show about Robert Frost, starring Gordon Clapp, who is best known for his acting in the TV series “NYPD Blue.” Except for the side seats in the balcony, the house was full for the afternoon performance. I had heard from several people that the Frost play was a must-see at MRT. They were right. From start to finish, we appreciated every line of talk and poetry.
One of the elements of Frost’s creative genius is the way he makes sentences carry the natural song in our conversations. Playwright A. M. Dolan achieves a heightened blend of commentary and poetry in the production that runs about 80 minutes without a break. That was a good decision because the script is so enriched as a piece of writing. At the end the audience is saturated and needs to be let out to absorb what has been said. I admire how the artistic team brought poems to the public in a way that left them wanting more. To put it another way, I had just attended one of the best poetry-reading events that I’ve been to in about 40 years of doing this stuff.
Sitting in the balcony of Liberty Hall, I recalled another poetry reading there, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1986, when Allen Ginsberg and a few of us locals read to a full house. Gregory Corso climbed down from the balcony, hopped on stage, and took out his false teeth to better pronounce his poetic words. Frost made fun of the free-verse poets of the Beat era, but they shared his respect for the greats like Keats, Shelley, and Blake. I can’t remember what Frost thought of Walt Whitman. In their hundreds of celebrity appearances, Frost and Ginsberg did more to popularize the public reading of poetry than anyone else in the 20th century.
Rosemary compared the play to a classical music concert. Like Beethoven or Mozart compositions, the content is familiar and essential, part of our Western Civilization cultural DNA by now. Not only New Englanders, but also English speakers and readers worldwide, know the classic Frost poems. Even though, in a way, you knew what was coming, and in fact were waiting for the masterpieces and small gems, the pleasure in encountering the poems was refreshed in this new representation.
Gordon Clapp gave us a Frost with the right mix of crafty intellect, restrained emotion, and wise-ass rascal-ness. From certain angles on stage and in certain light, the physical likeness was surprisingly accurate if you know the many photographs of Frost. There’s a magical set twist in the latter part of the production that makes everyone in the audience sit up straight.
The play runs through Sunday, November 13, for those who want to see it. Congratulations to MRT for putting Frost on stage in the Merrimack Valley. He’s a giant of our literature, but one of us, having grown up in Lawrence and done a little teaching and subsistence farming in Southern New Hampshire. The Frost Farm in Derry, N.H., is a fine place to visit in the fall, especially. Before all the leaves drop, there’s time to get out to the small farmstead and walk the field behind the old house. He once said he picked up poems the way his pants picked up burrs from weeds when he walked in the fields.
Take away the literary success, and Robert Frost had a tough life. He said his ambition was “to lodge a few poems where they’ll be hard to get rid of.” Check.