by LAURA LEWIS
-- When members of the audience enter the Hooker-Dunham Theatre,
they do not so much enter an auditorium as step back in time
into American poet Walt Whitman's study in the year 1889. In
Charles Butterfield's effective and evocative set, books are
everywhere: piled on Whitman's desk, on chairs, on tables,
on the study rug. Other writings -- letters, papers, and scribblings
-- are scattered on every surface or crumpled on the floor.
Early photographs stare impassively down from the walls. A
faded pink armchair, the rose background of a Victorian flowered
rug, and a red carnation on Whitman's desk provide splashes
effect of this set is to make the audience feel as though they
are visiting the house museum of a famous writer. However,
museums are always tidied up. This room looks as though the
writer lived there and was just about to step through the door.
And in the play, of course, he does.
the elderly Whitman, as played by Boston actor Stephen Collins,
steps into his study and with a child-like openness welcomes
the audience into his home, they come. In the course of the
play, Collins portrays Whitman at several ages and looks very
much like photographs of Whitman.
is interested in people, is enthusiastic, optimistic, and loving.
Whitman's writing as presented here glories in mankind and
shares his love of the world with the world. In his work, and
most of the work quoted in the play is from different revisions
of "Leaves of Grass," he loves things by examining and praising
them. He seems to feel that any censoring of his sharings about
those he loved was unthinkable because the act of censoring
would be unloving and dishonest. In the nineteenth century
not everyone understood this philosophy.
Z. Keamy's play "Unlaunch'd Voices ..." introduces Walt Whitman
and his work to twentieth century audiences. Keamy has worked
on this project for two years, reading everything Whitman wrote,
both poetry and prose, as well as many of the biographies and
critical works about him. Keamy feels that: "Walt Whitman is
considered 'America's poet,' but a large part of the population
has either never read him or doesn't know him." Keamy has written
his one man play to show the relevance of Whitman to our time.
Voices ..." Keamy gives us a Whitman who, in the first act,
is young and self-centered, concentrating his life on his writing,
his living, his loving. The second act takes Whitman to Washington
in 1862 to look for his brother who has been wounded in the
Civil War. His brother recovers, but Whitman cannot leave the
other wounded without trying to help them. He spends the next
two years working in Washington, writing reports for the government
and for New York papers. Every day Whitman visits the hospitals
and works with the wounded until his own health gives out,
and he returns to New York to recuperate. In this act, Keamy
says, "Whitman learns to be selfless."
Stephen Collins of Concord will be performing
his one-man show, "An Evening With Walt Whitman," next weekend
at the Hancock Church In Lexington.
text of the play is divided between direct quotes from Whitman's
writings and from the notes taken by Horace Traubel while
the elderly Whitman reminisced about his life and writing.
To Keamy's credit the final product has much more of the
feel of a story than that of a term paper. Audiences come
to know this person rather than to be told about him.
he worked on the play, Keamy the playwright was surprised
that Whitman was so full of contradictions. "He assumed roles.
There was his public image, and his private image which was
kept private. We will never know everything about him. The
playwright's challenge is to constantly ask himself: 'Am
I being true to the man?"' Actor Stephen Collins was surprised
at the poet's boundless optimism and his range. "He was so
well-read, the Bible, Eastern mysticism; he used to walk
up and down the beach declaiming Homer. He was interested
in so much."
written work, however, is only the first step in the dramatic
process. Directing, acting, and all of the technical aspects
must come together successfully to create a satisfactory
whole and here they do. Thanks to Keamy's sympathetic direction
and Collins' strongly created and engaging persona, the audience
comes away from the one and one-half hour play interested
in and affectionately disposed to Walt Whitman. Anyone interested
in knowing more about this great figure from America's past
should enjoy an evening with "Unlaunch'd Voices ..."
Voices ..." will be presented at the Hooker-Dunham Theatre
and Gallery, Oct. 8, 9, and 10. Friday and Saturday performances
at 8 p.m., the Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. General admission
is $9, $8 for seniors and students. Call (802) 254-9276 to
reserve seats. Hooker-Dunham is located at the end of the
alley and downstairs at 139 Main Street, Brattleboro, Vermont
Laura Lewis is a freelance
writer for the Reformer.