The Robert Frost of Playwrights


I am a tremendous admirer of the verses of Robert Frost. I’ve been studying his work for as long as I’ve been studying poetry, which is (at happens) more than a couple of decades now, and it continues to yield new discoveries for me. He was a prosodic genius—a fact that I fear goes largely unrecognized by most fans of his work, who react largely to his occasionally folksy and deceptively simple diction—and a deeply complicated thinker. I will probably return to his poems time and time again throughout my life.

Although I’ve read two or three autobiographies of Frost along the way, I don’t presume to know his true character. What I do know is that Frost the poet and Frost the man are often mistaken for one another. We imagine him to have been a slightly curmudgeonly person, a stolid New England patriarch with the wisdom of hard soil and tough winters in his bones and a half-smile in his eyes. His writing, by contrast, has many moods and tones and voices that do not always square with the grandfatherly image we have of him. The truth, as always, is probably still buried under a pile of leaves in a woods somewhere… and may remain buried forever.

And still: that image of Frost is compelling. So many of us—even those of us with little exposure to poetry—can conjure him up. He has become one of the few iconic American poets (along with Whitman, Dickinson, and perhaps to a lesser extent Ginsberg). He’s important to our country’s history. You might be aware that he actually wrote a poem for the inauguration of President Kennedy (an event that pre-figured what I would call the dismal artistic failure of Maya Angelou at Clinton’s inauguration). What you probably don’t know is that Frost was also viewed with enough gravitas and respect to actually advise President Kennedy on a variety of sensitive political issues. Can you imagine that? A poet advising a President? He really mattered.

Why has the same never been true of a playwright? I’m not asking why, say, Tony Kushner hasn’t been seated at President Obama’s right hand during difficult discussions about Afghanistan. I’m asking why we don’t revere playwrights in the same way Frost was revered in his lifetime. And I’m not talking about celebrity, either, or Arthur Miller and/or Neil Simon might quality: I’m talking about something bigger and more permanent than that.

Yes, there are playwrights working today whose names we all know—and by “we,” I am referring to the run of theatrically-educated folks who read this blog—but there aren’t any living playwrights who’ve entered the general public imagination, with possible exception (because of his work in Hollywood, perhaps?) of David Mamet. Do you want to make a case for the notoriety of Edward Albee, or the aforementioned Tony Kushner? Fine: that’s not my point.

My point is that none of these fine folks, nor anyone else you’d care to name, have the general respect and admiration of the American populace. They don’t appear on the Sunday morning news programs, they aren’t on David Letterman, they don’t write for Reader’s Digest or USA Today, they don’t back non-profit campaigns, they don’t pitch (even high-end) products of any kind, and they certainly don’t advise sitting politicians. They just (primarily) write plays.

Is there something about our art form that makes us ineligible for icon status? Is it our association, however remote, with the seemingly-shallow glitz and glamour of Broadway? Is the fact that we only rarely act in our own plays, while poets have to stand up behind the podium and air their own verses (on the rare occasions on which they are called to do so)? Is our work generally too accessible, too much “of” the people, to be seen as grand or elevated in any way? (Not likely…)

Or is it that the current state of American culture simply does not allow for artists of any genre to be icon-ified? I have a hard time thinking of anyone, short of a few actors, who are granted such treatment (whether they merit it or not). We may no longer be living in an age in which that’s possible.

If so, that’s sad to me. I wish the world wanted what playwrights have to offer, which is (at least in part) the ability to think about narratives: to help us edit the stories we are living publically, politically, and personally and make them more liberating, more healthy, more imaginative, more invigorating, more revealing, and more useful. I think we could make a difference if we popped into the Oval Office for five minutes now and then. I think we’d be useful in times of national crisis, or to help dramatize complex scientific ideas vital to our nation’s health, or to rally people to important causes. I think we would earn the same respect the world afforded Frost.

If time hasn’t passed us by, that is.

  • December 5, 2011
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