Volume 75, Number 47 | April 12 - 18 2006

For the love of a country — and poet Elizabeth Bishop

By Jerry Tallmer

Photo by James Leynse.
Amy Irving in the one-woman play “A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop,” by Marta Góes.
Five takes from the life (lives) of a woman (two women) who fell in love with Brazil.

1. Elizabeth Bishop, a traveler from the north, is staying for a few days by invitation in the otherwise unoccupied Rio de Janeiro apartment of Lota Macedo Soares, a Brazilian whom Miss Bishop has met in New York. In that pied-à-terre the visitor has been made to feel like a movie star. The year is 1952.

Calder! I have a Calder to keep me company at breakfast. Oh, and the maids! ‘Would you like me to turn down your bed?’ ‘Do you have anything to be washed?’ … Oh God, what if they think I’m a celebrity in the States. ‘Oh, you must be the American writer, Lota’s friend,’ said the woman who telephoned. ‘Oh, you are the American poet.’

The American poet! Me!? Ladies, you should know that … Well, the truth is, I’m 40 years old and have only had one book published to date because … because, well, American publishers don’t care too much about poetry.
 

2. Later that same year. Lota’s bedroom in the new, modern house Lota has designed at tiny Samambia, about an hour from Rio. Elizabeth wakes, stretches, wearing only a man’s shirt, as Lota runs a bath in the bathroom.

Close, close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,
close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.
Each knows all
the other knows
learned by heart
from head to toes.

“I have fallen in love. I can’t live without Lota. I can’t be a single moment away from her. It’s your fault you know, Lota! You seduced me! You did! You stared at me so blatantly, no subtlety at all … I’ve never felt so loved, so much pleasure. Lota, I want to get into the tub with you.”
 
3. Samambia studio, 1956. At the telephone:

 “Yes, Elizabeth falando. Jornal Globo? A reporter? Parabens? Congratulations for what? Que premio? You must be joking! This must be one of your Brazilian gracinhas! I have not received any prize, o contrario! Just a very bad review of my last book. Hola, senor? Are you serious? Political prize? No, definitely not. There must be some mistake. I have no political connections … What? Police prize? Pulitzer Prize! Pulitzer Prize??? Who told you that? A telegram from the Associated Press? Half an hour ago … ”
 
4. Amy Irving, stage and screen star, her lovely serious pointy-chin face crowned by a forest of golden ringlets, has just finished a post-rehearsal stoking at Fiorello’s — across the way, as it happens, from the Lincoln Center where her father, the late Jules Irving, once (with Herbert Blau) ran the show.

 “Well,” she says, “I was married to a Brazilian. That’s how this whole thing happened. I fell in love with a Brazilian and a culture and a country, just like Elizabeth Bishop.”

The piece under rehearsal is the no less lovely “A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop,” by Brazil’s Marta Góes, as presented (in English) by Primary Stages and Mahega Productions, directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, and performed by Amy Irving in its New York City premiere, now through April 30 at 59E59 Theaters.

The Brazilian whom Ms. Irving fell in love with, married, and has recently divorced, is film director Bruno Barreto. They have one son (“my Brazilian son”), 15-year-old Gabriel. Twenty-year-old son Max is the product of an earlier marriage to another director, name of Steven Spielberg.

It was in fact at a book sale at the Fieldston School in this city, when Max was there in the 9th grade, that Amy Irving first came across a copy of the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop, and bought it. But that was some few years before the present work came into her hands.

“When this play was produced in Rio and São Paulo around four years ago,” she now said, “four different people sent [the text of] it to me. I read it in Portuguese, and flew down to Rio to meet the playwright.

“We talked, and she took me up to Samambia, the village where Elizabeth and Lota had lived in that strange-looking house designed by Lota, who fancied herself an architect. It’s almost like a steel scaffolding, high up among the waterfalls and black, gigantic mountain peaks surrounding the nearby larger village of Petrópolis, Bishop had a house of her own at Ouro Preto. I slept in her bed,” said Amy Irving, rather like a little girl holding up her favorite doll for approbation.

“The Samambia house is about five minutes from where Marta Góes herself grew up. She took me to visit her parents,” said Miss Irving, “and we sat and talked about could we make this something that would work in the United States. There were references to names and things that would need to be clarified for American audiences, and as we were shaping it, Marta’s father said to me: ‘Are you going to produce it?’

 “ ‘Me? — oh no no no.’ But it turns out that in Brazil actors often do produce plays. One famous actress, Xuxa Lopes, that’s pronounced Shooshah, went to Ireland, saw ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’ and optioned it for Brazil. When [playwright] Martin McDonagh saw her production, he said: ‘I didn’t know the Irish could be so sexy.’ When I heard that, I thought: Okay, maybe I should.”

Marta Góes’s father and her stepdaughter went to work on an English translation, direct from the Portuguese. “And I adapted that.” Short pause. “I did final cut.”

Mahega Productions (see above) is Ma for Max, he for stepdaughter (Bruno Barreto’s daughter) Helena, ga for Gabriel. “The journey of discovering this woman and doing the research has been fascinating, and it’s taken me a long time to get here,” said actress/producer Irving. “She was one of the great letter-writers of all time — wonderful letters to people like Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. I read them over and over. As an actress, to plant those seeds in my body … You never see me without Bishop in my hands.

“Robert Lowell was in love with her, but that was never in the cards for him. She was a lesbian before all this.”

Ms. Irving chose to break the play in at the Vassar College from which Bishop was graduated in 1934, one year behind Mary McCarthy, and where the Elizabeth Bishop archives — including some fine watercolors by her — are held.

It was Leslie Urdang, an assistant to director Joan Micklin Silver in the 1988 making of that spirited Amy Irving film “Crossing Delancey,” who now, at Vassar, proposed that “A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop” be the Powerhouse Theater production for the summer of 2004.

And it was Richard Jay-Alexander — “a great friend ever since he was stage manager of ‘Amadeus’ ” — who now signed on as director of the Bishop piece. “Richard’s done a lot of one-person shows. I sent him the script with the message: ‘Time to get legit.’

“This is my focus and my world right now,” said Amy Irving as she walked out into the sunset over Broadway, 4,784 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto, and Samambia.
 
5. Samambia main room, 1965. Elizabeth to the woman she loves:

“My first real book in years, ‘Questions of Travel,’ it had to be dedicated to you. After such a long time, to come here to Petrópolis, the two of us, just like in the beginning. There’s nothing in the world that I like more than being at home with you, Lota. Sitting in this room, browsing through old records, putting one more piece of wood on the fire. And then, you whispering to me: ‘Vamos to bed, Cookie.’ ”

A SAFE HARBOR FOR ELIZABETH BISHOP. By Marta Góes. Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander. A Primary Stages/Mahega production, March 21 through April 30 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, (212) 868-4444.

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