An illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the subject of a recent play of the same name by Patrick Scully at the Guthrie Theater.
2019 marks the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth. The American poet’s long shadow still tinges much of American literature on and off the stage. It’s also the lightning rod inspiring Patrick Scully’s Leaves of Grass – Illuminated, which concluded a sold-out limited engagement at the Guthrie Theater this past weekend.
Whitman remains one of the most influential and most-read of American poets, with works like “O Captain! My Captain!” that are part of many public school curricula today. In 1855, however, Whitman was still laboring in obscurity when he self-published an anonymous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass (1856). (This is, in fact, the collection from which “O Captain! My Captain! comes.) The work was alternately praised and criticized as obscene and sensual, and has remained in print ever since. Scully’s solo-centered play is a story of encounters with Whitman and his poetry, and of the formative years of what we now call the idea and vocabulary of homosexuality.
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
–“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, in Leaves of Grass
One of the reasons that Leaves of Grass was so popular is its exploration of the male form and forbidden desires, which many took as an indication that the poet was homosexual. Scully’s show has a mixed memoir and documentary feel, notably shining during a practically gleeful exploration of the poet’s “affairs”. (Scholars are still divided on Whitman’s sexual identity, partly due to shifts in how we perceive and describe sexual identities today.) Scully pulls viewers into the story and carries them away with passion, often with a gloss that leaves you wanting to know more.
O to be yielded to you, whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me, in defiance of the world!
–“One Hour to Madness and Joy”, in Leaves of Grass
For this new version of Leaves of Grass, live dance is overlaid with projected footage from the premiere. There is some imminence lost here, especially if one comes hoping to see lines like “There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent” being literally unveiled in 100% flesh – something that last summer’s Fellow Travelers did to enrapturing sensual effect.
This may explain why there are parts of Leaves of Grass – Illuminated that seem to cry out for material to be cut or restored. The exploration of Whitman the person could easily be expanded, but several other passages feel like too many off-the-cuff remarks that were stuffed into the canonical script. Scully’s melodious invocation of Whitman’s poetry grabs the ear so well that more would be most welcome.
This review has been updated to correct an editorial error.