Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
One of the biggest problems with a drama about the life of a great writer is that the most important thing in that life, the writing, isn't a very dramatic activity. Writers spend their most vital hours alone in front of a piece of paper, making small marks that attempt to somehow re-create experience. A good part of the success of David Wagoner's excellent one-man play, "First Class" is that he makes the act of creating poetry into a compelling, visceral, conflict-filled battle between authenticity and craft and passionate expression. The story is a classroom lesson in how that battlefield becomes a poem.
The life of the great poet Theodore Roethke was marked by untreated bi-polar disorder (there were no effective psychotropic medications for it in the 1960's and 70's) and by brilliant teaching that shaped a generation of important poets, including Richard Hugo, James Wright, Carolyn Kizer and David Wagoner, a much-honored poet in addition to being the accomplished dramatist shown by this play.
Roethke was also a deeply unhappy man, plagued by doubts about his talent and achievement, poor relations with other people in his personal life, and unresolved feelings about his father. Still, with poetry in hand, this was a man who wielded a great and powerful weapon and tool, impressively well-read and startlingly insightful, committed to urging and enabling new poets to create and perfect their art.
What Wagoner accomplishes in this play is to bring us to that University of Washington classroom, one of those rare and magical classrooms where minds are not only expanded and enriched, but whole lives are forever shaped and changed. He also allows us into those painfully private rooms where Roethke's mental illness becomes the person, where manic persistence drives out the personality and leaves only ridiculous behavior, pointless activity, and the unbearable chasm of meaninglessness. At 75 minutes, this play is exactly the right length, feeling like an inexplicably rich and varied class experience, unforgettable but not overdrawn or exaggerated, tight and precise as a good poem.
Of course, this play is no more nor less than the man, and John Aylward is stunning in the role. He actually looks remarkably similar to Roethke, but that is only the most trivial of pre-requisites to creating this character. More importantly, from his first entrance he is fully convincing as the poet, the teacher, the complex, often failed human being who lives in poetry because it is the only place where life has an adequate balance of structure and meaning, beauty and terror. We never see acting. He interacts with the audience because we are his students, and he performs because teaching is his stage. When he descends into his awful depression, it overcomes him as it overcomes the theatre, as it overcomes us, and we sit silenced by his embarrassment, his misery. From that we emerge, as he emerges, back into the craft of making poems, the art of making sense.
"First Class" is a wonderful act of theatre, invisibly directed by Kurt Beattie to make John Aylward's performance seem as everyday as every day of Roethke's teaching. The staging is minimal, excellent lighting by Rich Paulson carries us through the poet's internal and external environments, and Eric Chappelle creates a sound design that enhances the theatricality without drawing attention to itself.
This play is absolutely essential to anyone who writes or even just loves poetry, but it is equally valuable to all those who don't really understand what the big deal is, how poetry can be anything more than pretty verses or impenetrable abstraction. I suspect that like anyone who sat in Theodore Roethke's actual classes, the impact and importance of this "lecture" will emerge long after the experience, in some new understanding, some new appreciation of sound and structure, some deeper insight into personal experience. Poetry does that. This play does that. It really is "First Class".