Blind Parrot Productions

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in his 1821 A Defense of Poetry. The gap between legislators’ public and private actions is often a wide one–and scrutiny of a politician’s personal behavior can cast a pall over his most noble-sounding public pronouncements. In his play Bloody Poetry, the British leftist playwright Howard Brenton seeks to call those influential literary “legislators,” Shelley and his friend Lord Byron, to personal accountability.

The record Brenton presents is a grim and hateful one of hypocrisy, irresponsibility, and self-indulgent cruelty. Shelley, sensitive upholder of a utopian vision of spiritual, political, and sexual liberation, emerges as a sexy but selfish weakling leaving a wash of wounded lovers in his wake.

Byron–in literature and in the popular mythology of his day the “doer” to Shelley’s “seer,” charming rogue and heroic revolutionary–comes off as a cynical, burnt-out libertine, diseased by alcoholism, syphilis, and sexist arrogance. The women we meet are Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Shelley’s lover, and her half-sister Claire Clairemont, mother of Byron’s child (though she’s also sleeping with Shelley, and though the bisexual Byron seems to have his eye on both Mary and Shelley himself). Both women are abused, embittered, and all too dependent victims of love-=potential case studies from a pre-Victorian Smart Women, Foolish Choices.

A real bunch of losers, the four of them. So why spend time–in the case of this play, nearly three hours–with this unpleasant menagerie? One reason is that they were, and remain, influential figures–in their work as writers and in the notorious celebrity of their personal lives. Byron’s and Shelley’s poetry titillated the idle romantic imagination of their time like no other work; and the public reveled in gossip about Byron’s scandalous liason with his half-sister (his affairs with boys were less well known, though they are frequently mentioned in this play) and about Shelley’s desertion of his wife Harriet for Godwin, whom he married after Harriet drowned herself in a London park lagoon.

But Brenton, setting his play in the years 1816-22 and following his protagonists as they drift about Europe, doesn’t seem much interested in society’s, or history’s, assessments of the Shelley circle; that’s all available in history books, in any case. The play focuses claustrophobically on the lovers’ interaction, with occasional (and very funny) intrusions by Dr. William Polidori, Byron’s vindictively jealous chronicler, but gives no real sense of the outside world.

Then there’s the idea of Shelley and Byron as contemporarily relevant. This 1984 script casts a conscientious eye on the present–specifically the grimness of Margaret Thatcher’s England, with its reactionary political morality and its desperate unemployment problem. Certain references–to Britain’s domination of Northern Ireland, to domestic spying, to the legal institutionalization of religion, and to the “reactionary press” (the latter especially interesting given Brenton’s coauthorship of Pravda, a satire on right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch)–function as barbed reminders that the conventions against which Shelley and Byron railed endure 175 years later. But that, too, is knowledge available in history books.

Finally, of course, there’s the poetry–not without its flaws, but still among the greatest writing in the English language. Brenton weaves into his script a good deal of passages from both Shelley and Byron–as well as from Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shakespeare, and Plato, to illustrate the influences on Byron and Shelley’s sensibilities.

In a play that purports to illustrate how the aspirations of its characters are undone by flaws in their personalities, the soulful and the sordid elements need to be equally credible. That is where Bloody Poetry–both Brenton’s script and Blind Parrot’s U.S. premiere production–falls short: its account of the characters’ personal failings is strong, but their poetry, their great achievement, sags. None of the actors, though they’ve done good work on other occasions, have the vocal size for the language; Larry Neumann Jr., as Byron, comes closest to matching the text, but he’s such a dried-up, bitter old bitch from the start that we can’t understand how anyone could take him seriously anyplace but on the printed page. Director Norma E. Saldivar’s plodding pacing exacerbates the script’s tendency to grow tedious, as the procession of sorrows–the suicide of Shelley’s wife, Byron’s betrayal of Claire, the deaths of both Claire’s and Mary’s children–continues down a woeful, finally purposeless, path. “They learn in suffering what they teach in song,” Shelley wrote in Julian and Maddalo. Bloody Poetry lacks the song, and so the teaching.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.