Once, to get back at a man she intensely disliked, V.R. “Bunny” Lang had thousands of pink labels made up that said “My name is Parker and I am a pig,” and plastered them all over the guy’s neighborhood–and everywhere else in the world he, his friends, and coworkers would be likely to see them.
Somebody at a party once asked her: “What do you do?”
Lang replied, “What I like. Well, let’s see. I wake up about noon; I have breakfast in bed, and I read magazines and the papers, and then I write letters or something. Then about four I get up and have a lovely long bath and dress and go and have cocktails with friends at the Ritz, or they come to my house or I go to theirs; then dinner somewhere; and then, if I’m not going out that evening, I come home and read a novel, or maybe I play old records over.”
In everything, including this dreamy answer to a dullard’s question, Bunny Lang’s imagination was theatrical. Her almost cinematic description of a typical–or at least ideal–Bunny Lang day does leave out one thing: when did she ever have time to write poems and plays? Who was the woman behind–and in front of–the curtain?
The only member of the famed Poets’ Theatre not connected in some way with Harvard, at its founding, V.R. Lang, as she was known professionally, was in many ways the most literary of them all. Between 1949 and the time of her death in 1956–she died, tragically young, of Hodgkin’s disease at the age of thirty-two–she had been published fifteen times in Poetry magazine alone, far outstripping even such soon-to-be-famous Poets Theatre colleagues as Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Donald Hall; she was surpassed–slightly–in her publishing record only by the senior members of the theatre, Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi, and Richard Eberhart. And when she died, Eberhart published a solemn (and slightly unbelievable) elegy to her called “Loss,” which included such lines as “Her loss is as something beautiful in air.” O’Hara did, too, and his–titled simply with her name-is both better, and better known:
You are so serious, as if
a glacier spoke in your ear
or you had to walk through
the great gate of Kiev
to get to the living room.
As Alison Lurie marveled in her indispensable memoir of Lang, “From the beginning Bunny was involved in every Poets’ Theatre show, as actress, director, writer, designer, and producer.” Not only that, because she never discarded something that could be worn, she had a curious collection of old clothes out of which entire poetic plays were spun. And, as Lurie notes, “she could save a bad play sometimes by simply walking out [onstage] and smiling at the audience.” Clearly, the woman was in possession of some kind of powerful magic.
Her poems read better today than they did a half-century ago, and her best-known verse play, Fire Exit–a modern version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story–is a little-known masterpiece that deserves a revival. The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater happily includes a work by Lang (who also appears, in costume, on the book’s cover) not collected in Lurie’s compilation of the poems and plays.
Lang’s writing always perked up substantially when it was addressed to, or in dialogue with her friends, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery; sure enough At Battles’ End, apparently written during the same feverish year as Fire Exit–1952–picks up where O’Hara’s Try, Try (the first play presented by the Theatre, in which Lang played the villainess, named for her) leaves off. As the anthology’s editors put it: “Both plays tell the story of a returning American soldier’s arrival to face a wife indifferent to his troubles–and both are Noh plays–what are the odds of that?”
The piece is unusual, to say the least. It opens with a lecture by a chorus in the form of a dreary Harvard-style pedant, explaining to the audience what a Noh play is. Buried in all the guff he delivers a key point: “… as we Occidentals have no official language of Symbols, we must do the best we can with what we do have.” The comic near-stichomythia of the exchange which follows, between characters named Jack and Wong quickly paves the way for Jack’s postwar reunion with Melpomene. Things go to hell quickly; I won’t spoil the play’s lethal ending, but it leaves Wong to lament that “Man is like a pumpkin. Man is very weak.” Sooner or later, we all must learn the lesson of the pumpkin; but there’s a sense we get from Lang that in the end, we’re all quite possibly Cinderellas, too.
[Text copyright Don Share, 2010. Images courtesy of Poets Theater Records， Harvard Theatre Collection，Houghton Library， Harvard University。 Order The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985 online from Small Press Distribution, Amazon, or postage paid by ordering directly from the press. Further discounts are available by subscription to Kenning Editions. See also this curio, a 1954 Harvard Crimson review of Lang’s I Too Have Lived in Arcadia.]