ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — In the basement recording studio of a tract house in an aging subdivision, a former poet laureate of the United States rocks back and forth to the improvisational licks of a jazz piano and, when he’s feeling the vibe, blurts out lines of his own poems.
“Slurry of passion and lapsed intention,” Robert Pinsky reads into the microphone, his jeans and dark shirt hanging on a fit, 72-year-old frame. “The imagined taste made the savage deities hiss and snort.”
Laurence Hobgood, the pianist, stops playing. “I need more piano,” he announces to the sound engineer on the other side of the glass. “Less of Robert.”
“Less of Robert!” Pinsky chimes in. “Always a good idea.”
In point of fact, more of Robert is what fans of music, literature — and classical theater — are in for. On this afternoon, Pinsky is away from his home in Cambridge, Mass., and ensconced in New York’s northern suburbs to record Pinsky poetry set to transporting riffs that he and Hobgood lay down as tracks of their “PoemJazz” albums.
The jazz endeavor — one of several of the inventive projects that Pinsky, who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, always seems to be coming up with — could not be more different in scope from the other collaboration that commands his attention these days: an adaptation for the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the almost-never-seen “Wallenstein.” The epic 18th-century drama by German playwright-historian Friedrich Schiller, set during middle Europe’s horrifically chaotic Thirty Years’ War, is being introduced to Washington audiences this spring in revolving repertory with another difficult play about warriors, Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”
“Wallenstein” is a daring and daunting enterprise on so many levels that it’s hard to know how to rank the challenges. The full version by Schiller — author of “Mary Stuart” and “Wilhelm Tell” — is a trilogy that runs 10 hours. (Its premiere in 1798 was directed by none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.) The account, based on history, of a brilliant, charismatic German general, whose loyalty to the Emperor of Austria is tested by his desire to end the war, unfolds around a conflict so confusingly tribal that you need a flowchart just to figure who’s on which side. And making its verse and characters palatable, even for an audience as sophisticated as the Shakespeare’s, is a towering task, especially because the trilogy had to be boiled down to a running time of a little more than two hours.
Poet laureate to the rescue! Artistic Director Michael Kahn, eager to extend his company repertory beyond the ever more recycled Shakespearean canon, has been forging alliances over the past several years with playwrights and other writers to adapt lesser-known works by infrequently produced dramatists of the past. The collaborations have led to Shakespeare Theatre productions such as “The Liar,” David Ives’s stylishly rhymed version of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century comedy, and before that, “Lorenzaccio,” a 19th-century tragedy by Alfred de Musset, adapted by John Strand.
That such projects are dear to Kahn’s heart is clear: He directs them all. Sometimes, they work out fine, as with the clever and crowd-pleasing “Liar”; on other occasions they are critical and box- office flops, such as “Tamburlaine,” by Christopher Marlowe, with which Kahn christened Sidney Harman Hall nearly six years ago.
“When I read ‘Wallenstein’ I found it was just the kind of play I like, political and huge, HUGE,” Kahn says by telephone. “I thought it needed a poet to adapt it, because it was in verse. Akiva said, ‘What about Robert Pinsky?’ So he called him and asked, and he said yes. That was three years ago.“
Akiva Fox was the company’s literary associate — its textual adviser — at the time; he left not long after, having won $100,000 on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” to found a theater troupe in North Carolina. Drew Lichtenberg took over the job from Fox in 2011 and became the company’s liaison to Pinsky, as the poet, a professor at Boston University, immersed himself in the painstaking investigation into how to make Schiller come alive for contemporary theatergoers.
More than 100 drafts later — yes, you read correctly — Pinsky and Kahn’s “Wallenstein” is in previews in Sidney Harman Hall on F Street NW, with Steve Pickering portraying Albrecht Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland; Robert Sicular playing his wavering military ally Octavio, and Nick Dillenburg as Max, Octavio’s son and devoted member of Wallenstein’s retinue. Although the material is laced with intrigue — “It’s ‘Game of Thrones’ without the sex,” Lichtenberg avers — the sheer volume of exposition and concepts such as sacred fealty to a monarch made its playability questionable. And although it’s a work taught in schools in Germany and the Czech Republic (Wallenstein is Bohemian), few theatergoers know it here.
“There were a number of junctures at which we didn’t know if it was going to be done. It was really back and forth,” says Lichtenberg, one of whose own specialties is German drama. “He wrote over 100 drafts. It was insane. I remember the reading in September, it was hard to get a sense of it. We had to break the structure open, which for a dramaturge was a very scary thing. I always worry about being faithful to the writer. So Michael and I sent Robert a lot of thoughts and notes.”
Complicating things: Pinsky is not by training or instinct a playwright. Although he shouldered a similarly massive burden in 1998, writing a stage version of Dante’s “Inferno” for the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, he’s not that much of a playgoer, as he acknowledged in an interview, before the “JazzPoem” session began in the Rockland Recording studio. But he was intrigued by Schiller’s creation and a central figure who betokened “a new world coming into being.”
“The play itself involves the issues of greatness, charisma, falseness, truth; the larger good and the immediate good,” Pinsky says. Appalled by the toll exacted on defeated villages, pillaged by victorious armies to compensate soldiers and finance the war, Wallenstein introduced the idea of raising money instead by taxing the empire’s upper classes, which had the most to gain from foreign conquests.
The belief in a leader’s obligation to reform, to use his own accrued power and follow his own sense of justice even if it subverts the system he’s sworn to defend, is a crux of the play. This theme suffuses the version by Pinsky, who took his cues from a blank-verse translation of “Wallenstein” by the 19th-century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The cerebral heft of this undertaking appealed to Pinsky, who tends to range pretty widely over the cultural firmament. He is, after all, a writer who has jammed with another poet of the Jersey Shore, Bruce Springsteen. (They were born in the same hospital in Long Branch.) In 2010, they met at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s arts festival, Wamfest, and improvised around Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” and a poem of Pinsky’s, an ode to the durability of roots called “Jersey Rain”: “It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River/Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.”
When Springsteen demanded that Pinsky try a melody line, the poet replied, “There is one thing I don’t do, Bruce: I don’t sing.” Springsteen persisted. Pinsky sang. “The guy’s nickname is ‘The Boss,’ ” he explains.
It is the music of speech that delights him. “What holds it all together for me is the sounds of words,” he says. “I’m not a scholarly person. I’m not an expert on Dante. I’m certainly not an expert on Schiller. I’m an expert on the sound of English words.”
That expertise is apparent in Pinsky’s highly compressed “Wallenstein.” Seeking to make the experience of the play more resonant for modern ears, he’s tinkered in minor keys — the five-syllable Italian family name “Piccolomini,” for instance, he has reduced to the four-syllable “Palladini” — and in major ones. As it is believed that Bertolt Brecht used “Wallenstein” as a model for his own war play, “Mother Courage and her Children,” Pinsky turned to a classic Brechtian technique, an alienation device, to create an alter ego for the play’s hero that in the script he denotes as “Dead Wallenstein.”
Dead Wallenstein speaks directly to us, in brief remarks at the start of each scene, in a voice steeped in both Bohemia and, well, New Jersey, maybe. “Does saying ‘our sacred loyalty to the Emperor’ seem weird to you? Antiquated?” Dead Wallenstein asks. “For us here, ‘Emperor’ means legitimacy. . . . Maybe when we say ‘Emperor,’ you should substitute your ‘Constitution.’ Ooh! Mustn’t lightly betray that, eh?”
“That’s where Robert’s voice really came into the adaptation,” Lichtenberg says. “Robert is a man of a certain age, and this feels like a very ’60s avant-garde gesture. It’s a way of opening up the play and adding another colorful dimension. You get these moments and you’ll realize these issues are still with us today.”
Pinsky says the back-and-forth with Fox and Lichtenberg and Kahn helped him immensely in shaping his streamlined take on Schiller. He also notes that Kahn pulled few punches. “Once, Michael may have said, ‘Oh, you’re right,’ ” Pinsky reports, wryly. It was a long process, but it seems at the very least to have jazzed up this poet’s notion of what constitutes boffo entertainment.
“Nothing is more important,” the esteemed poet declares, “than trying to make it a good show.”
by Friedrich Schiller, translated and adapted by Robert Pinsky and directed by Michael Kahn, runs through June 2 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.