'America & Me' at The Mount

New play celebrates Walt Whitman's 200th birthday

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LENOX — On Walt Whitman's 200th birthday on Friday, May 31, actor and writer William Kinsolving will present a dramatic reading of his new play "America & Me," portraying Whitman on his 67th birthday, at The Mount.

The Lakeville, Conn., resident knows Edith Wharton's Lenox estate well. He befriended Shakespeare & Company co-founders Tina Packer and Kristin Linklater while a student in London, and visited The Mount often when the theater company resided there.

"I remember seeing 'Midsummer Night's Dream' out in the woods," he recalled. "It was wonderful, all those fairies running around."

Now, Kinsolving makes his own theatrical debut at Wharton's home in The Stable.

Actor and director Kinsolving's debut play, "Nicholas Romanov," led to a career writing and rewriting screenplays as a "script doctor" in the U.S. and UK during the 1960 and 1970s. He worked with Franco Zeffirelli on "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," spending weekends in Italy and weekdays under contract to Warner Brothers in the UK. 20th Century Fox paid him to write his first novel, "Born With the Century," in return for the rights; it was a best seller but the movie was never made.

When a colleague looking for a solo play to perform suggested Whitman as a subject, Kinsolving wrote a draft within two weeks. After that actor stepped away from the project, a friend encouraged Kinsolving to take on the role.

She set up a reading in Salisbury, Conn., which sold out, raising money for the library, he said. Over the following year, he performed the play "about 20 times all over the country."

Kinsolving presents the reading with no makeup or costume.

"[There's] a big picture of Walt over my shoulder as a constant reference," he said. "I've done a lot of play readings holding a script; if it's well done, the audience forgets the script after five minutes."

He tweaks the text after every reading, he said. "It's constantly evolving, which has been quite exciting as a writer."

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Among things Kinsolving learned about Whitman, a great admirer of Lincoln, was how heroic he was in Civil War hospitals, which he wrote about often.

Still, Kinsolving said, with "the complexity of his life as a private citizen and his sexual proclivities, he was often pilloried ... he carried all of those struggles, and that's what the play is about."

Like most Americans, Kinsolving first encountered Whitman's work in high school. "He dropped out of school at 11 and educated himself under very difficult circumstances; and then he changed American poetry."

Self-publishing "Leaves of Grass," "was a total flop," Kinsolving said. Whitman added poems to nine subsequent editions, but only the Centennial edition proved successful.

"He wrote it to save America, self-anointing himself to be America's bard."

Whitman had no respect for other poets. He viewed rhyme and meter as manacles on the language, a challenge Kinsolving had to overcome.

"I was always suspicious of free verse, I'm a formalist as far as poetry goes. It comes from all the work I did with Shakespeare. ... Now my respect for it is huge."

"Wharton had a long relationship with Whitman's work," said Michelle Daly, The Mount's public programs director. "She had a copy of 'Leaves of Grass' in all her homes. Her copy here is richly inscribed with marginalia. It's clearly a well-loved and well-used book."

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author read it aloud with her friends Walter Berry and Henry James, Daly said.

Kinsolving's play "captures the character of Whitman in the way of his public oratory and lectures," Daly said. "It speaks his language, sharing vignettes of his life in a way that will be enriching for audiences.

"Wharton had a deep love of poetry, and Walt Whitman and his language fell into that," she said. "Literary like-minded folks of the time read Whitman, some for the risque factor of it. It was expected you would know it."


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