Modern Day Romeos, Beware

  • Drew Pisarra

How does a playwright come to write a book of sonnets? A better question might be: Why aren’t playwrights doing it all the time? Basically a 14-line long monologue, the sonnet flows naturally, if ironically, from the first person singular and has a clearly defined second character in the object of its affection. As readers, we can imagine the muse being addressed off-page much like the offstage Rosaline in Romeo & Juliet or all the men in The Women. Who was Shakespeare’s source of inspiration for his 154 sonnets? I’ve no idea. But I certainly know who mine was for Infinity Standing Up.

And in the process of creating a whole book for him, about him, thanks to him, I also learned that love sonnets are not just about love at its gushiest. This crash course in romantic verse was ultimately about the crash. You see, in the sonnet, there’s plenty of room to play out the heart’s many guises. Aside from adoration, you can also exorcise feelings about pining and whining, lusting and longing, courting then accusing, savoring or severing. As someone who rode the rollercoaster of a questionably considered affair, I know all these feelings all too well. So while you may think of traditional sonnets as rhapsodies of tenderness, a cursory look at the verse of Shakespeare or Edna St. Vincent Millay, playwrights both, will quickly set you straight. Their sonnets are just as often the lovelorn’s complaint. Hell, poet-playwright Yeat’s own sonnet “Leda and the Swan” concerns a young woman being raped by a bird.

In truth, I personally came to look at the sonnet as a salve, a way to grapple with love’s disappointments and anchor myself following unexpected periods of internal disorientation. You could say, I was inspired more often by disappointment than a delirium of delight. Putting aside the three years I once spent tweeting weekly reactions to the Bard’s many sonnets to a Fair Youth and a Dark Lady, my research was more in the nature of independent study, my output equally prolific. This is what happens when you fall head over heels for a 30-something philosophy professor. You read Plato’s Phaedrus and Nietzsche’s The Gay Science while perfecting your ending couplet. At least, there’s comfort in finding the rhyme.

I suppose having a midlife crisis masquerading as a midlife dalliance isn’t anything particularly new. I simply hadn’t expected emotional chaos to arrive in iambic pentameter with an a, b, a, b rhyme scheme. If that sounds histrionic, please note: The drama of this situation, real and imagined, never escaped me. Because of that Infinity Standing Up is literally laid out in acts: Act 1, Act 2, Act 2a, Act II, and Act IV, a nod to the theatrical idiosyncrasies of Gertrude Stein because I could never envision an Act 3 with this person and the middle of the affair proved maddeningly repetitive. The vocabulary of theater likewise crept into the language: The costumery of pajamas in one (“Sonnet 11PM”); the performative aspect of a Tindr profile in another (“Sonnet 12.11.15”). Even the actor’s headshot made an appearance (“Sonnet 8x10”). I didn’t end with “Curtain!” but maybe I should have.

Now that I’m single again, it all seems like an alternate reality from which I’ve been banished. I try to find small comfort from knowing that I’ve joined an unofficial club of poet-playwrights who also took stabs at the sonnet, writers like Federico Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, and Oscar Wilde (not to mention Millay and the Bard). Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, not. And to be perfectly honest, I secretly harbor a hope that some iconoclastic stage director will stage Infinity Standing Up as a theatrical experiment akin to Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls… or Sam Shepard’s Savage/Love. This kind of love makes you humble but it also makes you a dreamer. Plus, how often does rejection come with a book deal? I shan’t complain.

 An award-winning monologuist, Drew Pisarra toured his one-man shows Singularly Grotesque, Fickle, and The Gospel According to St. Genet to such spaces as Bumbershoot in Seattle, The Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, and Highways in L.A. He has been the recipient of grants/commissions from the Brooklyn Arts Council, BAX, PICA, and the Portland Art Museum. More recently, he worked in TV creating online content for Mad Men and Breaking Bad even as his short plays Misery & Good Fortune, Burst, and Serves Three were being produced off-off-Broadway. Currently, he is at work on a trilogy of tragicomedies inspired by B-movie stars -- the first of which (Muscle Beach: Not Jayne Mansfield's Story) had a staged reading at Dixon Place in January 2019.