Playwright A.M. Dolan hails Robert Frost on the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth

Actor Gordon Clapp and the playwright A.M. Dolan



Robert Frost is, arguably, one of America’s finest poets. The four-time Pulitzer Prize winner was born in San Francisco in 1874.  Following the death of his father, he and his family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts.  He graduated from Lawrence High School, attended Harvard and Dartmouth, taught at Amherst and Middlebury College, and lived in Derry, New Hampshire, and Ripton, Vermont. He has long been lovingly embraced by New England as one of its own.

This year marks his 150th birthday.  In commemoration, the one-man play, "Robert Frost: This Verse Business,” is being presented at the Calderwood Pavilion from April 23 to April 28.

Written by local playwright and actor A. M. (Andy) Dolan and directed by Gus Kaikkonen, the show stars Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp, known for playing Det. Greg Medavoy for all 12 seasons of the television series “NYPD Blue,” as the esteemed poet.

Imparting wit and charm, the play has been hailed as an entertaining portrait of a legendary poet whose public “talks” were highly sought-after events for nearly half a century.  It also offers an illuminating glimpse into Frost’s life at home, aware of his fame and failures, and “with poems still to write and promises to keep.”

Emmy Award-winner Gordon Clapp as Robert Frost

Andy Dolan has said, “The Boston performances reflect a homecoming of sorts for the poet, who had a home on Beacon Hill and then, for the last two decades, in Cambridge on Brewster Street.  He died in Boston, just weeks after giving his final talk at the Ford Hall Forum.” Noting the 150th birthday commemoration, and the fact that April is Poetry Month, Dolan said that “the time felt right for the Boston premiere.”

Included in the play are such beloved pieces as “Birches,” “Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “The Road Not Taken.”

Dolan, who lives in Falmouth with his wife, was raised in Framingham and Wellesley in a theatre family. His mother, Muriel Dolan, taught voice and speech at Boston University and Brandeis University.  She co-founded the Playhouse at Piccadilly Square in Newton in the 1970s with her husband, the actor and critic Frank Dolan, and actress Anita Sangiolo. 

“Robert Frost: This Verse Business” won Best New Play (Kaplan Award) at the Eventide Arts Festival in 2010 and Best Production at the United Solo Festival in NYC in 2013. Dolan’s two other plays are “Five Live Poets” and “Dylan Thomas: In Country Heaven.”

The jumping off point for this play came as a result of Andy’s listening to recordings of several poets reading their own work.  Frost was among them, along with Gertrude Stein, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and Eliot.

As he dug further, he discovered additional recordings of Frost at Harvard (where he had a part time job at the time), at Dartmouth and Amherst.  He became so fascinated by Frost that he began to transcribe what he was listening to, eventually finding himself with more than a hundred pages of remarks.  The pages began to form themselves into something new, and Dolan recalled thinking, “This could be theater.”


We spoke with him recently about Frost, Gordon Clapp and the play.  Here’s an edited look at our conversation.

Q: I understand that the artistic Director at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre was one of the first people to show interest in the play.

A: One of the first people, maybe the first person, to acknowledge the script was Vincent Dowling. Vincent was a member of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was artistic director there for a couple of years. He moved to the Great Lakes where he ran the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival.  That’s where he met Tom Hanks. He’s kind of credited with discovering Tom Hanks. What an incredibly charming man.  I learned that he’d moved to Massachusetts and founded a small theater company, the Chester Theater Company, and I sent him the play.  I’ll read you what Vincent wrote.  It’s so him, it’s so perfectly him.  So sweet. “I received your draft of the Frost play yesterday.  I read it straight through after breakfast in bed.  It was like Frost was in the room with me.”   

That’s so Vincent.  That very much came at the right time and encouraged me to go on.  I think he wanted to do it himself. He’d done a lot of one-person shows, but then his health started to decline.  And that’s about the time that Gordon appeared. 


Q: Tell me about that.  Gordon has been the voice of Frost for you since the beginning.

A: Cape Cod has a nice little summer new play workshop called the Cape Cod Theater Project.  I was familiar enough with it to know that they don’t do many solo plays, but they bring in New York actors every summer and they read these new scripts.  And I sent it there. I got a nice note from a reader . . .  He said this isn’t exactly what we do at Cape Cod Theater Project. However, would you mind if I sent it to an actor who really loves Robert Frost.  And I said, go ahead, please do . . . [it was sent] to David Strathairn (“Good Night and Good Luck”). He’s a wonderful actor and he’s close friends with Gordon Clapp.  It got into Gordon’s hands through David. 


Q: And he showed an interest?

A:  Gordon had loved Frost since he was a teen and he quickly contacted me. He was very interested in it and showed up at my door a couple of months later.  I couldn’t believe it.  A Tony-nominated, Emmy-winning actor pulling up our driveway.  He came in and we had a great first meeting.  I could tell when he got out of his car, I think I have my actor.  


Q: Is it a benefit that Gordon is also a New Englander?

A: Absolutely. Not only because he’s read the poet thoroughly, starting when he was quite young. But the fact that he grew up in northern New Hampshire. He’s listened to the characters in Frost his whole life . . . Gordon gets him.  He really gets him.  As you’ll see.


Q: Frost’s soul was in the simplistic beauty and traditional experience of rural New England.

A:  The New England connection is there in every poem, practically . . . He lived among those people.  We’re doing a performance in Derry where he lived for 10 or 11 years. He was already in his 30s and he hadn’t been published much at all (then).  But he was there, living this quiet life, raising chickens, milking his one cow and talking to his neighbors.  The neighbor, John Guay, was the neighbor next to them in Derry who said “good fences make good neighbors.”


Q:  Despite his enormous popularity — after all, he was invited to speak at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy — he was not one to seek notoriety.

A:  He was very reserved about his private life.  As a public performer, he became a celebrity.   But he was private. He never would read certain poems that were too personal. 


Q: As a poet, his appeal was unusually broad, wasn’t it?

A: When he spoke to a crowd, it was a mixed crowd.  It wasn’t just the academics, the faculty or students.  It was a mixed crowd, and that was his favorite kind of audience.  He wanted to reach as many people as he could . . . He described himself as a poet who wanted to be understood.


Q: Did that go against the sort of elitist patina of the time?

A: A lot of the movement in poetic circles in the 20th century was toward an Ezra Pound - T.S. Eliot complexity.  Classical knowledge.  The sort of things that Frost shied away from.  He understood the style of speech, to keep the idiom very plain.  Not to be showy or showoff . . . As learned as he was — my goodness, he was an autodidact, a college dropout — the guy was extremely knowledgeable. To listen to these recordings, you’re always picking up a beautiful little nugget that he throws out. He didn’t speak from notes.  It just all came out of him in these talks.


Q: Too often for too many, poetry can be the most challenging topic in English class.

A: Frost says at the beginning of the play, ‘Teachers are always asking me, how do you make children like poetry.  And he says, “I always tell ‘em, on a percentage basis” . . .  He was so pleasant a person to be listening to in public. He made it easy for you, I guess, to see the value of his art form.


"Robert Frost: This Verse Business,” April 23 - 28, Calderwood Pavilion. Info: 617-933-8600