John Farrell, best known as a puppet-maker and performer, also performs T.S. Eliot’s massive poem “Four Quartets” from memory. He performs very simply, on a stool with no props. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

FREEPORT — John Farrell was relaxing in his hammock a dozen years ago, returning for comfort to T.S. Eliot’s last great work of poetry, “Four Quartets.” The piece of literature has been part of Farrell’s soul since college, when he read it for the first time as an undergraduate at Yale and appreciated its echoes of sanskrit literature and Hindu mysticism.

A puppet-maker and performer, he thought it would be fun to memorize the first 10 lines to add to a small repertoire of poetry that he already had in his head. He did so and said, “That was easy enough,” and decided to add 10 more.

“I don’t know at what point, but at some point in the process I just decided to keep going,” Farrell said as his home in Freeport. “I never would have sat down and said I should memorize the ‘Four Quartets.’ It’s almost 1,000 lines of poetry. It would be an insane thing to take on deliberately.”

It’s 886 lines to be precise, and that’s exactly what Farrell did. This winter, Figures of Speech Theatre embarks on its second tour of Maine libraries with Farrell, the theater company’s artistic director, reciting “Four Quartets” by memory. He’s been doing it off and on since 2012, when he received permission from the T.S. Eliot estate. This is the second time he’s undertaken a library tour with support from the Maine Arts Commission and Maine Humanities Council.

The winter tour includes recitations in Blue Hill, Yarmouth, Rockland, Waterville and Portland.

It’s an elusive and enigmatic piece of writing, open to interpretation but bound by Eliot’s spiritual quest and his meditation on time. It consists of four poems, published over six years beginning in 1936 and then collectively under the title “Four Quartets” in 1943. Broadly, Eliot writes about England during World War II and his relationship with a spiritual world, as he fears for the future of civilization. Born in St. Louis, educated at Harvard but most at home in England, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in 1948 on the strength of this work.

In college, Farrell tuned in to Eliot’s blending of Western and Eastern religious and cultural references. He’s not an Eliot fanatic, but has kept “Four Quartets” close to him for more than 40 years. “With ‘Four Quartets,’ Eliot is trying to bring all the threads together in one place, under his understanding of mysticism, his understanding of human life in relationship to the divine, his thinking about history, about poetry and about memory. It’s an incredibly complex weaving of ideas that he executed,” Farrell said.

Farrell presents an understated and dramatically gripping recitation, and there are no puppets involved. He wears a light gray jacket and pants, a dark shirt and tie. He dresses formally to support the poem’s formality, he says. It takes a little more than an hour to recite the collected poems.

He brings with him a single stool. Sometimes he sits. Sometimes he stands and moves around, bringing the stool with him. He has a text off stage, which he does not reference but keeps close by, just in case.

Occasionally, he is joined by a string quartet, as will be the case Feb. 11 at Colby College in Waterville, when the DaPonte String Quartet will perform Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132, alternating recited verse and music.

It took about three months for Farrell to memorize the poem, but it took three years to get to a place where he felt ready to take it public. His 35 years of puppetry helped him get the poem completely under control, to a point where it would feel seamless and seemingly effortless to the audience because of Farrell’s ability to almost remove himself from the work and act as a conduit.

He learned that from puppetry.

“Puppetry is a poetic form. It depends on people going to the theater and immediately accepting that what they are seeing is not real but contains an essence of life in some sense, a reflection of life, or a spirit of life, that inhabits a puppet in performance,” he said. “Our philosophy over the years has been that in bringing a puppet to life, a puppeteer’s job is to allow whatever spirit wants to reside in the physical body of the puppet to come through us and take up residence in that form.”

Farrell treats the poems as the spirits that live in the puppets. They take on their own life.

“They are coming from elsewhere, passing through me and taking shape in the air that lives between me and the audience. My commitment all along has been to give the poetry a chance to speak for itself. As little as possible, I am there as actor. I am not playing Eliot and I am not acting the poems. I am putting them through an actor’s sensibility and a puppeteer’s sensibility.”

As Farrell prepared to present “Four Quartets” in public for the first time, he turned to an old friend, Griff Braley of Heartwood Regional Theater in Newcastle. Braley knew Farrell as a lover of poetry and language through collaborations with Figures of Speech, and eagerly accepted the chance to work with him again. Braley assembled a small group of theater friends for an initial informal performance.

“People were wild about it, and I think John was surprised he could do it, that he could pull it off, and by people’s responses to the work,” Braley said. “John inhabits the piece. When he does it, there is something that he connects in a real, unique way. It feels like he is generating the ideas himself. To see someone do that is just such a personal experience. … He guards and values the truth of that moment.”

Mary Dowd organizes the poetry events at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth. She booked Farrell last year and is bringing him back at a date to be determined in the spring. A longtime fan of Eliot who holds “Four Quartets” close to her heart as her favorite poetic work, Dowd said she was “stunned” by Farrell’s recitation last year and called it “a milestone experience” because Farrell opened deeper levels of appreciation of the work.

“You go for a walk in a familiar wood, and one day you are invaded by the universe,” she wrote in an email. “You wake from a dream which is somehow more real than your waking life. You stop to listen to a street singer, and her voice stays with you forever. The poem I heard recited was not the one I thought I knew. The hallmark of such an experience is that you leave more awake, and more alive.”

Farrell is among a small group of people worldwide who recite the piece from memory. A few more present it as a reading. This past year, the Barbican Theatre of London set the “Four Quartets” to dance for the first time, winning raves in the British press.

Braley helped Farrell get permission from the T.S. Eliot estate to present his version. They were having trouble communicating, but Braley happened to be going to London to visit his daughter. He knocked on the door of the publishing house that handled permission requests. “I said, ‘I’ve sent a number of emails and haven’t gotten a response, so I came from America to see if I could get a response,’ ” Braley said, laughing at the memory of his exaggeration. “I had it in my email in 20 minutes.”

Farrell estimates he’s presented “Four Quartets” about 40 times since, in theaters, libraries, churches and schools, with amplification and without. A favorite setting was the chapel at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland. At nearly every recitation, someone in the audience – and usually in the front row – reads along with a printed text, not necessarily to see if he misses a line, Farrell said, but to just to follow along.

Farrell’s ease with Eliot’s words brings comfort to the audience and makes it easier for people to receive the poem not as a massive work of literature to be deciphered, but as something like music to be enjoyed. “I tell them before I begin, ‘It’s OK to drift in and out of the performance as you need to, and when you are ready you can come back to the words.’ It gives them permission to not beat up on themselves in the process of hearing it.”

When he is rolling, Farrell said it’s magnificent to spent an hour or so inside Eliot’s head. That’s how it feels to him. He gives himself completely to the work as a way of honoring Eliot’s intentions and offering the audience an opportunity for spellbinding, cathartic relief.


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