The English poet W.H. Auden left Europe and moved to New York City in the early 1940s. It was a dark moment in the history of the world and a difficult period in Auden’s life. The Nazis were barreling across Europe. America was at war on two fronts. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker in 2002, during this time Auden underwent an extraordinary transformation: “He entered [this period] as the smooth-faced mysterious druid of the English industrial landscape, the Marxist lyricist who spellbound a generation, and he emerged as the boozy, creased, garrulous Auden who lasted.”
The Auden who lasted, whose particular tone has endured as a salve against global anxiety, produced in 1942 a long and often overlooked Christmas oratorio called “For the Time Being.” This month the poem will receive new life at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture as a work of solo theater.
The poem, which Auden hoped would be set to music by his friend Benjamin Britten, reimagines the story of the nativity. About five years ago, Dallas-based theater writer Katy Lemieux began to revisit Auden’s poem each year, and she found in it something more than a way to get in the holiday spirit. “Auden was struggling with the despair of the world, and I think he was starting to lose hope with humanity,” Lemieux says. “Each of the characters are tinged with his grumbling about what do we do.”
After her husband, the actor and director Justin Lemieux, read the poem aloud one year, they began to wonder if Auden’s poem could be adapted not for music, but for the stage. As far as they could tell, it had never been done. That intrigued Justin, who in 2017 staged his award-winning Warm Soda solo show at Dallas’ Theatre Three and Theatre Row in New York. “It is not a piece of dramatic literature,” he says of Auden’s poem. “Not knowing if it can be successful is what is intriguing to me.”
The couple reached out to The Dallas Institute and found support for the idea and a place for the performance. They set about cutting the text and thinking about it as a one-person show for Justin, the story of a narrator whose retelling and reimagining of the Christmas story explores the personalities of a wide variety of characters, each with their own answer to questions about life’s meaning. It’s not the most typical holiday theme, but Katy believes it is a necessary one.
“People go back to his writing in times of crisis,” she says. “It certainly felt relevant now. Some of the things the narrator says are on note with the feeling in America now. I think this was Auden trying to make sense of humans and their proclivity toward evil, and the idea that virtue is something to be earned.”