Unlaunch’d Voices

an Evening With Walt Whitman

by Michael Z. Keamy

Since the late 1990’s, Stephen’s performances have captured the attention of the press. It is not just the stunning resemblance to Walt Whitman himself, which many of the reviews notice, but the portrayal of the character and the essence that he brings within arm’s reach to the audience that makes the poet come to life. It is not surprising that in some reviews, the writer switches Collins’ name and Whitman’s interchangeably. A true compliment to a performance well appreciated.

The Play

Unlaunch’d Voices, an Evening With Walt Whitman opens with the elderly Whitman on the evening of his seventieth birthday. The audience is a visitor in his room as he prepares for his birthday celebration. Whitman begins to reminisce and to question his success as a man and a poet. He tells us his work has proved to be “less than a failure….” He remembers a mystical experience he had in his thirty-seventh year that inspired him to write poetry.

During the telling, Whitman transforms into his young vibrant self and we begin to trace back along with him the experiences that led to the creation of Leaves Of Grass, his lifetime work. The first part of the performance explores Whitman’s preoccupation with the self and his resolve to write with “free and brave thought…” We revel with him as he celebrates his body and himself and are confidants as he shares his struggle with his sexual self.

In the second part of the performance, Whitman’s life is changed forever by the occurrence of the Civil War. It is here that he finds “… the most important work of my life…” nursing the wounded soldiers in the hospitals. Through poetry and readings of actual letters, we experience Whitman’s movement from selfishness and selflessness and his growth into a mature artist who is at peace about “himself, God and death.”

The History

Unlaunch’d Voices, an Evening With Walt Whitman, was conceived and performed by Stephen Collins, written and directed by Michael Keamy. The first performances were presented in January 1998 at the Hancock Church in Lexington, MA. Since then private performances have been booked at both High Schools and Colleges as well as Assisted Living Communities throughout Massachusetts.

Unlaunch’d Voices strives to capture what we interpret to be the most vital contributions of the man. This generation will never know precisely how Whitman walked, talked, thought, or the many subtle ways he expressed himself and lived. To avoid any misrepresentation, we chose to keep any broad historical fiction or needless theatrical conventions out of this play.

Instead, we rely on poetry, which surely stands on its own, and on as much of Walt’s actual words and dialogue as possible. A portion of the text was gathered from the priceless source, Walt Whitman In Camden, a six-volume collection of daily conversations with Whitman, written by his friend and neighbor, Horace Traubel.

These books contain records of daily visits with Whitman over a period of five years leading up to the poet’s death. The volumes are filled with anecdotes, stories, and memories, as well as important historical data. Whitman’s own prose works, including Specimen Days, were also a valuable source.

Of what value is Walt Whitman to us in contemporary America? This is a question we asked repeatedly during the creation of this piece. Certainly, it is in Whitman’s inestimable contribution to the modem form of poetry and in his creation of free verse. But more, his worth lies in his humanity, his determination to retain his individuality, his struggle with his sexual self, his joyfully inclusive view of life and his refreshing embrace or death.

Finally, we hope to leave you with a greater insight not just into the great man or the great poet, but with an appreciation of Walt Whitman as an eternally free spirit.

by Stephen Collins
Michael Keamy


Directing, acting, and all of the technical aspects must come together successfully to create a satisfactory whole and here they do. Thanks to Keamy’s sympathetic direction and Collins’ strongly created and engaging persona, the audience comes away from the one and one-half hour play interested in and affectionately disposed to Walt Whitman. Anyone interested in knowing more about this great figure from America’s past should enjoy an evening with “Unlaunch’d Voices…”

Laura Lewis – The Brattleboro Reformer

A serenely acted one-man show “Unlaunch’d Voices” starring Shakespearean actor Stephen Collins hosted by the indefatigable producer Wendy Bidstrup proved a meticulously mounted showcase.

George W. Hayden – The Observer

By the end of the play, the audience comes away feeling as if they know Whitman, feeling as if they have just had a conversation with the poet.

Rebecca Lamet – York County Coast Star

From the moment “Walt” appeared, Collins had the audience in the palm of his hand.

Pat Elliot

Chair, Department of English and Writing, Regis College


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