A Treasurable Account of Poe’s Last Hours from the Berkshire Theatre Group, with David Adkins and Kate Maguire, Closing 10/26

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Madeline Calandillo, David Adkins,  and J. Andrew Young in POE. Photo Christina Riley.
Madeline Calandillo, David Adkins, and J. Andrew Young in POE. Photo Christina Riley.

written and directed by Eric Hill

David Adkins – Edgar Allan Poe
Madeline Calandrillo – Maggie
J. Andrew Young – Connor
Kate Maguire – Mrs. O’Donnell
Brian E. Plouffe – Dr. J. E. Snodgrass

World Premier
at The Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge
Berkshire Theatre Group
Closing October 26, 2014


You can’t really blame the Berkshire Theatre Group for billing Eric Hill’s splendid entertainment, POE, as a Hallowe’en show. As the holiday approaches, Poe’s chilling stories and poems are rolled out in all the many forms they have assumed since their assimilation into two great cultural phenomena, American Literature and American Pop Culture, over the decades since their publication. In fact, however, POE, which most immediately revolves around the bizarre circumstances of the author’s demise, more directly concerns a far scarier day in the American calendar—Election Day, in this case a local election day in Baltimore, which fell on October 3. In our time the now standardized first Tuesday of November is disquieting in its own twenty-first century way, but in mid-nineteenth century America it was downright dangerous to body and soul. Before 1919, elections were an all-male affair—days when manly amusements like drunkenness and bonding rituals like gang behavior, intimidation, and gratuitous violence were the order, leading up to the great bonfires even my father could remember. Polling places were often established in taverns, where votes could be bought for drinks. It was easier to vote more than once back then, so that the voter could rack up quite a few drinks during the course of the voting. It is possible that Poe was doing just that during his final days. As a less pleasant alternative, one highly illegal, but common extreme was “cooping.” In this, political operatives kidnapped men, sequestered them in some room, plied them with alcohol, beat them, drugged them, and sent them out to vote, often changing their clothing and disguising them when they returned to the polls. According to one plausible theory, this is what happened to Edgar Allan Poe, causing this fragile alcoholic to expire. It is as if the forty-year-old widower, cheered by the promise of a comfortable marriage, embarking on a steamship, where the liquor readily flowed, and stopping in Baltimore on an Election Day of all days, walked straight into Fate’s most lethal trap.

During his last years, following the death of his beloved cousin and wife, Virginia, in January 1847, Poe restlessly scoured the East Coast in search of tow things: 1. a position in publishing that would support him and 2. a new wife. He was broken by Virginia’s death, and his drinking, which he had previously been able to control for periods, became increasingly problematic. After his courting of the poet, Sarah Helen Whitman in Providence, Rhode Island ended in failure, Poe returned to Richmond, Virginia, where he had grown up, and took up a youthful sweetheart. Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, who was then a wealthy widow. It was rumored that they were engaged, and documents from both suggest this was so. With this prospect in mind, Poe set out on a trip to Philadelphia and New York in hopes of resurrecting his failed magazine project, The Stylus, leaving Richmond by steamship on September 27. That was the last that was heard of him until that fateful Election Day, when he was found in Baltimore, drunk in the street in front of Ryan’s Tavern, also known as Gunner’s Hall, a polling place. The man who found Poe described him as “in great distress […] and I assure you, […] in need of immediate assistance.” He took Poe into the tavern to await the arrival of Poe’s acquaintance, Dr. J. E. Snodgrass. This is where Eric Hill’s play takes up the story and where creative license sets in.

Poe aficionados are legion, and they come in all shapes and colors, from Vincent Price fans and enthusiastic readers of the stories and poems to the fanatical…not only in regard to his works, but about the minutest details of his biography. Only the most rigid fanatics could object to Hill’s treatment, which uses a fanciful story line to explore Poe’s character and work with extraordinary understanding and sympathy. (Besides, Hill makes it clear at the end that the play is a fantasy in an admirably deft, witty way…but it to divulge it would spoil the surprise.) There are certainly other ways to conjure up Poe’s public and private persona at any given time of his life, depending of course on which fellow humans he was among and what he wanted from them. He was capable of sobriety and good behavior for considerable periods of time, but the bad moments were what stuck with most people, especially since the people who were in the best position to set down a record of them were his literary rivals, at a time when the world of letters was particularly vicious—every bit as roister doister as the electoral process. This particular moderately committed and informed admirer found Eric Hill’s and David Adkins’ Poe—a Poe of his final, drunken, crazed hours—not only convincing but beguiling.

The audience was thrilled with the play, as the warm applause at the end attested, so it is clear that the play can take care of itself. Nonetheless, in addition to the aforementioned biographical background, I think that one can appreciate the play even more by pondering that all-crucial element in old time biography, the death scenes. You will find articles all over the media about how we today have lost our awareness of the time-old tradition of “dying well,” and that contemporary medical practices make that nigh to impossible for most of us. It is as common as ever for celebrities in the arts to die early as the result of addiction or suicide—ways of dying which we today try very hard to avoid considering reprehensible or shameful. I need not cite examples. The accounts which fill the pages of the tabloids and People are colored by a mixture of prurient fascination with morbid detail and obfuscation stemming from the legal issues these deaths often leave behind. In thinking of Poe, it is important to recall the nineteenth century’s fascination with accounts of the deaths of famous people, sometimes with mortal events timed to the minute. Poe was perhaps not famous enough for that at the time of his demise—certainly not as famous as a Lincoln or a Wagner—and the circumstances would have made such an account difficult in any case. However, his growing posthumous fame and the denigrating tendency of the early biographies made it all the more important for interested readers to know exactly how he died.

There is yet another layer in modern medicine’s ability to determine the cause of death quite exactly, and the modern fascination with deaths occurring before the art of pathology had reaches such heights. The vast literature surrounding the deaths of figures like Raphael, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—most of it totally irrelevant to any aspect of their life and work that is truly interesting or significant—is astonishing. In any case, it became important for Poe’s admirers to prove that he died from causes other than alcohol, because of the shame attached to it, and the stress placed on his drunkard’s death by Rufus Wilmot Griswold and other inimical biographers energized their efforts. For that matter, there were indications of other possible causes, interesting ones in terms of American society at the time, but it is hard to believe that drink played anything less than a major role in Poe’s death.

In his play, Hill gives us not only an honest but affectionate portrait of the artist, but also a portrait of ourselves—the parts of us, as his posterity, which are grateful to Poe for the grisly pleasure he has given us, and the parts of us which find him repellant, digusting, or threatening. Hill realizes this in two characters. First, there is Maggie, the Irish-American waitress in the Tavern, who has learned about Poe in high school and has taken a job there, knowing that it was an old haunt of his, in the hopes that he might return there in his wanderings, so that she could meet him in the flesh. We first meet her memorizing “Ulalume,” as she tidies the barroom. She also tells us of a “retarded” boy, the son of the cook, Mrs. O’Donnell, another admirer, who, when his mother read him the stories and poems, was able to retain them instantly in his memory. From this, she herself has memorized at least one of them, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Second, there is Connor Ryan, the son of the old proprietor, Cornelius, two years in the grave, who became Poe’s drinking companion and admirer in the days when Poe lived in Baltimore. Old Ryan began to drink more heavily after Poe moved on, eventually to lose his house and die from the effects of the bottle. His disapproving wife, who hated Poe and his influence over her husband, dies a year later. Connor was a college man, but when he inherited the debts and disorder his father left behind, he left Georgetown without finishing his degree. He has saved the Gunner’s Hall, by running a tight ship and above all allowing no credit. The memory of his father’s old drinking companion is bitter to him, and it is deeply painful and unpleasant for him to see him again and to have to give him drinks on account, i.e. free drinks. The presumably deliberate anachronisms in both characters point the finger at us, the audience. At first I thought the performances, by Madeline Calandrillo and J. Andrew Young respectively were a trifle stiff, but that is part of their characters, one of whom is an eighteen-year-old bluestocking and the other a dour son of an alcoholic making sacrifices in distasteful work to clean up his father’s mess before following his vocation, and idealistic one, to be sure. Soon enough, these fine actors caught me in their spell, and I took in the rest of the play enmeshed in their attitudes to the great writer as well as my own, which falls largely on Maggie’s side. Maggie and Connor stand in for us, the audience. There is nothing subtle about these foils to the central figure or their portrayals, but that is hardly called for in this robust play.

POE Detail

I am as almost as much an admirer of David Adkins as I am of Poe himself. His meticulous, detailed, and disciplined construction of his characters, his impeccable execution on stage, and his ability to draw us in through sympathy make him a true “actor’s actor.” I have most often seen him in roles like Pastor Manders in BTF’s powerful production of Ibsen’s Ghosts a few years ago. What a treat to see him in a role that allows him to pull out the stops and indulge in some Grand Guignol of a kind he brough off to perfection. This is a brutally truthful, but loving portrayal of Poe the drunk, who shamelessly lies and manipulates to get what he wants, first, drinks, second, a young female admirer. His accent, with odd traces of English and Bostonian accents floating in a Virginian matrix, was a work of art in itself. His seediness, from the way he wears shabby suit, to his self-indulgent amusement at his own drunken foibles, is palpable to the point that I could almost smell the alcohol on his breath and the stench of his unwashed body and clothes. We could join in with his humor, and he was terrifically entertaining in this vein, while pathetic and horrifying as well. Hill’s generous injections of Poe’s literary language gave Adkins access to a quasi-Shakespearean level of diction, and he relished it with a virtuosic range of color and nuance entire worthy of the great John Wood. Adkins’ performance—certainly over-the-top, but always intelligent and controlled—reminded me of Alan Badel’s (another “actor’s actor”) brilliant tribute years ago to the Grand Manner in paired productions of Shakespeare’s Othello and Sartre’s adaptation of Dumas’ Kean, or Daniel Massey’s Lytton Strachey and Roy Dotrice’s John Aubrey. Although the Berkshire players bring POE off as a finely crafted ensemble piece, Adkins stands out as a classic performance—one well worth travelling a substantial distance to enjoy.

I should mention at this point a delectable exchange between Maggie and E. A. P. about the word “purloin,” occasioned, of course, by his famous story, “The Purloined Letter.” Writer-director Hill, Ms. Calandrillo, and Mr. Adkins deserve a case of the finest brandy each for that moment! This episode pointed back to Hill’s occasional inspiration in Tom Stoppard and David Ives, fully transformed into something stronger and more nutritious, and free from the preciosity of either of his models.

Mrs. O'Donnell (Kate Maguire) recites Poe's "The Telltale Heart". Photo Christina Riley.
Mrs. O’Donnell (Kate Maguire) recites Poe’s “The Telltale Heart”. Photo Christina Riley.

A case of the finest Irish, then, to Kate Maguire for her vivid Mrs. O’Donnell, which bubbled with color and detail, culminating, finally in a show-stopping recitation of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” another star turn worth a considerable effort to witness. Brian E. Plouffe made a vivid impression as a kitchen hand and Dr. Snodgrass.

Carl Sprague’s recreation of Gunner’s Hall was atmospheric and detailed, as were David Murin’s costumes.

The play must inevitably end with Poe’s death and its shocking particulars, which are ahistorical, I suspect—at least I hope so! Joanna Gabler, who was with me, found the play depressing, but I was exhilarated by it—just the sort of elevation of word, thought, and humor we experience in theater at its very best. If I wrote for a newspaper, I’d have to call POE “a delightful romp through addiction, degradation, and death.” Don’t miss this great show, even if you have to come all the way from Richmond to see it.

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