The much-maligned poetry of Edgar Allan Poe still bristles with excitement when one hears it. High and mighty Emerson called it a bunch of “jingles.” The musical reference is appropriate. A poem like “Annabelle Lee” is basically a sound event. The sonic Poe I have in my imagination was revered by the French, Baudelaire in particular, as much as he was reviled by the Americans. He belongs somewhere in between. I’m thinking of the compulsive themes of live burial, standing cliffs edge and wanting to jump, or life and death blurred-blended. All of these things figure prominently in Debussy’s great opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy also cautiously considered making “The Fall of the House of Usher” an opera. Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Eric Hill’s powerful Poe brought me back to earth on these things. To begin with, it was American. Gunnars Hall tavern was not Paris The language was direct, colloquial. The bartender, an all-American young man spouting religious aphorisms. The barmaid, in love with the rhythm of Poe’s mesmerizing verse. The ur-symbolist himself had trouble standing up.
The plainness of this was movingly rendered by David Adkins as Poe. This great actor left an indelible impression on me in Waiting for Godot at Berkshire Theatre Festival years ago. He played Mr. Hill’s besotted Poe to the hilt. Mr. Adkins can make red-hot histrionics believable. In this play he is made to talk to us even in deaths thrall. There was a purity in the squalor of the situation, and the script became a claustrophobia. Essentially a monologue for Mr. Adkins, one wished his role would go on forever.
It is hard to know where Poe is in the pantheon of poets, hIs prose always being preferred. In a wonderful shot of theatricality in Mr. Hill’s play, prose won. Kate McGuire, as Mrs. O’ Donnell, clearly and strongly recited said prose in the pub, the actors all becoming listeners and we, listening at two removes, remembered Hamlet. The words of Poe sorted perfectly, musically, with Mr. Hill’s play around them. We came back then to an earthbound Edgar Allan Poe, stumbling, desperate, about as far from Parisian symbolism as you could get. And it was convincing.