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Purloined Poe


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Lifeline Theatre

There is a time--finally--in the second act of Lifeline Theatre's Purloined Poe when the play starts to cohere and excite. It's a simple enough thing: a choral reading of "The Raven," the whole poem straight through. As choral readings of "The Raven" go, it's fair, but not exceptional; but after more than an hour of playwright Christina Calvit's jumbled stew of words, images, and dangling plot threads, it's a relief to settle in to one poem for a few minutes.

I don't want to imply that Calvit, the writer responsible for Lifeline's literary adaptations Pride and Prejudice and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, doesn't know what she's doing. Purloined Poe is above all else a display of scholarship. Calvit stirs into her stew pot long passages from Poe's stories, some (not enough) of his poetry, and important excerpts from his essays and personal correspondence--including a statement memorable for its bravery, written three years before Poe's death, when he was at low ebb due to his own illness, that of his dying wife, and desperate poverty: "The truth is, I have a great deal to do; and I have made up my mind not to die till it is done."

But as knowledgeable as Calvit is about her subject, and as inventive as she is in her use of his material, Purloined Poe is simply too cluttered to make sense; more important, it is too frantic in its collage effect to reflect, as it should, the artistic quality of Poe's work. Poe was above all else a master of sustained mood, achieved through a slow-paced, steady accumulation of images chosen specifically to heighten whatever that mood was to be (usually, of course, one of morbid obsession). Calvit instead employs a dizzying cut-up technique that would be more appropriate to, say, William Burroughs (a writer similar to Poe in some ways, but not in the matter of style). Purloined Poe, trying to clarify, instead mostly mystifies.

This is a real shame, because Poe, one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned figures in our literature, could certainly use a good defender. Calvit's aim is an important one: to examine the tension between intellect and emotion in Poe's work and, more speculatively, his life. Most people who know Poe at all think of him as merely an exceptionally good horror-story writer; those who have studied a little more deeply know that Poe quite consciously sought to explore the dreamscape of the soul in prose and poetry that emphasized feeling over logic and the aesthetic elements of sound and imagery over intellectual concerns with form and meaning. (For these reasons, Poe stirs a very personal response; while I was humming with pleasure over the sensual sonorities and alliterative intensity of "The Raven," my companion was dismissing it as "doggerel.") But most people still don't know that Poe was an important, if flawed (and largely self-taught), theorist, by some lights the best literary critic of his day (surely one of the most controversial, making enemies of such major figures as Longfellow). Purloined Poe sets out to look at Poe the artist and Poe the theorist--and also, inevitably, Poe the drunken "immoralist," as he was branded by some during his lifetime and by many more after his death (thanks in large part to the efforts of hypocritical rivals who survived him; there is evidence that Poe suffered from a chemical imbalance that made him exceptionally susceptible to inebriation on very little liquor).

To accomplish this, Calvit and director Meryl Friedman take Poe--played quite effectively by Eric Haugen, who has a good feel for the poet's commanding style--and set him smack dab in the middle of two of his own stories: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," with its super-logical hero, the detective Dupin, and "William Wilson," Poe's terrifying portrait of a man pursued by a mysterious double who turns out to be his own conscience. Poe hires Dupin to find Wilson (though, in a clever reference to Poe's famously chronic penury, it is Dupin who has to help finance Poe). Along the way there are brief vignettes between Poe and his young wife Virginia, who tragically died young; between Poe and his second fiancee; and between Poe and some drinking companions, which allows Calvit to construct scenes of an inebriated Poe heroically declaiming phrases from his essays and letters (this is improbable, and does disservice to the aim of highlighting Poe's critical brilliance). It all ends up--after an exciting and dangerous-looking duel (one of the best fights David Woolley has ever staged, on Peter Gottlieb's pitlike black box set) between Poe and Wilson--with Poe slumped in his hospital bed, in the throes of delirium tremens during the days before his death; Dupin, Wilson, and the rest have all been figments of his fevered fantasies. I couldn't help thinking of an old Mad magazine parody of Alice in Wonderland in which Alice walks off at the end angrily muttering: "Not that overused old dream gimmick again!?"

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