The other night I went to see an Off-Broadway play about Edgar Allan Poe. It’s called “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” and, although I enjoyed parts of it, I can’t recommend it. It’s an odd bit of theater with a great deal of visual trickery (appreciated) and some mind-numbing repetition (not appreciated). I found myself most interested in how the creators — a collaborative group not a single playwright — pulled at various threads in Poe’s work and life in order to make a theatrical experience out of Poe’s final days. In the theater, I kept tracing those threads, following in Poe’s footsteps.
A great deal of Poe’s life was tragic — even melodramatic. His parents were actors at a time when it wasn’t a particularly respectable profession. His father left and, if the guides at the Poe Museum in Richmond are correct, it might have been because he was a lousy actor getting consistently terrible reviews, while Eliza Poe (Edgar’s mom) was on her way stardom.
Eliza died young of TB, leaving her children with various friends and relatives. Raised by the Allan family, Edgar was the poor relation seated at the table but not of it. He definitely had a chip on his shoulder — a well deserved, big one.
Poe is famous for marrying his cousin Virginia when she was only 13 — not quite as creepy and weird in 1835 as it sounds today. She also died young of TB. Beautiful, beloved young women die often in Poe’s stories and poems and much of his life was spent regaling, if not reliving, cycles of love and loss. Ligeia, Anabel Lee, Lenore…. Poe kept writing and writing and writing about lingering, haunting deaths — this pattern, begun with his mother, plays out in an endless loop.
The play focused on the final period of Poe’s life using the letters he wrote to his mother-in-law/aunt, one of his final works — a metaphysical/scientific treatise entitled ‘Eureka’ — and assorted incarnations of his most famous poems. ‘Eldorado’ in Spanish in an Flamenco-inspired bar scene, Baudelaire’s French translation of ‘Annabel Lee’ in song, and a frenzied ‘Raven’ played for comic effect.
Poe’s literary turf is like a rich mine with almost inexhaustible veins of gold. But it can also be a minefield. Step on the wrong pocket of ore and it blows up.