Text: John E. Reilly, “Poe in American Drama: Versions of the Man,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 18-31 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 18, unnumbered:]



Tragedy, comedy, melodrama, mystery, fantasy, even opera and ballet: there have been more dramatizations of the life and character of Edgar Allan Poe than of any other figure in America’s past with the exceptions of George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and possibly Pocahontas.(1) Most of these dramas about Poe exist only as unproduced and unproducible scripts resting undisturbed in the files of the Copyright Office or scattered here and there in theatre collections and among miscellaneous Poeana. Of the handful which have managed to reach the stage or screen, almost all have failed dismally and none has achieved anything more than modest success. Even when unstageworthy, all of these dramas, but especially those which have been produced professionally, are of interest at least to the extent that they represent versions of Poe and thereby record the impact of Poe, rather the impact of the image of Poe, upon the American mind.

The distinction of being the first drama about Poe to be staged in the legitimate theatre belongs to a play by George Cochrane Hazelton entitled The Raven.(2) It opened at Albaugh’s Lyceum Theatre in Baltimore on. I l October 1895 with Creston Clarke, who was a grandson of Junius Brutus Booth and nephew of Edwin Booth, in the role of Poe. Although a review in the Baltimore Sun the following day commended Hazelton for following “closely the life of Poe as given by his biographers,” his play in fact makes no serious effort to do so.(3) It is, instead, a conventional melodrama exploiting the prevailing romantic image of Poe.

The play opens on the lawn of the Allan home in Richmond. Poe is in love with Virginia Clemm, who is literally and conveniently the girl-next-door. Both his status in the Allan household and his love for Virginia are threatened, however, by Roscoe Pelham, A. M., an entirely fictitious character who is John Allan’s secretary as well as the ubiquitous villain of the piece. When this scoundrel deliberately exposes our hero’s gambling debts, John Allan disinherits and banishes his foster son. Act I closes with a proud Poe departing Richmond accompanied by Virginia and his faithful slave Erebus, determined to make his own way in the world. Ignoring almost the whole of Poe’s literary career, Hazel ton carries the action from Richmond presumably in the late 1820s or early 1830s to Fordham Cottage in January of 1847. Here we discover that Poe has been unable to make a living by his pen and that Virginia is in fragile and failing health. While she is alone in the cottage, Roscoe Pelham enters and is about to force his attentions upon her when Poe returns. Fearful that her impetuous husband will quarrel with the villain, Virginia feigns gaiety, bursts into song, ruptures a blood vessel, and dies [page 19:] forthwith. In the very midst of mourning his child bride, Poe meets and falls in love with Helen Whitman, a wealthy poetess who resides in Fordham and to whom he is drawn by her uncanny resemblance to Virginia, a resemblance so close as to be little short of Morella-like reincarnation. Poe’s plan to marry Helen is foiled, however, when who else but Roscoe Pelham, who just happens to be Helen’s legal counselor, informs her that Poe has broken his temperance pledge. She dismisses Poe reluctantly, but, before exiting her life, he recites the whole of “The Raven,” helpfully identifying it as “the heartrending confession of my famished soul.” The play closes with Poe deranged and dying in Baltimore, where one! of Roscoe Pelham’s henchmen has drugged him in order to use him as a repeater in an election then in progress, an election in which of course Roscoe Pelham is a candidate.

Hazelton’s characterizations are no less fanciful than his plot. John Allan is more the stereotype of the plantation colonel than a Scottish merchant of Richmond. In the first act, Virginia is a coquettish Southern belle (presumably Hazelton’s version of Sarah Elmira Royster). Thereafter she becomes the conventional heroine of melodrama, defending her virtue against the lascivious advances of the villain and sacrificing her life in the interest of her husband’s well-being. Hazelton’s Poe is equally unhistorical. In Act I he comes across as a bad imitation of something between Prince Hal and Romeo. Thereafter he degenerates into a ridiculous figure utterly lacking in either nobility or pathos. In Act III, Scene 2, for example, he is discovered kneeling at Virginia’s grave holding a pistol to his temple while bidding a bitter farewell to a cruel world when he suddenly catches sight of Helen Whitman, drops the pistol, rises, and follows her off stage, “spellbound.” And in his final speech delivered in his last lucid moment, Poe refuses a glass of medicinal brandy offered to him by his friend Tony Preston:

Nevermore! Thou demon of my life, at last I conquer thee! Oh, Tony, Tony, my heart is breaking! “I am a thing, a nameless thing, o’er which the Raven flaps his funereal wing!”

Presumably Hazelton intended this curtain speech to assure his shaken audience that Poe finally did manage to control at least one of his problems.

Catherine Chisholm Cushing’s Edgar Allan Poe; A Character Study enjoys the distinction of being the first drama about Poe to reach the New York stage.(4) It ran briefly at the Liberty Theatre early in October of 1925. Although the New York Times panned the production, it did concede that “the incidents included in [the play] are based plausibly enough upon known biographical facts in the man’s unhappy career.”(5) One wonders just how familiar the reviewer was with these “known . . . facts,” The play open [page 20:] with Poe returning to the Allan home in Richmond from a university in Washington, a university from which he was once suspended but now is expelled by the president for drinking and gambling. His “wild ways” are “the talk of the South,” but he can be excused in some measure because he inherited his love of liquor from his father, who was a Virginia aristocrat of the bluest blood destined to have become America’s finest actor had he had the strength to resist Demon Rum. Among those present at Poe’s return are John and Frances Allan, Elmira Royster and her father, and Virginia and Mrs. Clemm. John Allan banishes his profligate foster son, but before Poe departs, he and Elmira defy both the Allans and the Roysters by announcing that they are engaged to be married. The engagement lasts for three years, terminating only when Elmira discovers that Poe is unable to support her. He is then free to marry his little cousin Virginia, who it turns out has loved him all along and has been encouraged by her conviction that she, and not Elmira, was the inspiration for “Annabel Lee.” Because he had to compete with all of America’s leading literary figures, Poe’s winning both the one hundred dollar prize for fiction and the fifty dollar prize for poetry in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter contest is an enormous feat, little short of a Pulitzer. When the prizes are awarded in the early 1830s, Helen Whitman and Frances Osgood are present in Baltimore along with a character named Ludwig Griswold. “Grizzy,” as his friends call him, is a vicious little sycophant who hates Poe and proves to be his nemesis. Impressed with Poe’s having won both prizes, the “Editor,” presumably of the Saturday Visiter, offers him a post on his magazine — a post above the wretched and envious Griswold. But Poe’s tenure is brief. It ends with a kind of kangaroo court at which Bryant, Longfellow, Willis, and Griswold accuse him of having abused them as a critic. When Poe loses his editorial post, Virginia enters her decline and dies at Fordham, comforted in her last moments by Frances Osgood and Helen Whitman. Deteriorating badly, Poe next puts in an unexpected and madcap appearance at the Richmond home of John P. Kennedy. Among others who just happen to be visiting Kennedy at that moment are Nathaniel Parker Willis, J. H. B. Latrobe, Helen Whitman, Frances Osgood, and Elmira Royster — William Cullen Bryant is expected but fails to appear. At the close of “the man’s unhappy career” in Baltimore, Poe is pursued by a raven (which most of the witnesses mistake for a bat) and is summoned by Virginia’s spirit voice calling to him in her soft Southern accent, “Ed-gah.” Then with the curtain slowly descending and the soft strains of “The Blue Danube” swelling in the background, Poe is heard to murmur, “Lenore. . .Lenore. . . .”

One may well wonder just how Miss Cushing’s play ever managed to [page 21:] make it as far as any stage, much less a stage in New York. The answer, at least in part, probably lies in the playwright’s determination to translate Poe into a character who would appeal specifically to an audience in the 1920s. She lays special emphasis upon Poe’s life as the romance of a youth who rebels against convention and then goes down in pathetic defeat. He rebels first against the moral and social conventions represented by the Allans, the Roysters, and the president of that university in Washington. Then he rebels against the American literary establishment. When Willis, Bryant, Longfellow, and Griswold finally succeed in having him removed from his editorial post, he becomes a broken man. In character, then, he is very much a child of the “Roaring Twenties,” but not the 1820s. When he confronts John Allan at the opening of the play, he is a typical college hellion right out of the Jazz Age:

John Allan

(On his feet, livid with anger)

Sira? What are you doing home from the University without permission?


I have permission, sir. Of His Excellency, the President!



The President?

(Royster leaps to his feet)

Mr. Allan You mean you’ve been suspended?



Oh, nothing so trivial as suspension, sir.


My God! You haven’t been expelled?


(Bowing — Smilingly)

I am pleased to say I have had that exalted honor conferred upon me!

(Elmira only laughs. . . .)

Mrs. Allan

Oh, Eddie!


[page 22:]

And why were you expelled, sir?


Well — there was quite a long list of virtuous reasons tabulated, as I recall —


Name them, sir.


For special excellence in branches of higher education not included in the curriculum if I remember rightly.

A rebel against her parents, Elmira is an appropriate companion to Miss Cushing’s Poe. Their dialogue is laced with the jargon of “twenty-three skiddoo.” When they part at the close of their engagement, for example, Poe bids Elmira farewell with “Goodbye, Golden girl!” to which she replies, “Goodbye, Weaver of Dreams!” Both Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Whitman suffer gross vulgarization. They are much more like flappers than bluestockings. At the award ceremony in Act II, the Editor of the Saturday Visiter politely asks them if they “know Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Miller.” “Better than their wives know them,” quips Mrs. Osgood. And later in the same scene, when the Editor lets slip an ungentlemanly phrase, he bows to the ladies apologetically, “I beg your pardon,” he says. “The hell you do,” Mrs. Whitman snaps back. Mercifully, Virginia escapes this kind of treatment. Instead she plays her role as the conventional, sentimental, and sickly heroine. It is, indeed, a testament to at least the minimal good taste of theatre-goers in New York that, in spite of Miss Cushing’s efforts at pandering to their interests, they sent her creature to an early grave. It failed to survive opening night.

New York theatre-goers eleven years later were only a little more receptive to Sophie Treadwell’s Plumes in the Dust, another conventional dramatization of Poe’s life.(6) This play survived eleven performances at the Forty-Sixth Street Theatre in November of 1936, with Henry Hull in the leading role. The brevity of its stage career notwithstanding, Plumes in the Dust comes closer than any other conventional play about Poe to achieving a successful union of dramatic essentials and biographical fact. The action is built around almost the same episodes in Poe’s life that form the basis, though remote, of Miss Cushing’s melodramatic abomination. They are Poe’s break with John Allan in 1826-27, his winning of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter contest in the early 1830s, Virginia’s decline and death at Fordham, Poe’s relations with the New York literati, his last trip to Richmond, and his death in Baltimore. Both as drama and as biography, the finest [page 23:] moments in Plumes in the Dust occur in the opening scene, which represents Poe’s strained relations with John Allan, whom Miss Treadwell characterizes as a hypocrite and a tyrant. Tension in the scene mounts steadily until mutual hostility between Allan and Poe erupts into a heated exchange. “You’re a heartless, unprincipled, immoral reprobate,” Allan charges; and Poe lashes back, “You dare to talk to me of heart! Of morals! You who keep your mistress — your common vulgar mistress — just around the corner from your home! — preferring your own low convenience to your wife’s poor pride!” Unfortunately, Plumes in the Dust fails to sustain anything like this level of emotion in spite of Miss Treadwell’s heroic measures, especially her jockeying of events in Poe’s life. In Act II, Scene 2, for example, she has an inebriated and contentious Poe in the midst of a literary soiree jolted by the news that Virginia has died in his absence. In the following scene, where Poe courts the widowed Elmira Royster Shelton in Richmond, the playwright takes the liberty of having her Poe deliver as speeches to Elmira passages from letters that Poe had, in fact, written to Sarah Helen Whitman.

Although Plumes in the Dust is the most nearly successful conventional play about Poe, it does not quite succeed either as biography or as drama. It does not succeed as biography principally because it offers a distorted account of Poe’s life. Like Miss Cushing, and Hazelton too, Miss Treadwell has the action of her play leap from Baltimore in the early 1830s to New York after 1845, thereby ignoring the most fruitful period in Poe’s literary career. That Plumes in the Dust does not succeed as drama was explained by Brooks Atkinson in his review of the 1936 production for the New York Times.(7) The play is “an earnest pageant of desolation and melancholy,” Atkinson reported. It is difficult, he continued, to dramatize Poe’s life without turning it into “a minor ‘Hamlet,’” and

Miss Treadwell and Mr. Hull have rather conspired toward that end. She has done it by putting on his lips opulent literary phrases that sound a little egregious when Mr. Hull speaks them with an actor’s exuberant swagger. When he strides masterfully into a polite literary party and lays about him with purple patches and a good deal of rodomontade about his integrity as a critic, the life of letters sounds uncomfortably pompous.

Hollywood’s most ambitious venture at dramatizing the life of Poe was a 1942 film released by Twentieth Century-Fox under the title The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe.(8) Based upon a screen play by Samuel Hoffenstein and Tom Reed, it starred John Shepperd as Poe and Linda Darnell as Virginia. Publicity described the film as “the unknown side of America’s most famous [page 24:] literary genius, that surpasses his own startling stories of dark emotions and deep passions — [it] is the true drama of [Poe’s] life, known only to the women who loved him.” Though the studio insisted that there was no need of “doctoring” the facts, the film reduces “the women who loved him” to Virginia Clemm and Elmira Royster and pits them against one another in a struggle for Poe’s affections, a struggle to which his literary career is largely rendered subordinate. That they might be suitable contenders for a poet’s heart, Elmira is portrayed as “a beautiful brunette” under the influence of whose “spell” Poe “poured out the deepest passions of his heart,” and Virginia is cast as a “Baltimore belle” whose “interesting little figure” is at one point displayed “in the pantalettes of the period.” Among the episodes in this love story are an angry encounter between Poe and Elmira’s husband in which the poet “socks” his antagonist on the jaw and an emotional visit by Elmira to the bedside of the dying Virginia at Fordham Cottage, a visit in which Virginia triumphs so completely over Elmira that the film fails to mention that Poe courted the widowed Mrs. Shelton two years after Virginia’s death. Relegated to a desultory subplot, Poe’s literary career is reduced to the simple terms of Poe as the champion of international copyright struggling against the exploitative practices of American publishers. In a vain effort to inject some life into this subplot, the picture offers a scene in which Thomas Jefferson counsels Poe to pursue his literary inclinations; it confronts Poe with the dilemma of choosing between editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger and editorship of Graham’s Magazine; it exaggerates the significance of Poe’s meeting with Dickens; and it humiliates Poe by having Griswold turn down “The Raven” for publication in the Broadway Journal. Just how thrilled the public was with this rendering of Poe is suggested by Theodore Strauss in his review of the film for the New York Times.(9) “As an addition to the library of films suitable for grade school edification and instruction,” the review begins, “‘The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe’ may conceivably serve some purpose, particularly in those classrooms where the dull, the prosaic and uninspired is held to be appropriately educational. But as an adult drama about one of America’s most complex men of letters it is no more than a postured and lifeless tableau.” “Meanwhile,” Strauss concludes, “a perceptive drama of an unhappy and greatly gifted man remains to be done.”

But Strauss misses the point. The issue is not when a successful drama about Poe will be written but whether one can be written. And the prospect is not encouraging. As Professor N. Bryllion Fagin pointed out some years ago, the problem is that Poe’s biography is unpromising as the stuff of drama, unpromising because it fails to furnish what Professor Fagin calls sufficient [page 25:] “complication, tension, romantic interest, and emotional appeal.”(10) His life was, in Fagin’s words, “relatively unadventurous”:

It was neither colorful nor extraordinarily unfortunate, sad, or tragic. Charles Lamb began life in more unadvantageous circumstances; Charles Dickens knew greater poverty, at least in his childhood; Dostoievsky was more cruelly ravaged by spells of ill health; De Quincey, and probably Coleridge, imbided more laudanum; and Robert Burns consumed more alcohol.(11)

Professor Fagin could have gone on: Shelley was a more refractory child and a far less conventional adult; Cooper could boast a much less commendable college career; Melville suffered far more neglect at the hands of the reading public; Thoreau practiced more integrity; Longfellow knew greater domestic tragedy; and even Wordsworth led a sexual life more deserving of censure. What emerges from Poe’s biography is not the romantic figure of the legend: that haunted and suffering spirit, victim both of his own genius and of a cruel fate, the high priest of pure beauty raging through the crass, ugly, and hostile world of nineteenth-century America. What emerges instead is the figure of a dedicated and disciplined craftsman, critic, and editor whose life was for the most part one of quiet indigence and domestic harmony. This figure, this “man behind the legend,” as Edward Wagenknecht has called him, is appropriate not to tragedy or to melodrama: it is appropriate to documentary. And when playwrights such as Hazel ton, Cushing, Hoffenstein, Reed, and even Treadwell, playwrights beguiled by the image of the legendary Poe, have attempted to translate that image into something stageworthy, they invariably collide with the unyielding fact that Poe’s life simply does not support the legend.

One way to avoid this collision is to write plays about Poe that steer as clear as possible from the facts of his biography. And this is precisely what some playwrights have been attempting in recent decades. They have turned from Poe’s life to his mind, playing out their dramas in what they believe to be the recesses of Poe’s own haunted psyche.(12) It is a shift from conventional drama to what we might call “psychodrama” (if we can appropriate that term), and it is nicely illustrated in a work entitled Poor Eddy. Written by Elizabeth Dooley and produced in 1953 by the Columbia University Theatre Guild, Poor Eddy is what the playwright calls a “ballet- biography.”(13) Its format consists of what Mrs. Dooley describes as brief “realistic” scenes taken from Poe’s life coupled with what she calls “arabesques,” or renderings of the “otherworld” of Poe’s “sleeping and waking dreams,” These arabesques are ballet pieces which interpret passages recited from Poe’s writings, chiefly [page 26:] passages from his fiction and poetry. Movement from realistic scene to accompanying arabesque is marked by distinctive “threshold” music and by the presence of a scrim behind which the actor-dancer playing Poe passes to indicate that action is moving from outward experience to imaginative or internal states of mind. The entire production consists of two acts, the first made up of three realistic scenes with their accompanying arabesques and the second act made up of five realistic scenes and five arabesques. The second scene in Act I is a good example of how Poor Eddy operates. Here the realistic scene is set in Philadelphia in 1840. Poe discovers that Virginia, now in her eighteenth year, is consumptive and that marital relations, which she and Poe have postponed for five years because of her age, must now be postponed indefinitely. In the accompanying arabesque, a narrator recites passages from “Ligeia” while the movements of the dancers express the triumph of love over death. Similarly, the following realistic scene presents the sudden bursting of a blood vessel in Virginia’s throat, and the accompanying arabesque is based upon “The Masque of the Red Death.” Because each of its eight realistic scenes is balanced with its arabesque, Poor Eddy stands as a transitional work between dramatizations of Poe’s life and dramatizations of his psyche.

Nicholas Argento’s opera The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, produced first in Minneapolis in 1976 and then in Baltimore the following year, goes a good deal further in shifting the balance from life to psyche.(14) Argento and his librettist, Charles Nolte, rest their version of Poe upon only one episode. It is his departure by boat from Richmond on his journey to Baltimore in the closing days of his life. In Argento’s hands, this voyage becomes a recapitulatory vehicle, a complex metaphor blending Poe’s life as the desperate and futile quest of a Romantic idealist with his works, principally “Annabel Lee,” “Eldorado,” Pym, and “MS Found in a Bottle.” The opera represents an hallucinatory experience in which the disturbed psyche of the dying poet is haunted by painful episodes in his past; or as a voice informs him in the first scene of the opening act: he is “on a voyage of Discovery. A heart that hates annihilation like the tomb must gather the past into hallucination.” Regrettably, Argento’s version of Poe’s suffering psyche hovers somewhere between the simple maudlin and the traditional Byronesque. “All I touched turned autumn in my hand,” he whines at the close of the opera:

My youth, a fragile vessel caught upon the waves of a savage sea. My heart, my heart a ravaged garden without a single bloom. Look upon this ruin mocked by starless skies. How else shall I speak, how shall I speak my soul’s pain? The buried loves of these sad eyes? I live within the storm. Pity me! I cannot write, I cannot think, I cannot love as others do. [page 27:] It is true. It is true! I murdered for my art! I killed all that I most loved, and sacrificed remembered bliss to feed my muse. It had to be. Have mercy on my life.

And opera buffs had mercy on Argento’s Poe, indeed, more than mercy. The Minneapolis correspondent to the New York Times pronounced the 1976 performance “a rich, mature and substantial creation,” and the Baltimore Sun not only headlined its review of the 1977 production “A Critical Success,” but it hailed the opera a “dynamic” accomplishment.(15) One of the reporters for the Sun did note, however, that he found “a few” bewildered members of the audience who confessed to not knowing “enough about Poe’s life to follow all the characters associated with him” in the opera. And the same reporter admitted to having overheard Baltimore City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky grumble, “Why do they always sing in Chinese?” With all due respect to the legitimacy of Mr. Orlinsky’s grievance, it is the student of Poe and the genuine Poe buff who have the greatest grounds for grumbling. For how are we to countenance such bizarreries, as Poe would have called them, such outrages as Argento’s having cast Poe’s wife Virginia as the Eurydice-like victim of her husband’s unquenchable and ungovernable curiosity about death and Argento’s having Poe’s beloved mother Elizabeth portrayed in her son’s hallucinations as a “slut” and a “whore” who consorts with the merged figures of John Allan and Rufus Griswold?(16)

Although Argento has his Poe die in Richmond without having in fact undertaken his voyage, we know, of course, that Poe’s death occurred in Baltimore, where, according to one of the most tenacious features of the Poe legend, he was villainously drugged and exploited as a repeater in an election then in progress and subsequently abandoned in a shabby tavern. It is this legend which furnished the setting for Ted Davis’s Poe: A Gathering Darkness, a drama currently making the rounds of college and university campuses as part of the repertoire of a small professional theatre company based in Boston.(17) Approximately a quarter of the action in Davis’s play dramatizes the suffering of Poe at the hands of the scoundrels who seized him in Baltimore. The bulk of the action, however, represents, as in Argento’s opera, hallucinations of the drugged, intoxicated, and dying Poe, hallucinations in which he is made to relive painful experiences in his past. But Davis’s Poe does not relive these experiences alone. For in the manner of William Wilson’s Doppelgänger, protagonist Poe is accompanied by an actor in the role of what the script calls “Shadow Poe.” He is the protagonist’s alter ego, his conscience, mocking, prodding, coaxing, prompting, contradicting, but, above all, compelling Poe to confront those painful realities which he dearly longs to evade. Principal among these realities is Poe’s relationship to his [page 28:] wife Virginia, a relationship which, according to Davis’s version, was a legitimate source of deep guilt. Virginia was Poe’s “forever child,” the innocent victim, a la “Ligeia” and especially “The Oval Portrait,” the innocent victim of her husband’s quest for ideal love and beauty. “I married her! Loved her! Cared for her,” Poe says at one point. You “despised her,” the Shadow Poe insists. “You invented a thing to love or rather you loved your own creation-a seduction of the spirit. Your words caressed your lover into existence . . . . But what your hands touched crumbled before you.” “Untrue,” Poe answers, “I know what love is! I stood by my Virginia in her time of need. I married the ideal — my perfect love.” “And all the while,” the Shadow reminds him, “your fantasy turned Virginia into someone — something else — your words shaped her, rearranged [her] membranous face, her mewling voice, her leprous skin, her infantile mind, the taste of the dead on her lips. Your marriage was the perfect fantasy — making love to a vision. No touching of mortal flesh.” “I will not accept such a thing,” Poe protests. “I’ll prove you wrong.” “Words exalt — flesh corrupts,” the Shadow responds. “Think on this fact only . . . . Think on Ligeia . . . not Virginia . . . think on Ligeia.” And then the mood on stage alters as Poe becomes the narrator in a dramatization of his tale “Ligeia.”

Davis makes extensive use of Poe’s fiction and poetry, and this is a feature his play shares with Argento’s opera and Dooley’s ballet-biography. And it seems to have been inescapable. For although Davis, Argento, and Dooley pretend to dramatize Poe’s psyche, the fact is that we know precious little about it. Poe was both an extremely private as well as a very elusive person. Beyond the little domestic circle of himself, Virginia, and Mrs. Clemm, a circle into which we have only the fleetingest of glimpses, no one ever came close enough to Poe personally to have left us a record of what he really was like in mind and spirit. And his utterances, including his essays as well as his letters, especially his so-called love letters, are of little help because Poe was an incessant role-player, always the “creative actor,” as Professor Fagin has called him.(18) Accordingly, in the absence of any other apparent avenue to his mind, those who would dramatize his psyche have turned to his imaginative works. But just as the unyielding facts of Poe’s biography are the Scylla upon which has floundered every attempt to exploit his life and character in conventional drama, so the presumption that Poe’s fiction and his poetry somehow constitute a window to his mind and spirit is the Charybdis into which attempts at psychodrama are inevitably drawn. It is an insidious presumption because it is so attractive and compelling, but above all it is an exquisitely ironic one because instead of promoting our appreciation or understanding of the real Poe, it carries us back to the very origins of [page 29:] the Poe legend, above all, to that feature of the legend as in some respects a hoax perpetrated by Poe himself on a grand scale. For did Poe not contribute immensely to the establishment of the legend by encouraging the notion that many of his poems and his stories are in some obscure way autobiographical documents, encouraging it by creating heroes who look like him, who display the mannerisms he assumed, and who speak from the pages of his fiction and his poetry with what appears to be the authentic voice of the author himself? The inevitable effect has been the conviction that Poe’s mind was a haunted palace, that he had lost a Lenore and an Annabel Lee and could find solace only in drink and drug. Ironically, it was Poe’s old nemesis Rufus W. Griswold who was one of the earliest and principal victims of this hoax. For was it not Griswold who, when Poe was literally only hours in his grave, solemnly instructed us that if we are really to know Poe’s mind and heart, we must read his darkest works as “a reflection and an echo of his own history”?


[page 29, continued:]


1.  The number of dramas written about Poe, even an approximation, is not ascertainable because the mortality rate of scripts which have been neither produced nor published is very high and because finding those which have managed to survive is haphazard at best.

2.  George Cochrane Hazelton, The Raven: A Romantic Play in Five Acts. Copyright obtained 2 August 1893. Revised for production at Albaugh’s Lyceum Theatre, Baltimore, 11 October 1895, as Edgar Allan Poe; or The Raven. Revised for printing as The Raven: A Play in Four Acts and a Tableau (New York, 1903). Revised for publication as a novel, The Raven: The Love Story of Edgar Allan Poe (‘Twixt Fact and Fancy) (New York, 1909). The Raven, a motion picture by George Cochrane Hazelton copyrighted in 1915 by Essaway Film Manufacturing Company and “based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe,” probably is still another revision of the earlier play. My discussion of the play is based upon the typescript filed for copyright in 1893.

The earliest dramatization of Poe is Lambert A. Wilmer’s little verse play Merlin, published in the Baltimore North American, 15 and 25 August and 1 September 1827, reprinted by Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed. Merlin, Baltimore, 1827, Together with Recollections of Edgar A. Poe by Lambert A. Wilmer (New York, 1941).

3.  Baltimore Sun, 12 October 1895, p. 10.

4.  My discussion of this play is based upon a typescript filed for copyright in 1925.1 am grateful to the family of the late Miss Cushing for permission to quote from this copy.

5.  New York Times, 6 October 1925, p. 31. [page 30:]

6.  Plumes in the Dust originally was a four-act play entitled Poe, a typescript of which was filed for copyright on 21 January 1920. Miss Treadwell tightened up the action by shifting scenes and by reducing the original four acts to three. She also used information made available through publication of the Poe-Allan correspondence. My discussion of the play is based upon a prompt book on deposit at the New York Public Library. I am grateful to the late Miss Treadwell for permission to quote from this source.

7.  Brooks Atkinson commented upon Plumes in the Dust in the Times on three occasions: 26 October 1936, p. 21; 7 November, p.14; and 15 November, xi, l. The first occasion was to review the premiere performance at Princeton, New Jersey, on 25 October. The second was to review the opening in New York on 6 November. And the third was to offer observations on the dramatic potentialities of Poe’s life and character. I quote here from the 7 November review of the opening performance in New York.

8.  A mimeograph of the screenplay is on deposit at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. I am grateful to Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation for permission to quote from this copy.

Film makers have by no means neglected Poe. A number of his tales have been made into motion pictures, some of them repeatedly, and there have been a number of original efforts “based upon” Poe. Some of these efforts, notably The Man With the Cloak (a 1951 MGM version of John Dickson Carr s short story “The Gentleman from Paris”), have incorporated Poe himself as a character in fictitious settings. For its lively interest in Poe even in its infancy, see Denis Gifford, “Pictures of Poe: A Survey of the Silent Film Era 1909-29,” in The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook, ed. Peter Haining (New York, 1978), pp 129-132.

9.  New York Times, 21 September 1942, p. 19.

10.  N. Bryllion Fagin, The Histrionic Mr. Poe (Baltimore, 1949), p. 224.

11.  Fagin, p. 3.

12.  I do not wish to give the impression either that the threedramas I discuss here are the only efforts at what I call “psychodrama” or that this phenomenon is limited strictly to recent decades. The earlier efforts usually were fictions in which Poe himself is cast as a character in his own works, more often than not “The Raven.”

13.  My discussion of Poor Eddy is based upon a prompt book on deposit at the New York Public Library. I am grateful to Mrs. Dooley for permission to quote from this text.

14.  The libretto to The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe has been published in Commemorating the World Premiere ofThe Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe,”edited by David J. Speer, et al. (St. Paul, 1976), pp. 41-79. I am grateful to Boosey and Hawkes, Incorporated, of New York, for permission to quote from the text of the libretto. [page 31:]

15.  New York Times, 26 April 1976, p. 38; Baltimore Sun; 1 June 1977, p. B1.

16.  Having discussed Dooley’s ballet and Argento’s opera, I should at least mention an “opera ballet” by Byron Stanley Schiffman entitled The Raven; or, Edgar Allan Poe, copyrighted in 1952, with new matter added in 1954. When I inquired, the Copyright Office was unable to locate its copy of the script. There is no record of production.

17.  I wish to thank Ted Davis for furnishing me with a copy of the script, from which I quote with his permission, and for his willingness to discuss both his work and Poe at length.

18.  Fagin, p. 16.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - Poe in American Drama: Versions of the Man (John E. Reilly, 1986)