Poe and the Halloween Tradition

Today I want to talk to you about a historic and time-honored Halloween tradition. Something that everyone above a certain age associates with Halloween and Halloween parties. Something you’ll see in many, many Halloween movies. Something that our dear friend Edgar Allan Poe was very familiar with, which he wrote about on more than one occasion. Something that, for many of us, life Halloween would feel incomplete without. I am speaking, of course, of alcohol. So on this spookiest of days, me and this adorable bottle of absinthe I found at the liquor store last week want to share some thoughts about drinking, Poe, our newly adapted Poe piece “A Midnight Dreary”, our upcoming Durham performance thereof, and the way in which those things might be related.

absinthe

Look how little and cute it is!

As I alluded to when last we spoke, Poe had an unfortunate relationship with alcohol. He was unable to control himself in its presence and so he endeavored to teetotal. Unfortunately, the culture of the time regularly found him attending social gatherings where drinking would be expected and he fell from the wagon more than once. While attending these events Poe had a tendency to drink to excess and make a fool of himself, an attribute that he and I share. I can fortunately say that my propensity for blacking out over-imbibing at parties has not seriously damaged my life or prospects, but Mr. Poe cannot say the same, as his drinking problem cost him at least two jobs and twice as many friendships. It is to his credit that he, unlike me (and, hopefully, you), hated the habit and its effect on him and routinely attempted to abstain and distance himself from alcohol, an effort which is no less noble for it having been unsuccessful. I have every confidence that my fine readers can hold their liquor better than poor Edgar, however, and as our upcoming performances are thematically paired with a variety of wines, I encourage you to put the thought of Poe drinking himself to death on the cold autumn streets of Baltimore out of your minds. Contemplate instead how delicious these wines sound, and how appropriately they have been matched by We Happy Few’s Bartender-in-Residence Kerry McGee.

masque-of-red-death-extraordinary-tales

From Extraordinary Tales, 2013. Directed by Raul Garcia.

First on the docket is The Masque of the Red Death, which is, appropriately for a party, matched with a sparking wine. But not just any sparkling wine. This is a SPECIAL party, to celebrate the end of the world, so ordinary champagne or prosecco would never do (also, there’s nothing scary about champagne, unless you’re exceptionally prone to hangovers). This is an almond-flavored sparkling wine, to give it that extra special decadence, that rich little kick of marzipan. But marzipan isn’t the only thing you can make out of almonds, is it? The more morbid of my readers will recall that the taste or smell of bitter almonds is a telltale sign of cyanide, a popular poison you might recognize as the one that brought down Jonestown but failed to kill famed Russian necromancer Rasputin. While the titular Red Death did not manifest as poison in the wine, but rather as a plague on the countryside, we felt the surprise of the almond flavor in the wine makes a fitting match to the uninvited guest who gate-crashes Prince Prospero’s party.

Next up is The Cask of Amontillado. I will give you three guesses as to what wine we chose for this story.

whats-the-word

That’s right. T-Bird.

Nah, we went with the obvious for this one. Amontillado is a Spanish sherry with a sweet nose that does not exactly translate to the taste, which is much drier than you might expect. The variance between the scent and flavor means that this drink comes with an unexpected surprise, just as the sparking wine did. Similar to the sort of surprise you might encounter if a dear friend had told you about a cask of sherry he had purchased and wanted you to verify the quality of, but then instead he got you drunk and walled you up in his basement. Above all I would say Amontillado tastes like revenge, and much like revenge it is best served cold.

For The Tell-Tale Heart we decided to keep up the bait-and-switch flavor profile we used for the other stories, though the third drink is better known and therefore the twist is less surprising than the others. Our wine of choice for this story is Velvet Moon Cabernet Sauvignon from Trader Joe’s, the #1 store for the wino on a budget. [Trader Joe’s sponsor us please! -KH] Velvet Moon, in the nature of Cab Sauvs everywhere, is fruity and full bodied with a hefty dose of tannins. It has the rich color of arterial blood, the full profile of a satisfied obsession, and the bitterness of regret. That is not to say that you will be left unsatisfied by either the drink or the story, merely that the way something starts is seldom the way that it ends. Sometimes your wine turns bitter on your palate, and sometimes the motiveless murder of a dear friend because he had cataracts results in you shrieking your guilt to the police in an effort to expiate yourself and silence the ceaseless pounding of his impossibly-still-beating heart.

tell-tale-heart-fores

The Tell-Tale Heart, by David G. Fores.

If these wines sound interesting to you, especially in connection with these chilling stories, brought to the stage by Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee, and Jon Reynolds under the direction of Bridget Grace Sheaff, then please join us for “A Midnight Dreary”, to be performed at Spectre Arts in Durham, North Carolina the evenings of November 11th and 12th. For my thousands of readers in the Raleigh-Durham area this should be an easy trip. For those in the greater DC metro area it is a scant four hour drive, and for those of you in the rest of the country and world, I say to you a journey of ten thousand miles would be a small price to pay to see a show of this caliber. If that travel seems a little much for you, however, then fear not! Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we will have additional performances of this show in January, here in our nation’s capital. Keep an eye on this space and our website and twitter for additional details as they develop. Honestly it would probably be better to just come down to North Carolina on the 11th or 12th, though.

Until next time, I hope you all have a spooky and responsible-drinking good time tonight. Keep your cell phones charged, be sure to check the back seat for killers, and whatever you do, don’t split up.

Keith Hock

Poe: American Literature’s Bitter Uncle

Ladies and Gentlemen! There has been a palace coup in the We Happy Few Managerial Hierarchy! I have been deposed as Production Manager by the altogether-more-competent Kiernan McGowan, who, I promise, will live to rue the day he dared step to me. I shall engineer such a revenge that the ill-gotten fruits of his underhanded betrayal will turn to ashes in his mouth, and he will weep for a death which will not come will do a much better job in the role than Yours Truly. I, for my sins, have been given the title of Literary Director and was graciously allowed to keep the title of Blogslave after I told them that they could have the password to this WordPress account when they pried it from my cold dead hands. “But what does this mean for me, the loyal follower of WHF?” I hear you asking, and the answer is: literally nothing. Unless you are a member of the organization this change will impact you not even the tiniest bit, except that our names will be labelled differently in the programs of future shows. So I encourage you to put it out of your mind and come with me into today’s blog post.

In celebration of our new organizational structure, in recognition of my sexy new title, and in anticipation of some very exciting upcoming performances of ours, I would like to offer you some thoughts on American writing’s mopey godfather: Edgar Allan Poe. I personally regard Poe as the father of horror. Others call him the father of the detective story and of science fiction, and even of the American short story. Indeed, with so many literary children to take care of it is small wonder that he drank himself to death! [rimshot] But I am not here to tell you about his drinking problem (…yet), I want to talk to you about his legacy and how his stories, for all their influence, never earned him the title that would seem to be rightfully his: the Father of American Literature.

poe-annie-daguerreotype

Before we really get into that a brief biographical sketch is necessary. Edgar Poe was born in 1809 in Boston to an actress named Elizabeth Poe, whose husband David either died or disappeared at some point in 1810. In 1811 Elizabeth moved to Richmond and then died in her turn, leaving Edgar too far from his paternal grandfather to be brought up with him and therefore at the mercy of the people of Richmond. He was taken in (but not adopted; he retained the name ‘Poe’) by wealthy merchant John Allan and his wife Fanny. Fanny seems to have cared more for the boy than John, with whom Edgar did not get along. Allan was not a member of the landed Virginia gentry, but rather a first-generation Scots trader who had made good, and it is likely that his neighbors did not let him forget it. Poe was betrothed to a woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, with whom he exchanged letters for some time despite her father’s disapproval of the match. Poe attended the University of Virginia but was forced to withdraw after a year due to financial difficulties (Allan had provided Poe with not quite enough money for both classes and rent, and Poe was forced to borrow and gamble in an ill-conceived attempt to make it up). Upon returning to Richmond he discovered that Sarah Royster had married someone else, doubtless under pressure from her father. After a series of arguments with Allan, Poe ran away to Boston where he published his first collection of poetry. It did not make any money and he was forced to join the Army to make ends meet. After some time in the Army, and with the aid of Fanny on her deathbed, Poe was able to convince Allan to support his bid to enter West Point. Unfortunately bad luck conspired to delay his entry until 1830, by which time Fanny Allan had died. Some of Poe’s debts caught up to his foster father in this time period and Allan severed all communication with Poe around the same time as he was expelled from West Point in 1831. Poe moved to Baltimore and lived with his paternal Aunt Maria Clemm and his 9-year-old cousin and future wife Virginia Clemm (they would marry when she was 13. Not as unusual for the time as you might think, but certainly…off-putting).

From this point until his death in 1849 he worked as a professional writer and lecturer, as well as an editor and critic for literary magazines. He regarded it as his mission as a critic to improve the quality of American writing and make it competitive with the writers of Europe, especially England and France (where he was always more popular than America), and as such he made powerful foes of a clique of New York writers, centered on the Knickerbocker magazine and led by the hilariously-named twin editors Lewis and Willis Gaylord Clark, for their propensity to “puff”, or uncritically endorse, each other’s pieces in reviews. He achieved widespread fame upon the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 but was unable to parley even that into financial security, often moving between Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City as work and finances dictated. Virginia died in 1847 after fighting tuberculosis for some time, and Poe himself died under somewhat mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk and wearing someone else’s clothes) in Baltimore some two years later. For a number of years his reputation in America was damaged by the actions of his literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had (unbeknownst to Poe) hated him and spread rumors of infidelity and drug abuse after his death, but his legacy had been salvaged by the end of the 19th century.

You may have noticed that my biography seems to lean very heavily on his early years, before he became one of America’s first professional writers. I assure you that this is by design; it is my belief that Poe’s writing was more shaped by the first half of his life than the second. Poe learned at a young age what it was to be alone, to be outside of the norm, and it seems that he may never have truly learned what it was like to be otherwise. The lessons of Poe’s childhood were cruel and thorough, as I hope I have demonstrated above. He learned how it felt to lose a loved one, to disappoint a friend, to be hungry and cold for want of money, to desire a thing he could not attain, and above all, to be neither welcome nor wanted by those around him. Though Poe did happily marry, and his later life was as full of bosom friends as with rivals, he would never reach a financial level that one might call “stable”, let alone comfortable, despite his fame, and he still struggled with bouts of depression, which were doubtless exacerbated by his financial instability and his wife’s untimely demise. It should come as no surprise that his writing should tend toward the macabre and Gothic, into the dark and brooding half of Romanticism and away from the nationalist Romanticism of his fellows.

wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. This picture is pretty much all you need to know about Romanticism.

Poe seems to have projected this psychological isolation and half-imagined social exile onto his characters. Contrary to the now-traditional American protagonist of the cunning and self-made frontiersman, popularized by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and inspired by outdoorsy American heroes such as Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Andrew Jackson, Poe created elegant, aristocratic protagonists. Prince Prospero, Roderick Usher, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Montresor, and his many nameless narrators of such pieces as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat”: these are men of property and education. They are aristocrats, similar to Poe’s classmates at the University of Virginia or West Point, or his childhood friends in Richmond. But (excepting Mssr. Dupin) their education and breeding boots them naught. Poe’s characters are almost universally undone or driven mad by their own obsessions, by their isolation, their superiority, their overwhelming desire for the unattainable, and above all by their arrogance. His characters are blind to their faults, assuming that their superior intelligence and class will keep them safe, that they are too clever and important to suffer any consequences. Poe inverted the American Dream, before we even really knew what that meant. His characters start with everything and then lose it all.

squandered-resources

Squandered Resources, Visions, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Romas Kukalis

Even more striking than Poe’s choice of characters is his choice of settings and subjects. Poe’s contemporaries, Longfellow, Whitman, Whittier, Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, positively reveled in writing about the the rough, vast new country in which they found themselves. Longfellow, a member of the adversarial Knickerbocker clique and Your Humble Narrator’s favorite poet, is best known for the thoroughly American poems Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Hawthorne rooted himself so inextricably to colonial Massachusetts that I had to read The Scarlet Letter twice in high school, first to learn about Puritans and then again to learn about Transcendentalism. Cooper’s Leatherstocking stories may be poorly written drivel, but they were indisputably American drivel. Whitman even wrote a poem titled “I Hear America Singing”, for God’s sake! The American frontier and our brief but vibrant history offers an infinity of stories to American writers.

But Poe was not seduced by the Great Wide Open or America’s heroic past. Poe’s stories are set in crowded cities, where people get too close and drive one another mad, where apes escape from their owners and commit grisly murders, where science, blindly pursued, visits horrific consequences on its practitioners. They take place in crumbling manors and castles, where mad kings die at their own hideous parties and where long-sought vengeance is planned. They take place in richly appointed rooms where men may be alone with their grief and their wine. They take place in nightmares and prison cells, museums and graveyards, hurricanes and catacombs. Poe didn’t completely ignore America, “The Gold-Bug” is set on an island where he was stationed in the Army and Arthur Gordon Pym is from Nantucket, but he did not feel the urge to tell ‘American’ stories in the way that his colleagues did. Maybe his melancholia simply found better purchase in the foggy Gothic settings favored by his colleagues in Europe than the bright sun of the American frontier, though I think the answer is more complicated than that. Poe, perhaps, did not have the same unblemished view of his country as his fellows. His experience with America had shown him many more unfriendly faces, closed doors, and cold, dark city streets than welcoming arms and sun-dappled meadows. Moreover, he did not feel himself to be a member of the community of American writers which he had worked so strenuously to create, and which had consistently shunned and maligned him, even after he was in the grave.

harry-clarke-into-the-maelstrom-poe

“A Descent Into the Maelstrom”. Illustration by Harry Clarke, for Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.

For these reasons I find it difficult to either grant or rescind Poe the title of Father of American Literature. He was among the first and greatest writers in American history and he dedicated his life to improving America’s writing profile on the world stage.  But at the same time his stories, for all of his being one of America’s finest writers, are not American. They are horror stories, detective stories, adventure stories, melancholy poems, introspective poems, the origins of science fiction, but not a one of them is an American story in the way that Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby is. Poe’s writing lacks the setting and the spirit that sets The Great American Novel apart from other genres. It is impossible to ignore his role in American literature but his own actions disqualify him from the title. It’s all right, though. Horror is a better genre than Americana.

If you agree with me that horror is great, and you also think that drinking is great, keep a weather eye on this space as well as the We Happy Few emails, websitetwitter, and facebook; however you keep track of our comings and goings. We will have some Poe-related things coming up  soon that you will be VERY excited to attend. Remember THIS THING I told you about last year? Think bigger, and keep your eyes open for more details! Until next time, I am (and always have been) your friend Keith Hock.

[editor’s note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that, in addition to Wikipedia for quick fact-checking, I relied heavily upon Nigel Barnes’ “A Dream Within a Dream: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe” (Peter Owen Publishers, 2009) and Edward H. Davidson’s “Poe: A Critical Study” (Harvard University Press, 1957) while writing this blog post. KH]

Cask of Amontillado: From the Page to the …Bar

Hi everyone! Did you miss me? It’s Keith Hock, We Happy Few’s Production Manager, Technical Director, and, according these new business cards… Blogslave [that can’t be right]. Today I’m here to tell you about something that we did for Halloween. I don’t just want to brag to you about how we did a cool thing that you probably didn’t see (although, in your face, it was awesome), I wanted to talk to you about what we did, why we did it, and how it worked. By the end of this post, if I’ve done my job correctly, you’ll feel like you were really there!

First things first. What did we do that I will spend the next 1500 words talking about? If you would take the time to look at the title of the blog post you’re reading you would realize that it PROBABLY had something to do with The Cask of Amontillado. In point of fact, we performed it, but that’s not all! Not only did we perform Cask, we performed it on Halloween night, and not only THAT, we performed it in Mockingbird Hill, a sherry bar. I would hope that at least the superficial reasons why would do such a thing be obvious, but because I love the sound of my fingers clattering on a keyboard I will explain our reasoning, from the simple to the literary to the practical.

Poe

From a superficial angle, Mockingbird Hill asked us to perform this piece on Halloween because it is a SPOOKY STORY ::wink:: that prominently features a CASK OF SHERRY ::wink, wink::. You would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate choice of story for a Halloween reading for ANY bar, much less one known for its sherry. If you WERE inclined to seek other booze-themed stories to read, however, Poe would probably be a good place to start (much better than that teetotaling racist H. P. Lovecraft). Poe is somewhat of a hero around Mockingbird Hill for his fondness for sherry specifically and drinking in general. He is even more of a figure in his native Baltimore, which seems to have forgiven him for dying penniless, drunk and alone in one of their gutters and has both a football franchise and brewery named in honor of his most famous piece, The Raven.

Poe would be an excellent choice for a Halloween READING, but, as my astute readers may have noted, we did not simply put on a reading, we had a PERFORMANCE, and performances are a horse of a much different color. Poe wrote his stories to be read; at most read aloud. Only once did he set his pen to write a play, and that unfinished, so we must take some liberties and do some adapting to bring his work from the page to the stage. In this, as well, Cask is uniquely suited within Poe’s bibliography for performance. It holds a number of advantages over other stories. It has two characters engaging in dialogue, for example, a trivial-sounding but important mark in its favor. The horror genre being what it is, an investigation of the unknown and unknowable, a mirror in our souls reflecting the darkness surrounding us (or is the mirror on the outside reflecting the darkness within?), stories in the milieu tend to be intensely personal and singly narrated. There is a reason both Lovecraft and Poe preferred to structure their pieces as the diary entries, letters, confessions or reminiscences of men going mad or killing themselves; to fear is to weaken, none would CHOOSE to share their fear unless they had no choice. Even this story, we discover at the end, is a confession of sorts, taking place long after the events described within. However, until it reaches that point, Cask remains more or less a dialogue and, if not unique, certainly unusual in the horror canon, an oddity we will gladly turn to our advantage.

Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter

The Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter, Bill Keane & H. P. Lovecraft

Cask has additional advantages, from a practical perspective; namely, it takes place almost entirely in a creepy cavern, surrounded by darkness and aged bottles of wine, eerily similar to the interior of Mockingbird Hill even before our Montresor, the inimitable Kerry McGee, graced the wall with a handmade banner of the family crest. Compare this setting to The Fall of the House of Usher’s disintegrating mansion, or the overkill oubliette of The Pit & The Pendulum, or The Masque of the Red Death’s seven-roomed Rainbow Party Palace. Creating an appropriate setting can be set aside for a reading, such detail is unnecessary for a reading, but as I’ve said time and again, we put on a PERFORMANCE, and unless your performance is Our Town [never do Our Town], it is useful to your audience to at least create the illusion that your characters are somewhere else than “in a bar on Halloween” or “standing under hot lights surrounded by people”. It doesn’t have to be much (our own Hamlet had nothing more than a box filled with mirrors and some rapidly changing costumes), as long as you demonstrate to your audience that for the next few minutes or hours they are not where they are, but where you want them to be.

From We Happy Few's 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few's 2015 Production of The Cask of Amontillado.  L-R audience members, background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

But enough about what makes The Cask of Amontillado such an excellent choice for this event. Why, as I have been so insistent, did we choose to do a performance instead of a reading? What was gained by our performing it? Why go through all that trouble?

I am glad you asked. The primary reason is that we are a THEATRE COMPANY, not a literary society. Performances are what we do. This is not to say we are above staged readings, a time-honored tool for approaching and performing scripts that we, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, may be showing off for you in the not-too-distant future. Simply that, in this situation, with this piece, and this setting, it would be a criminal waste of their talent for us to give scripts to Raven Bonniwell and Kerry McGee and then tell them “uh, yeah, just stand there and read it out loud” [Also, I would be fired if I spoke to them that way]. Indeed, Mockingbird Hill HAS in the past simply done staged readings of this piece for Halloween. In the last two years they have realized how much more interesting they can make it by having it staged instead of merely read.

The second, and arguably more interesting, reason, is that it allows us to draw additional meaning from the piece. A cursory glance through the text will tell you that it is absolutely RIDDLED with meaning and references, some more transparent than others (any idiot can suss out the significance of Masonic imagery or the appropriateness of the Montresor banner; how significant is it that it was Carnival, or that the walls are covered in nitre, or that the cask is specifically of Amontillado?  I don’t know, but I would wager that they matter). By staging it we can explore the text more thoroughly, emphasizing some of the meaning and, I dare say, adding some ourselves.

As one might expect from a story that is predominantly set in a labyrinth of crypts and ends with one of the characters entombed behind some fresh masonry and a wall of bones, The Cask of Amontillado trades heavily on a sense of claustrophobia. Time and again we are reminded of the dampness of the environment, the foulness of the air, the bones of Montresors past surrounding, the cramped tunnels and the dreadful solidity of the granite around them. But it is one thing to read of such things, it is another entirely to watch, shoulder to shoulder, crowded in around our actors as they hike through the tunnels into the pit. Barely able to turn around lest they strike an audience member, bound not by their imaginations as to the dimensions of the tunnels but by the reality of their playing space, they bring the audience into the abyss with them, to the point that when they lifted their flambeaux upward to observe the “nitre” on the ceiling, the audience looked as well, though there was nothing on the ceiling but heating ducts! And while the description of Montresor walling Fortunato up in her tomb, laughing and screaming the whole way, is something quite brutal, it doesn’t hold a candle to the finality of a screamed “Yes, for the love of God!” and a door closing on the terrified but very real face of Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few's 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunado), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunato), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

In this way we can accentuate what is already there. But what of adding our own meaning, as I alluded to earlier? It is also very doable (I would never lie to you) and in this case it is accomplished by the exact same means; the crowd surrounding them. As you may recall, at the very end we discover that this murder was committed some 50 years before, and that the remains have not been disturbed in that intervening time; indeed would be difficult to even find re-concealed behind the bones. And we have noticed that Montresor is at some pains to conceal her crime; in addition to sending her staff away, she chooses the bottommost crypt in her family’s creepy labyrinth of a wine cellar, and seals Fortunato away behind both a wall of bricks and a pile of bones. Note also that, though she had her rapier, she did not stab Fortunato, simply left her to starve, eliminating the potential for a bloody weapon in her possession. Montresor has completely concealed her crime and, within the context of the story, her explanation at the end is little more than an opportunity to reveal the 50 years twist (with a minor twinge of guilt). With an audience, however, her final pronouncement changes the tenor of the whole venture; her attitude (at least in Kerry McGee’s capable hands) changes to a taunting gloat to an appreciative audience. In other hands, with different motives or a simple framing mechanism (even a different setting or new costumes) it could be a confession to a priest or detective, a confrontation with a new generation of Fortunato, an explanation for a new generation of Montresor, the raving of a lunatic…options as wide as your director and actors’ imaginations.

I hope you all enjoyed my lengthy and pedantic explanation of our choices and methods in our recent performance of The Cask of Amontillado. If you liked this, please let me know! If you hated it, let me know that as well! I’m not going to stop writing these anytime soon, though, in fact you should expect another one later this month. As we expand our wheelhouse beyond the Elizabethan and begin to explore more and different pieces, you will find me there, to ruin the mystery and explain the magic. Until next time,

I have the honor to be, Yr Obedient Servant,

K. Hock