American Literature, American Renaissance, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Allan Poe IV, Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, History, Literary criticism, Space at Jury's Inn, Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, Theatre Review, Virginia Clemm
I was initially deterred from going to see “PoeZest,” which is currently playing in the Jury’s Inn, because Poe should really manifest himself late at night, perhaps in some dank chamber in the bowels of the Old Town. But at midday? – when Poe would still have a sore head – and in a huge, corporate hotel? At the box office, they hand you an elevator key with your ticket, before providing directions to somewhere up on the eighth floor. Am I going to be received in Poe’s hotel room? I am not sure that I want those sorts of thrills.
“PoeZest,” with its echo of “sexist” and “racist,” carries the suggestion of a newly recognised intolerance, which we should learn to frown upon in polite circles. I had assumed that “Edgar Allan Poe IV” was merely a pseudonym, but it seems that this actor is actually the original Poe’s great great great nephew. If I had known this, then I would have slashed his face with a razor, just to collect some genuine Poe blood in the cup of my hand. Perhaps I would run to the bar and drink it with a fine old amontillado, savouring the authentic taste of Poe.
Aside from myself, the audience is comprised entirely of women, which is fitting since the original Poe had recited his poems to gatherings of excited bluestockings. If the radiant lost Lenore had finally returned as a shabby “fowl,” Poe the IV crashes through the shutter as a two-bit, out of work actor, who is trading upon his family name by impersonating his forefather in tacky movies. But after unconvincingly trying to replicate the real Poe by painting his face white and applying a false moustache, there is suddenly a great inner lurch, and Poe IV has been possessed (ie PoeZest) by the spirit of his ancestor.
The original Poe professes outrage that history has conducted such an unfair prosecution against him, and he submits the case for the defence, explaining away his apparent paedophilia, alcoholism, and morphine habit, in between readings of his work. “PoeZest” never ceases to entertain, the transformation between Poes IV and I is very smartly executed, and with a bit of a polish, this could be pitched as a great educational show for kids. The old Poe’s anger at the careless treatment of his reputation – not least by a descendant whose name, Poe IV sounds like the latest lame sequel from a once great franchise – offers a good, satirical sense of Poe’s literary destiny, whilst this show frequently demonstrates a perceptive understanding of Poe’s life and work.
But the real ghost of Poe would have remained, in the words of Rufus Griswold’s famous tribute, “a carping grammarian,” and he would have spotted a number of faults in this performance. The surmise that Poe was a diabetic who had died of “insulin shock,” is seriously amiss (a nineteenth-century diabetic would not have reached forty and, in any case, there would have been no insulin in his body to kill him). Moreover, like many interpretations of Poe’s work, “PoeZest” gropes for low-hanging fruit in assuming that Poe’s art directly reflected his own life, with the lost Lenore symbolising his wife Virginia and the Red Death standing for the tuberculosis that killed her, as if Poe’s fiction was a shadow that continuously dogged him like William Wilson’s doppelganger.
This Poe often reads his lines straight from the script, rather than delivering unprompted recitals, which somewhat impairs the smooth pounding of the “Tell-Tale Heart.” My discerning ear even caught a couple of slip ups in this Poe’s “The Raven,” which should be inexcusable in both a professional impersonator and a descendant of the man who had penned these immortal lines. The real ghost of Poe would have choked on his moustache at this point.
But any lover of Poe will indulge in the opportunity to go over it all again – the wild life, the fine but still fresh old prose, the mysteries and theories – it remains as satisfying as sipping from a vintage amontillado.