Many of the works that Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson wrote are marked by deep sadness over the death of a loved one. It is a sadness that both knew too well, which began in both their childhoods and continued throughout their lives, haunting them forever.
Poe and Dickinson created beauty with their poetry, but it is their darker side that propels to convey a Gothic writing style that pulls their readers into their nightmares. They left us with literary brilliance, but they did not leave any treatise to explain their work, so we can come to their poetry or short fiction [Poe’s] with an open mind, and unearth whatever it is we need to find.
Their obsession with darkness did not go unnoticed, not even by playwright Joseph McDonough, who with a little artistic license and lots of imagination went on to create “Edgar & Emily,” now a world premiere play at Palm Beach Dramaworks, playing thru April 22. This comic fantasia, as William Hayes, the director of the play, likes to call it, poses the question: “What if Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, two of America’s greatest poets of the 1800s, had met?”
That’s the back story of “Edgar & Emily,” and from the start, the audience is captivated by the notion of “What is real?” I believe, the setting provides the first clue: a stage framed by a crafty dark foliage design that’s stretched from left to right like intertwined tree limbs just above Emily’s bedroom door. All is missing is a dark raven to clasp this thematic symbol as a nightmarish sign, leaving us to wonder once again, “What kind of message is the playwright trying to convey?”
In McDonough’s interpretation, we can imagine a world unrestricted by reality, where Poe [played by Gregg Weiner] is running for his life with a coffin in tow, though in the play’s timeline it’s been 14 years since his death. In the first scene, it is nighttime on a wintery day, and in a Poe or Dickinson story, we wouldn’t expect any other time of day. We find a recluse Dickinson [played by Margery Lowe] with a late Victorian face and dressed gently all in white, as a young poet chasing the wind in the confinements of her bedroom, where she finds comfort. Until Poe’s morbid invasion, that is.
“Edgar & Emily” poses an enigma. Two real characters who are known for their gloomy disposition, and yet there’s a scene at the very start of the play that’s pretty ridiculous but it helps set the tone. Without giving too much of it away, McDonough explains, “I specifically want to give the audience the permission to laugh. So, I have Emily doing something very funny.”
For this kind of play, where reality and fiction collide, “laughter” is key in the show. All the scenes between Weiner and Lowe rely on rhythm, too much or too little can off balance it. Fortunately, the actors master the dialogue brilliantly, moving forward the plot where we see Poe has actually escaped death in a very Edgar Allan Poe sort of way. At one point, one questions Poe’s reality. Is he in a purgatory of sorts, being chased by his own demon and the only person who can help him escape this dark labyrinth is another poet, whose mind is as tormented as his?
All that we see in the play may support this suggestion, but the ending does not truly provide a true answer. What we know is this: Poe wants to escape death, and he’s taken refuge in Dickinson’s bedroom. Once Dickinson recovers from her intruder’s alarming intrusion, and discovers she is in the presence of no other than the famed Edgar Allan Poe—a poet known to be dead—she accepts his remarkable story and agrees to play host for the night, even if Poe finds her, at first, a “disagreeable hostess,” which adds to the comic energy.
In true Poe and Dickinson chitchat, the night dissolves into a long conversation—many parts hilarious, other parts more cerebral as the poets confess to one another their deepest fears and inner demons—depression, alcoholism, and their obsession with death and the fact that they cannot stop the passage of time no matter how much they try. There are heartfelt scenes, and one in particular is very telling when Dickinson points out to Poe the reason why she finds comfort in her room, and why she feels lucky to live in this grand estate set on large grounds, where she grows an abundance of flowers of all different kinds.
The last few scenes are more cryptic than the rest. After hearing his oppressor call for him [a voice only he can hear], an anxious Poe tries to escape through Dickinson’s bedroom window, but the casket doesn’t fit, so he has to leave it behind. Now, at the start of the play, Poe tells a dumbfounded Dickinson about his fate as he marches into her room hauling the coffin that he’s pledged not to relinquish, or else he dies. The implications are interesting as in his desperate attempt to escape death, he throws himself into the night and to its unknown fate.
Dickinson is left alone in her room with the coffin. And one can speculate that she stands amid the roar of her own mind. Tempted to open it, but afraid of what she might see inside, she circles it once but then goes for it. As she opens it, she is mesmerized as she looks on at a multitude of beautiful flowers welcoming her.
Now, audiences perhaps may wonder if this is a dream within a dream. They may even question if the playwright intended to write a story about Dickinson dreaming about dying. And if that’s the case, who else but Poe, the “Master of the Macabre,” to come into her room to deliver the perfect prop: a coffin?
In “Edgar & Emily,” McDonough has written a play that gives his audience free reign to interpret these characters as he did, or see this story for what it is: a passionate, inconsolable cry from the poets’ hearts. It’s beautifully done.
“Edgar & Emily,” The Fantastic Tale of Two Scribes United by Fate