Halloween has a special resonance this year, as the horrors are close at hand, funerals are more numerous than weddings, and at times the whole world seems to be a sepulcher. In this context, horror from such specialists as Lovecraft and Poe serve, strangely, to comfort rather than to horrify (or to provoke graveyard laughter), in that they remind us that for most of human history, fear of the unknown (which is what COVID-19 is, so far) held the upper hand.
We often turn to Poe in this season, not only because of his obsessive interest in death but because of the poetic nature of his language. I use this term advisedly; his stories had a syncopation and an internal structure which was almost musical. To read about our own mortality is provocative and unsettling; to read about it set to music is profound.
So it is that We Happy Few made a good choice to invoke the work of Poe for this Halloween, and made a second good choice to invoke it as a radio play, so that we can drink in the music of Poe’s words. I’ve seen stage adaptations of Poe’s stories, and they’ve varied in quality, but none could evoke as much horror as my imagination could, just by reading the words. I bet it’s that way for you, too.
In episode one of We Happy Few’s two-episode Poeanalia, we hear two short stories – “The Masque of the Red Death” and “A Cask of Amontillado” – interspersed with three short poems: “The Conqueror Worm”, “The Bells” and “The Spirits of the Dead.”
Of the two stories, the latter is more familiar but the former is more horrifying, because of our present condition. Consider how it starts, and see if it reminds you of anything.
“The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the madness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.”
Let’s move to the initiating incident, and see if it strikes any bells.
“But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys…In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think.”
This is the story of what happens to those who don’t respect the power of an infectious disease, and if you chose to take it as a metaphor, be my guest. In fact, had Poe written it today, you might think he was being a little heavy-handed.
He wrote it in 1842, though.
You have probably read “Amontillado”, which is a standard selection in most high school English texts. While “Red Death” is by and large a continuous – and elegantly done – narration by Desirée Chappelle, in “Amontillado” Kerry McGee takes the part of Montresor while Alex Turner assumes the role of the hapless, drunken Fortunato. We never learn what Fortunato did to provoke Montresor’s lunatic rage, or her extravagant revenge, but McGee every moment allows us to hear the sheer joy in her voice as she contemplates Fortunato’s horrific death. Turner’s Fortunato is exceedingly obnoxious, and if someone slapped his face you might be secretly pleased. But not with what ultimately happens to him.
McGee’s delivery of Montresor’s penultimate line – the one which puts the story’s action into perspective – lands with the wallop of a Deontay Wilder punch.
Though this is a good production, co-directors Brigid Grace Sheaff and Robert Pike have larded the stories with so many sound effects that the story is in danger of becoming a sound zoo; at some points it approaches self-parody. Here’s one example: in “Red Death” the narrator describes the various costumes the revelers are wearing during the Prince’s great ball.
“There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”
In this production, there is a separate sound effect after every single descriptor – one after “beautiful”, one after “wanton”, one after “bizarre”, one after “terrible” and one after “disgust” – as if we didn’t know what these things were, and needed the help of a sound designer to suss them out.
Look, Poe was not a subtle writer. He provoked the imagination in exactly the way he wanted to provoke it, and the passage of a hundred and eighty years, more or less, has not obscured his meaning. The production has not yet figured out how to use Pike’s and Tosin Olufulabi’s sound design to enhance the production, rather than distract from it.——–
A Midnight Dreary, Episode 1, will continue to be available January 19. Episode 2, which includes “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Premature Burial”, will become available October 28.
Tickets: $10. Additional box of extras $10. Time: 40 minutes. Tickets here.
A Midnight Dreary, Episode 1: All Things Heard in the Heavens and the Earth, a reading of selected works of Edgar Allan Poe, including “The Conqueror Worm”, “The Bells”, “Spirits of the Dead”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, and “A Cask of Amontillado”, directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff and Robert Pike . Featuring Paige O’Malley, Desirée Chappelle, Kerry McGee and Alex Turner . Sound design by Robert Pike and Tosin Olufolabi . The production manager is Sam Reilly . Produced by We Happy Few . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.