Warning: some spoilerish commentary below…
The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe is a catchy title, but a more accurate one might be “The Attempted Assassination of Poe’s Legacy.” Beginning in limbo, with Poe offered a choice between surcease of sorrow and literary immortality, Devon and John Armstrong’s immersive theatrical production cleverly combines elements of A Christmas Carol, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Tamara (the great grand dame of immersive walking plays); there may even be echos of Amadeus and The Crucible (though we could be stretching a point here).
Staged on the grounds of the Heritage Square Museum, the play takes viewers time-travelling into Poe’s tragic past, portrayed in vignettes occurring simultaneously in and around various Victorian mansions. The question on the table is whether Poe was a victim of circumstance or of his own self-destructive impulses. Based on that answer, Poe will decide whether to repent or to embrace the suffering that inspired his greatest artistic achievements. Is it better to lead a tranquil life and be forgotten or to live in misery and become (figuratively) immortal?
The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe Review: Narrative Labyrinth
The immersive experience of The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe begins before the play itself, when audience members arrive at Heritage Square Museum and find a locked entrance with a sign indicating that the gates to Baltimore will open at 7:30pm. At the appointed time, a character in period costume unlocks the gate and begins checking names. Inside, you are given a hooded cloak, which helps you feel like a participant even while maintaining a certain anonymity – a (mostly) invisible observer.
First, you encounter John Allan, Poe’s stepfather, who importunes you to speak to his wife, giving him an alibi for last night; he claims to have been meeting a business acquaintance who has left town, but Mrs. Allan has reason to believe he was with another woman. Though Allan’s affairs will afford a point of recrimination for his stepson to use against him later, this vignette is not so much a plot point as a scene-setter, easing the audience into the experience.
After the scene with the Mr. and Mrs. Allan, you are directed toward the church at the far end of Heritage Square, where Poe lies as if in death, awakened by a pair of characters, Moran and Griswold, who offer competing interpretations of his life, leading to salvation or immortality of a sort, depending on which of them he chooses to believe. Whether he – or we – should believe either is an open question, as (in real life) both men promulgated several falsehoods about Poe after his death.
The rest of the play consists of Moran and Griswold presenting scenes from Poe’s life meant to sway the author rather like Scrooge in Dickens’ famous story of redemption. They lead the audience to different locations where the action is taking place, acting like story guides in the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival. There is a difference, however; unlike Wicked Lit, which assigns its audience to a guide, The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe is more akin to Tamara, inviting its audience to choose which scenes to view, creating a sort of narrative labyrinth in which each viewer’s experience may be quite different. The challenge of this approach is that fragments the dramatic through-line; the play addresses this by staging key scenes outside the church, with everyone present.
An additional challenge is that it involves much perambulating around Heritage Square. Though the church is used as a “central’ hub around which the action takes place, it is actually located at near the far end of the grounds, which means that, depending on which scenes you visit, you could end up hiking back and forth over the almost entire length of the gravel walkway several times. This in itself is not particularly daunting, but seating is at a minimum, and the historically preserved Victorian mansions are not equipped with modern air-conditioning, so you may end up standing in some rather stuffy rooms while the actors do their best to engage your fatigued mind and body.
The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe Review: Post-Modern Poe
The majority of the vignettes detail incidents from Poe’s life: an argument with his stepfather, a proposal to a wealthy widow, a physical altercation with Griswold. However, the most interesting is less about his life than his art, illuminating the literary techniques he used to achieve the dramatic effects in his stories. We see condensed adaptations of “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Imp of the Perverse,” the latter of which is repeatedly interrupted by a young version of Poe, explaining that he is inverting the tradition template laid down by Aristotle, starting with what would normally be the catharsis (the criminal captured), focusing not on the apprehension of the guilty but rather the character’s state of mind, which provides insight the darker side of everyone’s psyche.
The result feels very much like a theatrical version of John Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse,” in which the author repeatedly interrupts the narrative to explain three-act structure, rising tension, and other techniques, which the story is either using or subverting. It’s a fascinating post-modern approach to Poe’s work, illuminating intriguing insights that would remain elusive in a straight-forward dramatic reenactment.
The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe Review: Conclusion
The details of Poe’s tragic life have been covered so often and at such great length that The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe at first seems to be treading over well-worn ground. Ultimately, however, the play is less about the author’s life than his legacy, asking questions about whether misery and suffering truly are required to inspire genius – and if this is true, is it worth the price?
Rather like Jesus in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Poe must decide whether to embrace his suffering and achieve literary immortality or wipe away the past in order to achieve peace. That decision plays out rather like John Proctor’s refusal relent in The Crucible – a self-destructive form of moral courage in which a character stays true to himself rather than surrender to an easy way out.
From our modern perspective, it is perhaps too easy to take Poe’s legacy for granted, but for a time that legacy was in doubt, thanks to Griswold, who (here portrayed like an envious Salieri) did everything he could to defame the author after his death, hoping to turn the public away with tales of a drunken madman. Ironically, the result was the opposite of that intended, creating the myth of the tortured artist who poured his pain onto the page, creating work that has endured the test of time.
Though viewers may occasionally feel lost in the labyrinth of The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe‘s multiple story lines, ultimately these forking paths converge onto a supremely satisfying catharsis that make the journey worthwhile. Poe is neither white-washed nor black-balled, but his work endures for our benefit, inspiring interpretations and reinterpretations – including this very play itself. You may know the facts of Poe’s life, but here they are shaped and molded into something new that makes sense out of what might seem senseless tragedy. Is great art worth the cost of suffering – not only for Poe but for those around him? As his wife Virginia explains: “If you want to live well, marry a banker. If you want to live forever, marry a poet.”
The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe Rating
2. Some Redeeming Qualities
4. Highly Recommended
5. Must See
This immersive play’s multiple story lines may frustrate those seeking a straight-forward narrative, but the forking paths ultimately converge on a satisfying conclusion that celebrates Poe’s literary legacy.
Credits: A Downtown Repertory Theatre Production. Written by Devon Armstrong and John Armstrong. Directed by Devon Armstrong. Produced by Val Beidelman, John Armstrong, Devon Armstrong. Costume Design by Val Beidelman, Stage Manageer: Sue Lee. Lighting: Chai Cohen. Cast: Chanel Castaneda, John Fantasia, Jon Deline, Ian Temple PJ Diaz, Garrick Le Winter, Nick Abrell, Melody Ricketts, Devin McGregor Ketko, Kristin Rogers, Dylan Diehl, Kelley Williams, Andrew Walker, Matt JJ Miller, Kathleen Cecchin, Kerr Lordygan.
The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe concludes its run at the Heritage Square Museum with three performances on August 16, 17 & 18, all starting at 7:30pm. For more information, visit: downtownrep.com.