Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of our upcoming September show Raven-Winged Hours, is one of America's most famous and mysterious writers. In the process of researching his life, we have discovered so many interesting tidbits that we decided we wanted to start blogging again to share them with you all. We've called it Poe-Me Monday because we can never resist a pun, and because, honestly, don't we all feel that way on Mondays?
This first blog is going to be mostly about the challenges of adapting Poe's writing into a script format. If you have read Poe's work, you know that most of his stories happen from a narrator's perspective. A huge part of the action that takes place within the stories usually happens only in the narrator's mind, and there is often very little external action or dialog.
From a theatrical adaptation standpoint, this is a big challenge, because audiences typically like some action happening in their plays (go figure). They like people interacting and talking and things happening that they can see. To prove how large a challenge this is, go out and look for Edgar Allen Poe Theatrical Adaptations. You will quickly realize, as we did when initially searching for a script for this show, that there are a lot of, ahem... questionable Poe adaptations out there
So naturally, when we can't find what we want, we decide to write our own. Here is a little peek into the view of our writing process for one of the lesser-known pieces in our script for Raven-Winged Hours called The Oval Portrait.
The Oval Portrait is a very short story where a young gentleman and his valet encounter a very lifelike portrait in an old chateau on a dark and stormy night. The beginning of The Oval Portrait establishes the setup of the story. In Poe's words:
"THE chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance, it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique."
Well, that's a great story if you are reading it, but from a playwriting standpoint, you would much rather have the audience see it happening. The first thing that catches our imagination is when Poe says "my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance" and we let our imagination fly on that image.
(The lights dim, and storm lighting and noises come up. A dark figure throws his shoulder against the door with a loud grunt, once, twice, and then the door bursts open.
VALET: Thank God! (he staggers to a prone figure behind him and tries to lift them.)
The next piece of Poe's text that catches our attention is the completion of the same sentence.
"The chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air."
"Wounded condition" sparks a plethora of questions. Wounded? Why is he wounded? What happened? Is he a soldier? Does his valet serve with him? How would a caring servant react to his master being so desperately ill that it requires breaking and entering to find him a warm, dry place to sleep? Once again we let our imagination freely interpret what the Valet might be thinking that causes him to break down an unsuspecting door.
VALET: Sir, Are you still with me? If you die on me, your Father will have me clapped up for murder in a trice. (He helps the figure across the threshold and finds a chair for the gentleman to slump in fussing the whole time. He then runs back out for the luggage)
Playwriting tip: Mentioning murder in the first paragraph is usually a good hook. :)
VALET: Never mind that this trip wasn’t my idea. Never mind that all I wanted to do was stay in that last tavern with a lovely warm pie, a glass in my hand, and a pretty girl to flirt with. (He begins to strip the gentleman of his coat and tries to help dry and warm him with towels from the luggage that he’s tossed in after the GENTLEMAN.
Now we run into a bit of a problem with the "Wounded condition" because we'd really like this character not to be stuck in bed for weeks but rather be able to interact later in the story, plus we don't want to explain how he was wounded or where because it isn't germane to the story. How about if he is sick instead? Most of us get sick and push ourselves beyond our limits. That's something everyone can relate to.
VALET: But, Oh no, the master must be off on some fool’s errand, feverish and well-nigh dead from the ague.
Hah! Fixed it and with a great old-fashioned word for sickness. Moving on. Now where do we go? Well, we probably need to get the Gentleman to respond so the audience knows he isn't dead. We might as well go for a little humor if possible because, let's be frank, most of Poe's writing is a downer.
GENTLEMAN: I can hear you, you know. I assure you that I am no more than half-dead.
VALET: But wholly a fool to ride out sick into a storm.
Great, we've now established the setup of a sick young gentleman riding out into a storm; but, would a servant really talk like that to his master? Hmm... We better address that as well.
GENTLEMAN: Remind me why exactly I keep you on as a servant.
VALET: Possibly because this isn’t the first time I’ve saved your life.
GENTLEMAN: Possibly you are right about that.
VALET: An occasional thank you wouldn’t go amiss.
Now that we have them in the building in an exciting entrance and a little dryly funny dialog, where do we go from here? Well, let's go back to Poe's words for a moment.
"To all appearance, it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique."
So we need to get them to a bedroom...
GENTLEMAN: Jackson, you will have every bit of thanks that my worthless self can offer if you can find me a bed in this ruin. Even a bit of floor with a stray cushion would do, for I find myself quite desperate to recline in the arms of Morpheus now that I’ve managed to escape Hades' clutches.
JACKSON: Well, If we’re to find a bed, it’s not likely to be in the foyer if I know anything about households. Think you might manage some stairs, Master Robert?
ROBERT: The floor is looking better by the moment.
JACKSON: Come on, sir. Up you go. That’s it. Just a bit farther and then you can rest.
(The lights change as they stagger into a dark, tattered bedroom. Jackson helps his master over to the bed.)
JACKSON: Here you are, sir. You just lie there a bit while I see if I can find a candle or two. (he turns away looking in the dresser while Robert gasps for breath.)
This part of the script has lots of fun stuff in it. We finally get to learn these characters' names. How do you come up with names for the characters, one might ask? Well, we first mined Poe's other stories for names that seemed to fit, and then when we didn't find exactly what we wanted we looked at the people in Poe's life and found some names there that we liked. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has amazing online records about Poe's life and the people in it. You can visit them and be completely fascinated at https://www.eapoe.org/index.htm.
Now that we finally have our characters in the gloomy bedroom that Poe described, we only have to get them to see the portrait and then we can move on with the story.
JACKSON: There we go. We have light, now all we need is an honest man.
ROBERT: You’re no Diogenes, my friend. (He points to the corner of the room) Who’s that?!
(Jackson spins with deadly intent, but is brought up short by the sight before him)
JACKSON: God’s blood, Master Robert, you near scared me half to death.
ROBERT: But who is that woman in the corner?
JACKSON: It’s just a portrait, sir. Here let me bring the light closer. Can you see the oval frame on it now?
ROBERT: She looks so alive. I could have sworn for a moment she was standing there watching us.
Hurray! The setup is complete and now we can move on to the meat of the story. Oh but, for that you'll have to come and see the show.
As a writer who adapts scripts, you have to have a good internal ear for words and patterns that your original author uses in order to make additions that don't call attention to themselves. Dialog is particularly tricky because it is very easy for modern writers to let modern language creep into places where it has no business being. We had to edit this dialog to remove several things like "in a hot minute" which got replaced with "in a trice." You also need to pay attention to the unique characteristics of the original author's writing. Edgar Allan Poe was extensively classically educated and loved to fill his writings with classical allusion. In this small imagination of ours, we have included three classical allusions in his honor. One's even an in-joke to our Cyrano production. Can you find them all?
Our auditions for Raven-Winged Hours will be May 6-8. Find out more here.
Visit us here again next week for more Poe-Me Mondays.
Winterhalter’s ‘Portrait of a Lady (believed to be Louise Freiin von Freystedt, Comtesse Olympe Aguado (1834-98)’