Once upon a Monday dreary as I pondered weak and weary...
It's time for another Poe-Me Monday. Today we are taking another look at the challenge of how to turn the rich narrative experiences of Poe's writing into something that we experience more viscerally.
We'll be taking another example from our adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. We are focusing on the scene where the old man with the vulture eye is finally attacked. Here is our source material from Poe's story:
"Upon the eighth night, I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers — of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea, and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back — but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out — “Who’s there?”
I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening; — just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall."
Well, that works if you want to have your character narrate the approach as she does it, but what if you want to show the audience what happens rather than telling them what happens?
Early on in the development of this script, at our first workshop reading in fact, a suggestion was made that we might use a Greek chorus as a tool to externalize the inward musings of our characters. Adriana Fontánez decided to experiment with that idea for the first time in this scene:
DAUGHTER: (To Poe) Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers--of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph.
Slowly moving to FATHER’S room
DAUGHTER: To think that here I am, opening your door, little by little, and you don’t even dream of my secret thoughts or deeds. (She lets out a chuckle.)
(THE FATHER moves in bed as if startled. The DAUGHTER freezes, but then slowly continues her motion in the cover of darkness. She slowly raises the lantern as last time, but her thumb slips on the tin fastening. THE FATHER springs up in bed.)
FATHER: Who’s there?
So far so good. Right in line with Poe's Text just slimmed down and speeded up. Now comes the exciting part. Here is our source material from Poe's story:
"Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief — oh, no! — it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself — “It is nothing but the wind in the chimney — it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “it is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel — although he neither saw nor heard — to feel the presence of my head within the room."
This paragraph becomes a choral call and response that magnifies the old man's emotions:
(The DAUGHTER stays still and says nothing. THE FATHER is still sitting and begins to moan from fear. The CHORUS slowly enters from the darkness and lingers behind the bed just barely visible.)
CHORUS: It is the groan of mortal terror. FATHER: It is nothing but the wind in the chimney. CHORUS: Your fears are growing upon you. FATHER: It is only a mouse crossing the floor. CHORUS: You cannot fancy them causeless. FATHER: It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp. CHORUS: You try to comfort yourself in vain because Death approaches. He stalks with his black shadow and envelops you.
(FATHER continues to sit petrified, DAUGHTER slowly opens the lantern as before. The thin ray falls upon the vulture eye. Distant drumbeat begins.)
DAUGHTER: And now have I not told you that what you mistake for insanity is but over acuteness of the senses? I know this sound well, too. It is the beating of the old man’s heart.
Pretty wild, hmm? Wait till you see the rest of it. The last chance to sign up for auditions is this week. Join us this weekend and be a part of the magic at https://www.theaterforms.com/ArchiveTheater/Raven-WingedHours/auditionform/ .