Poe-Me Monday: The Tell-Tale Heart
Updated: Apr 25
Once upon a Monday dreary, while I pondered weak and weary...
It's time for another Poe-Me Monday and this time we're taking you behind the scenes of our process of adapting The Tell-Tale Heart. As with many of Edgar Allan Poe's works, The Tell-Tale Heart takes place primarily in the narrator's mind in the story's most moving and active parts. This story was adapted by Jennifer Rose Davis and Adriana Fontánez so when we say "we" that's who is being referred to.
In Poe's original version, the story begins like this:
"True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story"
For us as writers, this is a little abrupt though certainly engaging. Who is speaking at this moment? Perhaps we could meet this character before they tell us their story?
We made the early decision to use Edgar Allan Poe as a through character in our script because he is fascinating and someone that anyone who loves literature would love to spend some time with. We thought we could have Poe meet this character for us, but we need something that incites this meeting and connects Poe with this character. We found a marvelous quote from Poe‘s short story The Assignation which was published in 1834 to use as a bridge.
EDGAR POE: Who does not remember that, at such time as this, the eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow, and sees in innumerable far-off places, the woe which is close at hand?
DAUGHTER (coming out of the darkness): The eye of a vulture.
Excellent. Now we are talking about eyes and the main motivation of the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart. We made the choice to make the narrator female instead of male and make the old man her elderly father because it provides some terrific subtextual motivation for the violence inherent in the story which you'll see as we go along.
POE (looking up): What’s that? DAUGHTER (she comes to sit opposite of him): Such a pale, cold blue...That eye you hold. It was like the old man’s eye. Whenever it looked upon me, I tell you, my blood ran cold. POE (fascinated): Who are you? DAUGHTER: A woman. A daughter. I could be anyone, really. You would see me on the street and think, there goes a completely ordinary young woman with absolutely nothing to distinguish her except that she seems nervous. POE: And are you? DAUGHTER (half smiling): A woman?
What a delight to have a character introduce themselves! This concept was inspired by the wonderful movie The Man Who Invented Christmas which does a great job of representing a writer's chaotic mind. But do go on, dear, and tell us who you are.
DAUGHTER: Yes. Dreadfully nervous. I’ve been so since my childhood. Nervousness is a disease that sharpens the senses, not destroys, or dulls them. Above all, my sense of hearing is acute. Sometimes, I think I hear all things in heaven and in earth. I hear the clock ticking in another room. I hear the beetles clicking in the walls. I hear the rats running underneath the floorboards. Does that make me sound mad?
And just like that we have come full circle back to Poe's original text. We've smoothed out the language slightly and added some wonderful visuals that appear later in the text of the story here to make it even more obvious that all is not well with this character.
OK, now let's take another look at Poe's original text with his second paragraph in the story.
"It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold, I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever."
Now this paragraph has lots of good stuff in it. We stole a bit of it for the first conversation that the daughter has with Poe (did you notice?). We'll use the rest of it, but we'd love to give these people a little more context before we jump straight into planning a murder. So we let our imaginations fly to create a scene of what it would be like to be a daughter caught under her father's vulture eye.
DAUGHTER: Does that make me sound mad?
POE (eagerly): Are you mad? Tell me more. DAUGHTER (slyly): Could I be mad when I can sit here and talk to you so calmly? Listen and observe how ordered and composed I am as I tell you my story.
Lights up on the side stage. There is a bed and a table with 3 chairs (bedroom/cardroom). THE FATHER sits at the table playing solitaire. He wears a robe and has a blanket over his lap. The DAUGHTER leaves POE and melts into the scene. On the table are the cards, an untouched bowl of porridge, and an unfinished cup of tea.
THE FATHER rings a bell.
DAUGHTER: Coming, Father! --how can I help? FATHER: My old bones are troubling me. Would you make me another of your tonics? I found that last one soothing. DAUGHTER: Of course, I can make something up for you this afternoon.
FATHER: The porridge is cold again. You know I prefer it warm.
DAUGHTER: Yes, it was warm when I set the table a little while ago.
FATHER: I was tired this morning, so I slept late. DAUGHTER: As well you should. Your well-being is most important. Let me get you some more tea. (Hesitantly...) I was thinking--Might I visit your sister in Richmond for a few days? We could use supplies. I’m low on the herbs that I use for your tonics, and it’s much harder and more expensive to get them here. FATHER: How long would you be gone? DAUGHTER: A week? Perhaps two at most. I could take-- FATHER: A week? Are you mad? And who would care for me while you are gallivanting around Richmond? Who would cook for me? DAUGHTER: Our neighbor said she could look in on you --
FATHER: Mrs. Landor is an old, nosy busybody, and her cooking’s atrocious. It’s amazing that her husband is still living after eating what she produces on a daily basis. How can you think of leaving me all alone? Did I raise you to be so selfish? DAUGHTER (quietly): Of course not.
This whole scene is a flight of fancy, but it makes these people actual human beings who have a relationship with each other. It possibly even gives you a little sympathy for the devil, or the murderer in this case. And now we are back to Poe's second paragraph slightly smoothed over.
Back to EDGAR POE in Library. DAUGHTER: I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold, I had no desire. But, it was his eye. Yes, it was this. One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture. A pale blue eye with a film over it. It is impossible to say how the first idea entered my brain, but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. My blood ran cold whenever the eye was full upon mine; and so by degrees, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
There's more, naturally, but you'll have to wait to see how it ends. We can't wait to see some daughters and fathers together at our auditions which are coming up on May 6-8. For more info about auditions click here.
Join us here next Monday for more behind-the-scenes action.