Edgar Allan Poe was born in January of 1811 to one of the oldest and most respected families in Baltimore, Maryland. He was descended from heroes of the American Revolution and, even further back, British naval luminaries. This sounds like an auspicious beginning to a literary life, but alas, every detail was an invention of Poe’s fertile imagination. He was actually born in Boston in 1809, the child of travelling actors.
The confusion wrought by Poe’s self-mythologizing was compounded when, following his 1849 death, his literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, published portraits of the writer that were as damning as they were fictitious.
Imagine the difficulty, then, of attempting to construct a narrative based on Poe’s life 160 years later. That was the challenge faced by Jonathan Christenson, artistic director of Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre, when creating Nevermore, a “musical fable” inspired by the author of “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
“I’d read a couple of different biographies, and what was becoming clear was that not only did he constantly reinvent his story of who he had been and was, but the people around him were doing the same,” Christenson says in a telephone interview. “And then of course the passage of time since then has done nothing but further obscure the sense of who the man really was. There was something in that that took me back to the ultimate unknowability of any man, really. In the case of Poe, his sense of reality was one that really blurred the lines between what he was imagining, what he was writing about, and what he was actually living.”
Christenson says that his purpose with Nevermore (which plays at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage from January 21 to February 6 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival) is not to provide theatregoers with a definitive biography of its subject, but to use Poe’s story as the starting point for an exploration of the various ways in which the real intersects with the imagined. The play weaves details of Poe’s life and motifs from his stories and poems into a surrealistic narrative, told in verse and sung by the actors.
“As the piece unfolds, it becomes clear that this isn’t in any way suggesting that this is a real source for the material,” Christenson says. “It’s very much a celebration, in a way, of the imaginative possibilities of any given moment from his life.”
Some of those moments were profoundly heartbreaking. Poe’s father abandoned his wife and three children in 1810, and his mother died the following year, leaving two-year-old Edgar and his siblings to be parcelled out to different families. Throughout the remainder of his short life, Poe battled the bottle and the wolves at his door, and death was never far away. His wife, Virginia, was taken by tuberculosis at 24, and the writer himself died at 40 under mysterious circumstances. Little wonder that much of Poe’s work deals with bleak and morbid themes, or that he is invariably portrayed as a dour, tragic figure.
Christenson notes, however, that Poe was as skilled at satire as he was at illuminating the darker corners of the human mind. “I wanted to make sure we brought that into the work as well,” the playwright and composer says. “It’s tricky. Because he’s such a tortured guy, it could easily become this angst-ridden journey into Poe’s psyche, as if he were this entirely humourless individual. I hope he wasn’t. He isn’t in this version.”
Just as Nevermore avoids straightforward biography in its telling, the overall aesthetic strays from a strict depiction of 19th-century America. Clips on Catalyst’s YouTube page reveal that the production’s music, set design, and wardrobe combine period details with modern elements. Bretta Gerecke’s costumes, in particular, blend prim Victorian tailoring with wildly imaginative gothic flourishes, resulting in pieces that resemble something out of a Tim Burton film.
“I think it’s a good comparison,” Christenson acknowledges. “I have to confess, we’ve had a number of people say that, and we’ve gotten a bit gun-shy about it, just because a couple people have used it in a derogatory way. But yes, I can see the Tim Burton thing for sure in it. I love Tim Burton’s work. I think he’s an amazing visual artist. I think one of the things about Burton that I love is that he brings that kind of storybook or fairy-tale quality to a lot of the material that he addresses. That’s something that we’re really interested in doing too.”
Christenson and his colleagues captured just that quality in their last production, Frankenstein, one of the hits of 2008’s PuSh festival. While Christenson says he’d hate to get pigeonholed as a creator of fantastically macabre theatrical works, he offers no apologies for his fascination with writers such as Poe and Mary Shelley.
“I hope that I’ve got more in me than just being purely gothic,” he says. “But what I’ve discovered through the last two shows is that there’s something really interesting about the horror genre. It really subverts our sense that everything is as it should be, and that our lives are in order and we’re in control. I just think there’s such hubris in the notion that we’re able to shape not only our own lives, but those of the world around us. Fate’s always going to throw a wrench in the works.”
Watch a preview of Catalyst Theatre's Nevermore.