I am a grave poetic hen
That lays poetic eggs
And to enhance my temperament
A little quiet begs.
We make the yolk philosophy,
True beauty the albumen.
And then gum on a shell of form
To make the screed sound human.
-- Ezra Pound, "Statement of Being"
Young or inexperienced playwrights are drawn to stories about misunderstood artists and writers as surely as tornadoes are drawn to a trailer park, and in both cases, disaster generally follows. Early plays about writers (real or imagined) most often fall into two categories: personal rituals, wherein the playwright projects his ego on the main character who begs for love and understanding; and camouflage, wherein the author uses the words and ideas of a well-known writer secretly hoping to garner favorable comparisons to the source. Mercifully, playwright Sean O'Leary has successfully navigated past this literary Scylla and Charybdis, to give us Pound, a remarkably straightforward work about Ezra Pound's last days in St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Pound puts its focus on people rather than poetry, and Playwrights' Forum, an organization dedicated to the staging of new and original works, has done an admirable job of bringing this unassuming gem to the stage.
Ezra Pound is an infuriating figure. His writing, considered to be the cornerstone of modernist verse, is willfully difficult, often elitist, and deeply affected by the Confucist principle "A place for everything, and everything in its place." As an American expatriate in Italy, Pound saw his ordered aesthetic reflected in the politics of Mussolini, and his nascent anti-Semitism was stoked by Hitler's purging of the Jews. During WWII, the esteemed poet, musician, and literary critic created stirring newspaper articles and radio broadcasts supporting fascism, anti-Semitism, and a host of evils. After the war, he was arrested, branded a traitor and mental deficient, and shipped off to St. E's until he was sane enough to be tried and hanged. If not for a cadre of American literary figures such as Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish, it's possible that Pound, whose literary achievements turned even Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg into an unlikely apologist, would have never been released.
O'Leary's play begins in the final days of Pound's incarceration as an ambitious young psychiatrist with a secret agenda tries to "cure" the poet before releasing him back into the world.
Jim Palmer, a consistent, sometimes extraordinary actor, is on fire this go-round. He doesn't seem comfortable in the poet's skin during the play's first quarter-hour, but by intermission he's become Ezra Pound. His madness, like that of Shakespeare's Hamlet, is filled with method, wicked contempt, and snatches of surprising compassion. He is megalomaniacal; better than his faults but ruined by them.
After learning of his imminent release, Pound panics. His admirers have flocked to St. E's for a dozen years, turning the poet into the central exhibit in the museum of his mind, and he's afraid that the real world, full of dangerous responsibility, will kill him. In his terror he agrees, for the first time in a dozen years, to participate in his therapy.
Laurie Cook Macintosh isn't to blame if her character, psychologist Mary Polly, seems more a creature of function than flesh and blood. To her credit, Macintosh takes an interesting but underdeveloped character and makes her tough as tiger meat. Polly thinks Pound must be destroyed to be remade, and her rhetoric quickly grows as troublesome as the poet's own political views. As Macintosh and Palmer throw down in a psychological cage match, two unsympathetic characters grow into infinitely pitiable beasts. And there are no winners, only survivors.
Serving as a kind of chorus, Robert Macintosh (Laurie's husband) and Jo Lynn Palmer (Jim's wife) play Nurse Priscomb and poet Archibald MacLeish. They give the play a coolly intellectual and purely sentimental voice to counter the anger at its core.
As a play, Pound is as conventional as its namesake was radical, and while I might normally knock a playwright for not being more abstract with a character so closely associated with the birth of modernism, it's hard to imagine a more engaging means of addressing the subject matter. Director Marler Stone has taken an "invisible hand" approach, never once imposing himself or inserting his ideas or editorial comment about the characters. As Pound wrote in an unheralded poem, "Statement of Being," the screed has been made human.
Most plays addressing racists and racism are intended to be thought-provoking, but most quickly devolve into platitudes. Not so with Pound. It replaces message with mystery and requires viewers to carry on with the dialogue long after the curtain's come down.
At TheatreWorks through October 22nd