Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Poe Bicentennial

2009 is a big year for horror's Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday!

Last night I drove up to Baltimore for the first night of the Poe birthday celebration, held every year at Westminster Hall, the former church where Poe is buried. (More information can be had at the Poe Bicentennial site....a few tickets are still available for the shows on 1/31 and 2/1.)

I've been doing this for years, and last night was blissfully easy driving conditions. I've gone up in snow and sleet and freezing rain, and it's a damn miracle I haven't been killed doing this. Last night, it was just bitter cold, but I was warm when I took my place in line. I dressed up a bit for the shoes, black slacks, black silk shirt, black cashmere sport coat, and the capper, a big black wool cape (Bosnian military surplus) that I rarely get to wear except to cold-weather occasions like this.

Westminster Hall was all lit up and ready for the fun; they were opening early because of the cold, for which I was thankful. Inside, there were several vendors set up, including official souvenirs from the Poe House, official Poe Bicentennial t-shirts, glasses and knickknacks from the Raven Beer company, more t-shirts from the Poe Decoder, a refreshment table, a stand from the Postal Service selling Poe stamps and commemorative envelopes, and an exhibit of Poe memorabilia from the Poe Society of Baltimore. There was also a gorgeous, gorgeous cake, a perfect scale model of the Poe monument (pictured above, a few autumns ago), that was being raffled off. I didn't even enter; I'd want to eat the whole thing myself and I need to lose weight!

There was also a lovely little shrine to Poe; a white bust of him, looking down sadly, as if under a great weight, and draped in black. It was wreathed with lilies and had a pair of candles and a bouquet of red and white roses before it. It was lovely in its 19th century-ness and I wish I had a picture. (The Poe show bars photography, so I didn't take my camera, but that didn't stop other members of the audience...)

I had a very good seat, second row, and a great view of the stage. But I browsed around, buying way too many souvenirs (including a sheet of Poe stamps...which I WILL use), looking at the exhibits, and people-watching. The crowd ranged from local folks in jeans to others decked out in 19th century costume, and anything in between. It was entertaining, to say the least. I also had two books of Poe stashed in the cape pockets, so I sat and read some poems while waiting, in between madly scribbling notes in my little notebook.

Finally, the show started. Poe museum director Jeff Jerome (Hi, Jeff!) was the master of ceremonies, and the first event was the official Baltimore unveiling of the new Poe stamp. Baltimore Postmaster Bill Ridenour gave a quick speech, but it was all rather sarcastic since the stamp has received a huge amount of publicity already, and had been previously unveiled elsewhere, and many of us had purchased sheets of the stamps before the show. Still, it was the official unveiling for Baltimore, so it was fun.

Then, local soprano Paula McCabe rose and sang an arrangement of Poe's poem "Annabel Lee," which was lovely. After that was a dramatization of "Hop Frog," told in a blackly comical way with life-sized puppets. It wasn't entirely faithful to the story, having a different ending, but it fit the tone they were doing. In the end I found it reminiscent of the "Struwwelpeter" tales by Heinrich Hoffmann.

This was followed by local actor Tony Tsendeas doing his one-man version of "The Tell-Tale Heart," an old favorite. I've seen him do this at previous celebrations. He does his makeup and costume onstage, giving a little talk as he does about establishing the character. Then he launches into his recitation, which is most effective.

After an intermission, an old desk and chair were placed on the stage area, and John Astin (yes, John Astin, as in Gomez Addams, that John Astin) ascended. He read Poe's poem "Alone," then the short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Then he launched into his own explorations of Poe's poetry and its relation to Poe's relationships with the women in his life. It was interesting to hear his discussion of how "The Raven," for instance, was an expression of Poe's fear of his wife's impending death. He also recited "El Dorado" as an expression of Poe's resiliency and determination to make it as a writer.

Then Jeff Jerome returned to the stage, and led the traditional toast to Poe. Paula McCabe took the stage again to close the show, singing "Amazing Grace" and "Auld Lang Syne."

It was a lovely evening, and the weather held up. Although the show was sold out, there were some empty seats, largely because of an inauguration event in Baltimore the same day. There were dire reports of the city being lost in gridlock, but aside from a few street closings, I had no problems getting up there or back. I did kind of wish for a bit of snow; one year I remember looking out a window at the snow falling on the graves in the ridiculously gothic graveyard outside, a scene so evocative and peaceful that it's lingered in my head for years.

As I left, I stopped by Poe's grave to pay my respects. I had thought of reading his poem "Spirits of the Dead" there but there were too many people milling about. Maybe some other time.

It was a great evening, wonderful Gothick entertainment. Tonight's show drops "Hop-Frog" and "Tell-Tale Heart" for a dramatization of "Some Words with a Mummy," which sounds fun, and if anyone wants to report on that, please do.

More stuff is planned for the Poe Bicentennial...check out Nevermore2009 for future events, including a public Poe funeral in October.

Poe's real birthday is the 19th; we'll see when the Poe Toaster makes his appearance. One of these years I'll apply to be a watcher in the church; that would be too much fun.


david ettlin said...

Nice account. Looks like we attended the same program, opening night. Here's my take on the event:


Vagrarian said...

Sweeeet....your take on it is fun. Thanks for stopping by.