There is no evidence that reclusive Emily Dickinson and master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe ever met. But that did not stop Joseph McDonough from introducing them to each other in his two-character play, aptly titled Edgar & Emily, receiving its world premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks beginning Saturday, March 31.
“I mean, I did my research and I think everything I talk about in the play is true, other than the fact that the entire action of the play didn’t happen,” says the playwright puckishly.
McDonough had already done lots of research on Dickinson, since he had written another play with a character who was a scholar whose specialty was the New England poetess. “So I already had Emily Dickinson on the brain and then somehow Poe popped in my head. And I thought, ‘Wow, they had a lot of things in common artistically. An obsession with the enormity of living and also an obsession with death. And an obsession with the artistic soul – things like that.’
“And then I thought, ‘He’s this wild man and she’s this reclusive spinster type. What would happen if you put them in the same room?’” The results, it turns out, are broadly comic. “It’s a comedy because they’re so different, but the drama comes from the ways that they discover that they are the same,” explains McDonough. “This is not a docudrama by any means. I wanted to kind of surprise the audience. I don’t think they’ll be coming in thinking ‘comedy.’”
Poe and Dickinson’s lives did overlap, but Edgar & Emily takes place 14 years after Poe’s death. Why? “I decided that I wanted to get them in the same room together and it wouldn’t make sense to do it when Emily was only 19,” says McDonough. “So it’s set when she was at a crossroads in her life when she was well into her 30s, which was considered old, especially for those days.”
Dickinson is at the point in her life “when she is making the decision to stay in,” notes Bill Hayes, Dramaworks’ producing artistic director, who helped develop Edgar & Emily and will be directing its mainstage premiere. “Poe helps her to make that decision.”
For Poe to be alive at that point, McDonough did bend the truth a little. “For my play, he didn’t really die when we think he did,” he explains. “He escaped death in a real Edgar Allan Poe sort of way, with a lot of elements from his stories. He was buried alive when we think he dies, but he was actually able to crawl his way out. A spirit dressed in white saved him, but he’s fated to carry her casket around with him wherever he goes. Or he will die.”
No, definitely not a docudrama.
“There is so little known about their personalities, which gives us a kind of artistic license,” offers Hayes.
Still, adds McDonough, Dickinson “had a lot more of the spark of living than people think. I don’t think she would want to be thought of as a person we should feel sorry for. As a sad figure who was in any way forced to live this life of a recluse. It was a choice. She was a much stranger person than I think she gets credit for. That’s kind of what the play’s about. Poe is actually the sadder figure of the two. He didn’t have any stability in his life at all.”
McDonough began writing Edgar & Emily two and a half years ago and his agent submitted an early draft to Palm Beach Dramaworks’ new play development program, Dramaworkshop. Of the 200 scripts the theater received that year, Hayes says “this was the one that really rose to the top.” For its initial reading in May of 2016, Hayes cast Gregg Weiner and Margery Lowe, who continue to be the only actors to ever do these roles.
“Gregg and Marge have done so much work together that they have this natural chemistry. And they just nailed it. I really knew on the spot that day – from the first reading – that I was going to produce this play,” says Hayes. “It had such a strong foundation, he was clearly a talented writer. I saw that he had a tremendous sense of humor and a natural gift for writing dialogue. I thought there needed clarity on the throughline, some work on the ending, which we’ve continued to do now, but there was such a strong foundation. And Marge and Gregg were just perfect for the roles.”
When prodded, McDonough will concede that Edgar & Emily has definite autobiographical elements. “I think Edgar Allan Poe, at least our version of Poe here, is more of my alter- ego,” the playwright says. “But if I’m being honest, I’m probably more like Emily. A little more measured and less flamboyant, but also she has a lot of wit within her quiet persona.”
McDonough considers the play’s themes to be “being true to yourself as a person, and as an artist discovering and committing to your artistic soul.”
Although they are drastically different in tone, Hayes notes that Edgar & Emily has much in common with this season’s other new work, Terry Teachout’s Billy and Me, about William Inge and Tennessee Williams. “They’re similar in their themes – authors who are trying to come to term with who they are. Accepting who they are.”
And like Billy and Me, McDonough’s play features one flamboyant character and one introvert. “It’s useful to me to have one talkative character and one not-so-talkative character. That gives you some drama,” he says. “Actually in this play they’re both pretty talkative. She’s not as flamboyant as Poe, but she more than holds her own.”
Ultimately, McDonough says of theatergoers and his play, “I think they will be surprised, wildly entertained and go home talking about it. I think it’s thought-provoking as well. I think and I hope that it’s more than a comedy.”
EDGAR & EMILY, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Saturday, March 31-Sunday, April 22. $75. 561- 514-4042.