"There is a wonderful, simple conversation encoded in all poems worthy of the name: 'You've felt this, too, haven't you?'"
- Carol Rumens
"I don't want to read about some of these actresses who are around today. They sound like my niece in Scarsdale. I love my nice in Scarsdale, but I won't buy tickets to see her act."
- Vincent Price
Poetry and theatre have always endured an uneasy symbiotic relationship. Poets and philosophers are always returning to the ramifications of Shakespeare’s pivotal proclamation that ‘all the world’s a stage’, examining the extent to which we can ever cease to play roles as we flit around the elements of our fragmented psyches.
This principle has overshadowed the work of Hugo Williams, himself the son of an actor, throughout his work. From one of his earliest poems, The Actor,
‘Sent by his agency to this bright
Box, all his lines straight, knew
Where to die, but was not quite
Sure who he was…’ (1965)
to his most recent work, such as West End Twilight,
‘Reflections shimmer back and forth
as we watch Hugo Williams strolling through
the long twilight of upper-middle-class
light comedy, arm in arm with his son’ (2009).
A poet who goes one step further in interrogating the role of theatricality and persona in poetry is Owen Sheers, who preludes his second collection, Skirrid Hill, with a fascinating short piece called ‘Last Act’:
‘The previous scenes stacked in the wings
and at the centre, under the spotlight,
the actor, bowing as himself
for the first time all night’.
For me, this is an ingenious way to begin a collection, as it poses a manifesto of sorts as to what poetry, in Sheers’ eyes, is. Whilst he acknowledges the multitude of personae occupied by any person in a lifespan, he suggests that his collection is ‘the first time’ for us to catch a glimpse of the man without his stage makeup, costume and dramatic conceit.
Contrary to what we may expect, this is not an indication of Sheers’ poetry lacking theatricality. Lines such as
‘Cut to us, an overhead show, early morning.
Lying in bed, foetus curled,
back to naked back.’
(from Four Movements in the Scale of Two)
‘the way he offers the seat,
his practiced look of concern and the slow pace of his voice.’
show us that Sheers may have stepped before the audience as himself for the first time, but any ‘self’ is still unavoidably a performance.
This concept is further complicated when we bring in the notion of poetry performed by actors. Paul Scofield’s fine performance of Eliot’s Four Quartets is a beautiful medium for a poem founded on opacity and disjointed aspects of the soul, but does it move us farther from the poem’s honesty? We are not listening to Eliot as such, but rather an actor’s inference of Eliot’s intentions, with speculation on appropriate emphases and pace.
It is a sort of poetic refraction, if you can remember back to your days in the science lab, casting white light through a prism and seeing it broken into its composite spectrum as it is slowed down by the medium. And this ‘prismic effect’ is only in the case of sensitive, intelligent readers such as Scofield who allow the original light of the poem to emerge from the other side. It is far more common to see actors entirely mismanage the delivery of a piece through mis-reading which leaves the audience with something entirely unintended by the poet.
And so it is that the roles played by the poet and the roles played by the performer create an unavoidable background noise through which poems must fight before they arrive wearily at an audience’s ears.
An actor who illustrates the symbiosis perfectly is the great Vincent Price. It is difficult to speak of Price for any length of time without touching upon his relationship with the poet and novelist, Edgar Allen Poe. Price starred in several highly successful adaptations of Poe’s writing, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Price’s finest performance in an adaptation of Poe’s work however, is in the 1972 television special An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe, in which he delivers four of the writer’s short stories as a series of dramatic monologues.
Along with his reading of the absurdly over-quoted (thanks in part to The Simpsons) The Raven, Price’s relationship with the work of Poe is entirely congruent with his public image and the nature of his oeuvre. Poe wrote doleful, gothic literature of lonely men turned cold and diabolical by the passing of lost loves. Price’s career thrived in such roles and so, when called upon to act out a dramatisation of Poe’s work, he often drifted further towards the self-parody that characterises his appearances on Alice Cooper’s Black Widow and Edward Scissorhands.
Like so many actors of such an idiosyncratic nature, Price knew that his audience were more concerned with his ongoing relationship with the role of ‘dastardly loner’ than witnessing any real widening of his dramatic boundaries. For this reason, I do not engage with his Edgar Allen Poe work as anything other than competent entertainment.
There is evidence to suggest however, that Price was both a sensitive and cerebral reader of poetry when he was freed from the constraints of being ‘Vincent the Villain’. This evidence exists in a recording made by Price in 1956 of him reading the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which can be listened to in its entirety here.
Shelley is just as steeped in gothic myth as Poe, but one gets the impression, when listening to Price’s reading of Shelley’s work, that he is not simply engaging with the poetry as ‘Vincent Price – Gothic Commodity’, but rather delivering the words as an earnest character actor.
Perhaps this is because Price is only beginning to become synonymous with horror at this point in the career, or perhaps he is simply aware that the audience for a Shelley-LP is going to want more than villainous hammery, but what we get when we listen to this recording is something far more vulnerable and honest than we get at almost any other point in his career.
This is best witnessed in Price’s reading of Shelley’s, Adonais. Over the thirty minutes of this memorial piece at the passing of John Keats, Price has all the issues of mortality, eroding faith and despair that he turned into such complacent ‘Price-ness’ in his readings of Poe. Yet here, in his engagement with Shelley, we see something far more delicate and nuanced.
We see Price’s exploration of all elements of the grieving process, never overplaying or working against Shelley’s original masterpiece, but rather treated with all the variations of a musical score, with its dramatic crescendos, ritardandos, legatos and cadences. As Price gasps the words ‘No more let Life divide that which Death can draw together’, his archetypal public perception is nowhere to be seen, but rather we hear a man at his most human, his most vulnerable, furthest from a detectable persona.
Poetry’s relationship with actors can often produce terrible, crass and unhelpful results, as the poet’s words are designed to contain enough innate drama to supersede any overzealous reading. Sometimes however, the symbiosis between page and stage hits an equilibrium that will stop you in the street and make you turn up your headphones, or close all the windows in your house so that there can be no disruption to the irreplaceable feeling of the best words in the best order played out upon the finest instrument.