Edgar Allan Poe’s personal life conjures images as bleak as his works of fiction. True stories of depression and addiction traditionally accompany his tales of spooky ravens and mysteriously beating hearts. But when playwright John MacNicholas delved further into the author’s history, he found a different man than he expected.
“The traditional image of Poe as a human being was that he was insane, and he was a moral degenerate, and, of course, that he is also a great literary genius,” says MacNicholas, who recently completed a one-act play about Poe’s life. “Well, no one disputes the literary genius. But the biographical side I don’t think is well understood. I can certainly say the understanding I had starting this play is not the understanding I have now.”
A staged reading of Israfel: The Ordeal of Edgar Allan Poe will be performed for the Southern Artists Celebratory Series in conjunction with the Charleston Clemente Course. MacNicholas says he owes the direction of the play in part to Clemente director Mary Ann Coley, who pointed out that Charleston is home to two published Poe scholars: Scott Peeples, a professor at the College of Charleston, and professor Jim Hutchisson of the Citadel.
“I am very much indebted to them for their scholarship and knowledge of Poe,” MacNicholas says. “I used their books as my biographical background for the play. One of my tasks is to marry the biographical side of Poe with the artistic genius and what the obstacles were that he was facing when he started his literary career.”
Rufus Griswold, the man many have said is responsible for slandering Poe, is a major character in MacNicholas’ work. Why Griswold would have started rumors about Poe is heavily debated, but MacNicholas believes it was something akin to “a character assassination.”
“No one studies Griswold today, even though he was a very important literary man in his time,” MacNicholas says. “[Poe] was slandered by a very big fish, he was not slandered by a minnow. Griswold had a tremendous amount of credibility at the time of Poe’s death.”
MacNicholas’ piece also focuses on Poe’s appreciation for Southern culture. The short story “The Gold-Bug” was set on Sullivan’s Island, a result of Poe’s own stint on the coast while serving at Fort Sumter.
“Poe really considered himself a child of the South, and he spent his formative years in Richmond, Va., and was very resentful of the literary big names in the North,” MacNicholas says. “There’s no question he was familiar with Charleston. He set one of his most important tales there, in the wilderness that existed around Sullivan’s Island.”
Although scholars have not seen any direct evidence of Poe’s feelings toward slavery or the Civil War, he gave a large role in “The Gold-Bug” to a black man-servant named Jupiter.
“Which was very unusual at that at time,” MacNicholas says. “Usually blacks, if mentioned at all, are just background. They were not given significant roles. Jupiter is given a significant role and he is very intelligent.”
Poe is the third Southern author chosen for the series, which benefits the Charleston Clemente Course. All profits from the show go toward Clemente, which teaches humanities courses to homeless and disadvantaged Charlestonians.