Edgar & Emily Q&A

Palm Beach Illustrated chats with playwright Joseph McDonough for a behind-the-scenes look at his newest production.

Palm Beach Dramaworks, downtown West Palm Beach’s premier repertory theater, has balanced its 2017-18 offerings with a mix of tried-and-true plays and world premieres. The established works include Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (to November 12), Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond (January 31 to February 25), and Peter Shaffer’s Equus (May 16 to June 10). Intermixed are two new plays by Terry Teachout and Joseph McDonough. An acclaimed author and theater critic, Teachout explores the real-life friendship between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge in Billy & Me (December 6-31). Conversely, McDonough builds an imaginary scenario between writers Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson for Edgar & Emily (March 28 to April 22). The year is 1864, and, unlike the real Poe who passed away in 1849, this fictional Poe is on the run from a would-be assassin when he encounters the meek wannabe poet. Here, McDonough chats with PBI about Edgar & Emily and the task of bringing two of history’s greatest scribes to life.

PBI: What was the genesis of the idea for this play?

McDonough: I was always interested in the two literary figures of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. They have, I think, different personas in the public’s consciousness. Poe was ghoulish and mysterious, and Dickinson has this spinster perception because she was kind of a recluse. About two years ago, I thought, “What if I put them together in the same room? I think I could have fun with that.”

What led you to pair these two up? Why did they feel like a good match?

The fact that they’re very different gives me some opportunity for comedy. As I did some more research and studied them, I found there are actually a lot of similarities between them. They had similar outlooks on life, although they approached it in a different way. In my play, Emily Dickinson is at a particular point where she has to choose what she’s going to do as an artist. She’s wrestling with what it means to be an artist and what choices she has to make to pursue that life.

Edgar Allan Poe actually died in 1849, but in my play he did not. The play takes place in 1864, and in a very Poe sort of way, he escaped death. He was buried alive, was able to dig himself out, and has been pursued for the last 14 years by this mysterious doppelganger who’s trying to kill him. Within my play, he unexpectedly visits Emily’s bedroom on a cold winter night because he’s hiding from this man. In his case, he’s wrestling with his own mortality, which is something that we all do at some point or another, and which Emily did, as well.

What kind of research did you do into the lives of Edgar and Emily, and how did that inform your characterizations of them?

There may be some Dickinson scholar who will take an issue with something, but I tried to be true to their historical accuracies. I did a lot of research on their backgrounds, read some biographies and a lot of their poetry and Poe’s stories, too. But when I started writing the play, I was very cognizant that I wasn’t writing a documentary. Eventually, they become my Emily and my Edgar. I always say, I don’t think there’s anything untrue in my play other than none of it happened.

How did your familiarity with their writing styles impact their dialogue and how they speak?

I felt like I slipped into their speaking styles pretty quickly and easily. He’s a little more flamboyant. She’s a little more prim and proper, but she also has a real spunky side. I’ve actually found in my research that she wasn’t this humorless, dour, sad person at all. She had a lot of vitality and life to her, which appealed to me and will be brought out in the play with the brilliant actors we have.

Did you weave any of their poetry and prose into the dialogue?

Yes, actually. She quotes from her poetry quite a bit and he makes some references, as well. [In the play,] she’s unknown as a poet, and, well, he’s dead, but he’s very well known. She has him read some of her poetry and give a critique, which she’s very nervous about. He’s not particularly kind and there’s a lot of comedy that goes with that. Then she critiques some of his writing, which he can’t stand.

Given the play’s historical setting, how did you go about making it feel relevant to modern audiences?

I think people will be surprised at how different this Emily and this Edgar might differ from what they read in school. I felt if I really made the characters alive and interesting and human, then that would pull the audience in. I focused on bringing out the humanity and humor, but also the pathos of these lives. The fact that we’re going to have two wonderful actors to bring them to life will also pull the audience in. Even though it’s theater to think about, it’s certainly not a boring history lesson.

How did Palm Beach Dramaworks come to host the world premiere of Edgar & Emily?

I sent the play to [producing artistic director] Bill Hayes a year and a half ago, and they did a reading as part of their Drama Workshop. That went very, very well and the response was very positive. Bill then contacted me, and we started talking about doing the show in their season. We had a workshop this past June with the two actors who are going to do the show next spring. I had a great time and got a good feel for the theater and for Bill, who’s going to direct the show. I wish we were starting tomorrow.

How did the workshop process impact the play? What did you learn from that experience?

You can read it out loud in your head all you want, but actually getting it in the hands of real actors [illuminates] certain lines. Sometimes you write an inadvertent tongue twister and you’ve got to fix that. But actors are looking for their motivation and what’s behind certain actions. In my experience, they always ask great questions because they really want to bring to life what they’ve got in front of them. Their questions re always very honest and helpful.

What perspective do you hope to gain from the rehearsal process and then from the play’s run? 

I want to obviously see what works in the play. As a playwright, you can only discover so much about the script without the audience. It’s not really theater without an audience—it’s just a play. And I write theater so the audience is very, very important. It always surprises me what an audience finds in one of my plays. Every single time, inevitably, what I think is the funniest line does not get the biggest laugh, and the biggest line is always something that I didn’t necessarily think was all that funny. Sometimes, it’s something the actor or director brings to it, but that’s what I enjoy about the collaborative process. A novelist doesn’t get to sit in a room and watch a reader read his novel. But a playwright gets to sit in a theater and see and hear the audience experience a play, and that’s always exciting to me.

Do you feel like this is a play for writers or a play for readers? What kind of audience did you imagine?

A smart audience. It’s certainly a play for writers, for readers, for people who obviously enjoy theater. My Emily and my Edgar are very theatrical. Poe was actually the child of two actors, and he has a very flamboyant sense to him. I want people to [think] the play is much funnier than they were anticipating but [also] gives them a lot to think about as they drive home.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

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