It’s difficult to think of a more influential bad writer than Edgar Allan Poe. He moved Gothic romance from the faraway castle to the house next door, replacing the terrors of the sublime with the neurasthenic spasms of the diseased modern imagination. While Emerson was busy championing pragmatism, Poe zeroed in on everything we routinely deny in ourselves: the perversions, degradations, and deformities Harold Bloom calls “the uncanny unanimity in our repressions.”
But he achieved his effects using heavy, florid prose so rigged with repetitive imagery that you’d think he considered his readers morons. Yeats called Poe’s style “tawdry.” Eliot called it “slipshod.” And D. H. Lawrence, of all people, described it as “meretricious.” If you’re over the age of 13, reading Poe is either an exhausting ordeal or a guilty pleasure.
Or both. In the end, Poe had such a genius for constructing vivid, profoundly disturbing images—the best of which reverberate with myriad psychological and mythic meanings—that the stories galvanize in spite of themselves. As Bloom writes, “The tale somehow is stronger than the telling, which is to say that Poe’s actual text does not matter.”
Some might argue that director Sean Graney has built a career out of treating texts like they don’t matter. Setting Sophocles in an emergency room, Strindberg in a junk pile, Maria Irene Fornes in a big aquarium—Graney has made a habit of treating canonical scripts like promising suggestions, jettisoning whatever he chooses and filling the gaps with whatever tumbles from his overripe imagination. At his best he creates something provocative, timely, compelling, and entirely new. At his worst he concocts a mess.
And that’s what makes him the perfect guy to blow a hole through Poe’s hoary, dreary, inert 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
The tale is narrated by an unnamed gentleman who’s been summoned to the dilapidated home of his boyhood friend Roderick Usher. Poe gives six long paragraphs to the visitor’s description of the Usher estate as he approaches it; everything is “dull,” “dark,” “bleak,” “melancholy,” “desolate,” “rank,” “decayed,” “lurid,” “ghastly,” “pestilent,” and/or “leaden-hued.” Roderick himself is a hypersensitive nervous wreck —not unlike the majority of Poe’s antiheroes—who hasn’t left the house in years, eats only bland foods, and can’t bear the smell of flowers or the sound of anything but his guitar. The two men sit around doing almost nothing while Roderick’s ghostly sister, Madeline, molders away somewhere upstairs. When she finally dies, the men bury her in the basement—aka the “region of horror”—where she stays put only until the grand, you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me finale.
Graney applies a heavy dose of ridicule in this adaptation for the Hypocrites. Three women play the four characters (Roderick, the visitor, Madeline, and the family maid) as outsize parodies of Gothic stereotypes. They lampoon the story’s creaky horror conventions with a farcical aplomb reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein—there’s even wolf’s howl every time anyone says “house of Usher.” And they switch roles every few minutes, a conceit requiring not only quick costume changes but lightning-fast applications and removals of muttonchops.
The script absorbs the lion’s share of Poe’s original text, but Graney also invents much out of whole cloth. Roderick expresses his melancholia, for example, by nailing books to the wall, and the maid speaks in a nearly impenetrable Scottish accent. The visitor is portrayed as a woman, fond of pounding back tumblers of gin and sucking lemons. Most significantly, Graney invents a sexual relationship between Usher and his sister; when she dies, he transfers his desires to the now-traumatized visitor.
Once the sexual undercurrents start rising to the surface, Graney follows in the queer, campy footsteps of Charles Ludlam, who often inverted classic tales to dissect contemporary gender politics. Trouble is, Graney hasn’t found much worth dissecting. Neither the cross-dressing nor the sexual indiscretions lead to meaningful complications—theatrical, psychological, political, or otherwise. It’s never clear what’s at stake here beyond making fun of Poe, which is neither difficult nor novel.
Still, the show roars through like a freight train, clocking in at almost exactly an hour. Joseph Wade’s wooden-slat set is fittingly battered and claustrophobic. And the cast (Tien Doman, Halena Kays, and Christine Stulik) are precise, bold, and indefatigable. As an exercise in style, the show is quite an accomplishment. But as an act of literary or cultural engagement, it’s disappointingly thin.