It’s Halloween time, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you’ve heard some Edgar Allan Poe verse in the past few weeks. “The Raven,” most likely. If you had been alive during the time when Poe was still living, your chances of hearing “Once upon a midnight dreary…” would have been just as good.
“‘The Raven’ was a massive hit. [Poe] was a huge celebrity during the time ‘The Raven.’ Everybody knew ‘The Raven.’ People did parodies of ‘The Raven.’ Kids memorized it in school,” actor and literary superfan Denis O’Hare explained in a recent interview
In Eric Stange’s new PBS film “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive,” O’Hare plays Poe in surreal, reimagined moments, performing the writers’ work to empty rooms and slinking through the streets of Poe’s eventual home city of Baltimore under cover of darkness.
For O’Hare, the performance was about bringing an understanding of the character that went far beyond “Nevermore.” “He was a disaster, and then his entire life was like that,” O’Hare said. “He took on Henry Longfellow. He took on some of the great patrician Boston writers and savaged them in the press. Unfairly accused them of libel when it wasn’t true, and got sued by them and lost. He was like Matt Drudge. He was a total disaster, a walking mistake.”
But there was another twisted charm to Poe’s appearances in polite society that made him something of an infamous, captivating figure. O’Hare likened him toan brooding screen heartthrob, a “Joaquin Phoenix” type.
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“He would famously do these evenings in New York where he would show up at these very wealthy women’s parties because they loved him. He was such an exciting person. People would say, ‘He has very intense eyes. When you’re in the room with him you feel this incredible connection.’ He was very polite because he was a Southern boy basically, and so he had all the proper decorum from being a Southern boy. Then he would get drunk and he would insult people. He would pick fights, and he would do disastrous things. So, he was the best of both worlds. He was behaved and not behaved,” O’Hare said.
Stange’s film deals with the idea of Poe’s death and the nebulous circumstances surrounding the passing of a man whose legacy has come to be built on a similar aura of mystery. “Buried Alive” also delves into Poe’s personal history as a publisher, a critic, and a member of the military. Going beyond the page meant that O’Hare had specific connective tissue to look for in preexisting accounts of Poe’s life.
“It was psychological, picking out the moments when he is at his most desperate and him confiding that to paper and then by extension confiding that it to us,” O’Hare said. “I did read a couple of biographies of his, and I took care to note the stuff that he was struggling with. His alcoholism was such a major part of his life and yet that doesn’t explain his weird delusions and very strange preoccupation with morbid topics. That was just his personality, it’s who he was.”
“Buried Alive,” part of PBS’ “American Masters” series, mixes together interviews with Poe scholars, media artifacts from Poe’s day, and some on-camera performances of Poe works from other actors (Chris Sarandon doing the opening of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is spooky in its own right). When it came time for O’Hare to read some of Poe’s written pieces directly to the camera, he found the process more daunting than he expected.
“To look in the camera is both thrilling and sort of uncomfortable, because you’re breaking a taboo. It’s always very powerful because it’s looking down into the audience’s heart in a way. It’s very revealing for you but it’s also very intimate and you feel very private about it,” O’Hare said. “I’d rather have the camera right on top of me than a long lens. Having it far away, it’s very hard to get a feeling for what it is. When it’s right there in front of you, it’s much easier to go into that dark heart.”
Like any portrayal of a pre-phonograph public figure, piecing together Poe’s particular performance style meant that O’Hare’s responsibility was capturing the spirit of the writer rather than recreating any existing footage. O’Hare’s on-screen performance of “The Raven” in “Buried Alive” isn’t a whimsical imagining of what a Poe performance might have looked like. Those readings actually existed, and they informed what O’Hare used to mold his own interpretation.
“Apparently he was really good at performing. What that means, I don’t know. Does that mean he whispered the whole time? Did he walk or creep around?” O’Hare said. “But he was a showman in that regard, when he wasn’t drunk. There are other accounts of him doing lectures and things where he’s just out of his mind drunk. Or so hungover that he was an hour late. Or so depressed that he couldn’t get out of himself. So, we tried to find the appropriate color for the appropriate moment.”
Sitting down with him for an interview at the TCA Summer Press Tour, it’s clear that O’Hare carries the same reverential appreciation for authors of all generations. The conversation ranged from Helen McDonald to T.H. White to Neil Gaiman to Emily Dickinson to W.G. Sebald. Alongside a long career in theatre, O’Hare also is a regular participant in the Selected Shorts live reading series. (IndieWire highlighted a recent performance of his on our list of the best podcast episodes of the year back in June.)
So when O’Hare praises the performable nature of Poe’s poetry, it’s not an empty compliment.
“His poetry is deceptive because it rhythms, and that can always make a poem feel childish or not as sophisticated. His use of what we call enjambment, going across the line to the next line, is really sophisticated. The poems themselves are crafted so that every word is there for a reason. You really do feel the care he took with constructing the poems and his utopian, idealistic self comes through,” O’Hare said. “You do feel like his landscapes are all of a piece and they all exist somewhere else. I don’t know where that place is, don’t know if I want to go there but it is a very tangible, identifiable place. It was really fun to read out loud.”
Playing a man near death, illuminating his place in the world through his published works and his private correspondence, O’Hare ends up getting to allude to a fuller version of Poe in less screen time than many other biopics would afford. “Buried Alive” isn’t a straightforward retelling of the man’s life — the impossibility of trying to pin down whether Poe would have wanted it that way is part of what makes him such an intriguing figure.
“He was also a real thinker, a deep thinker about what is the proper function of poetry? What is the proper structure? What is art’s part of the world? He was very thoughtful about how to express that,” O’Hare said. “The guy is just not simple to distill. Even in his writing, you can’t distill him.”
“Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” airs Monday, October 30 at 9 p.m. on PBS.