A conversation with
(Transcribed by Liza Delgado)
Once upon a midnight .....
at the stroke of midnight (neither one of us would have it
any other way) in a small coffee shop somewhere in the heart of the city of the big
shoulders, and right on time, as if the peel of that twelfth bell was the cue for his
entry, he came strolling in with his lovely wife Valerie. What I noticed first was when he
looked at her I could tell he loved her, and when she returned his gaze it was magnified
and reciprocated. More than just a cute couple, but a loving team. (I was jealous of both
of them.) Before I knew it, I was shaking his hand and basking in the glow of his
wonderful smile. It was surreal for me at first, because there I was talking to a life
long, familiar friend, for the first time! But just the presence that emanates from this
exceptional man put me at ease. Although I was told not to take up more than one half hour
of his time, he talked to me for two and a half hours.
It must be awesome doing "Edgar Allan Poe -Once upon a midnight," was
this play tailor made for you? You seemed to be involved in it very, very early.
The writers came to me with "Edgar Allan Poe -Once upon a midnight," and
for the last several years weve been working together on it. We have been a nice
collaborative team on it and they are wonderful guys. They would get a kick out of you.
Could you mention their names?
Ron Magid and Paul Day Clemens. Paul was a year or two ahead of one of my kids in
school, so I knew Paul when he was a teenager. Anyway, Ron and Paul got together and
wrote. Then Paul came to me about five years ago, and said "I wish you would do my
play" so I read it. "Edgar Allan Poe -Once upon a midnight" had some things
in it that were so special, and unique, and so intuitively right about Poe and his life
and his work that I optioned it right away and weve been rewriting and working for 5
I know Poe made his living at being a critic, are you going to be critiquing some
of his contemporaries, in Poe's own words, stirring things up a little bit?
Yes, there will be a little of that.
I know drugs were in vogue with the artists of that period, such as morphine. Did
he experiment with any of that kind of stuff? Is that touched on at all in "Edgar
Allan Poe -Once upon a midnight"?
At one point in his life, he tried to kill himself by taking laudanum, which is a
derivative of opium, but he sort of made a botch of that, which is indicative of his life
and lack of knowledge of drugs. But he wasn't a user, its just not true. You see,
the man he chose to be his literary executor, trashed him on his death in his obituary.
Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Its was Rufus Griswolds biography of Poe that for 100
years was included in Poes collected works. So this trashing of him went on and on.
Why was that? Did they not get along?
I think, and this is my personal opinion, that it was a Mozart - Salieri thing.
Griswold was simply jealous of Poe. Poe was not a diplomat. He did have some problems with
alcohol, and he did behave a little outrageously sometimes when he drank. I think the
bottom line is Poes extraordinary talent was apparent to Griswold and others. I
think they were hard pressed to keep up. I dont think that his work, the depth and
the scope of it, was really recognized by the people of the time.
How could it be? Actually a lot like your own life. I dont think people
realize you've had rave reviews as a serious Shakespearean thespian, you direct and your
films have been nominated for Academy awards, Emmys, and what-not. I dont think
people really appreciate the passion and gusto that you bring to certain things.
Well, thank you. Its interesting, I think in the public there is a great deal
of appreciation. It may not be expressed all the time, but based on the mail Ive
been getting, people are smarter than you might think.
I know you have affected a lot of lives. Just in my circle of friends, for example.
If you do something and you really care and you want to convey something in a
subtle way, there are people out there that are going to pick up on it. Its a source
of great satisfaction to me when someone is as appreciative as you are. One of the great
things about being recognized, is that you receive this feedback from people. It is easy
to see how sincere these people are. Its nothing fake or jive. They're giving
sincere appreciation. And because sincere appreciation is not as common as maybe it ought
to be, its not that easy to express. Sometimes when I see a performance that really
takes me, I struggle. How can I express this to this person, I want this person to know
how I felt. I want to get this across, and its not very easy. But I assure you my
antennae are open and receiving, and I very much appreciate your own feelings. Its
understood. Its appreciated. Just know that.
That makes me feel much more at ease.
Yeah, well you should be. I feel very comfortable with you. Somehow, across
whatever it is, we've connected.
I hope so.
Yes, and that's a great thing, and to me that's better than money. A lot better.
Absolutely, the brass ring in life is bringing happiness and and making that
connection with other people. I mean, I know that when I am performing my act, I get more
gratification than I can possibly say ......... But getting back to Poe, why do you think
he wrote the way he did? Do you think it was because he had something he just had to get
out of him? Was it because he had a tragic life with the people he loved dying of
consumption all around him? Because he was an orphan at three? The relation between he and
his step-father? His drinking problem? Or do you just think that thats who he was?
I think Poe had a mission to tell us what "its" all about. To
answer some of the great questions of life.
Almost like a religious leader, except for he realized he was lost.
I dont know if I would necessarily call it religious. It's just a human
desire to understand the spirit.
I think part of it too, he knew we need to ask questions that people have not asked
before. To question the tradition.
Maybe religious is the wrong word..... Spiritual.
Yeah, well it depends on what you mean by it. You know it could be true. In one
sense you could say religious.
Do you know what his religious beliefs were? Was that really known? Was he an
Poe was a student of many things, and among those things he read and referred to in
his work was the Bible. His views were not acceptable at that time. They would be much
more acceptable today. So when he wrote EUREKA, he was branded a heretic, ....
and this was after the death of Virginia, his wife, he was running from one woman to
another, looking for his wife really. He had one marriage all set up, ready to go and a
young Reverend talked the woman out of it because of what Poe had written in Eureka.
He convinced her that Poe was a heretic, or....
Infidel, pagan, blasphemer, heathen.
Yep, but Poes view of the cosmos was not so far removed from current
cosmology. In fact there's a book called Darkness at Night, published by Harvard
University Press, which discusses the riddle of darkness. Why is the sky dark at night?
Given an infinite number of stars, why isnt the whole sky lit up? Why are there
great spaces and voids? Poes answer to this is still valid according to the
scientists of today. This book has a whole chapter devoted to Poe. In Eureka, Poe
proposed a time and space continuum, fully a half a century before Einstein.
Or Star Trek!
Or Star Trek. Yeah, Poe was the ultimate Treky, believe me. Poe talked about an
expanding and contracting universe. Much of this was in Eureka, his final work,
which was swiftly rejected by everyone and it broke his heart. It's fortunate for all of
us that he wrote it, and it helps explain everything else he wrote.
It was the type of piece his heart and soul was put into, when they were rejecting
the piece, they were rejecting him too.
He regarded Eureka as his Magnum Opus; his greatest work. We put a lot of Eureka
in "Edgar Allan Poe -Once upon a midnight," because it was the culmination of
his life; that he was able to say just what he said. It was the most difficult of all
It was probably one of the most beautiful pieces of his day.
Why do you think that he is still relevant? When kids read his stuff today,
its still fresh. I read "The Tell Tale Heart" when I was in 4th grade, and
I when I read it recently, I got so much more out of it. It seems like an expanding thing,
that every time you read it, it unfolds to another level.
The themes Poe used were universal and timeless. As long as the English language
exists at all, we will be able to appreciate what he did. It will not age! It will not
become dated! Yes, most of us know how The Murders of the Rue Morgue turns out,
and so that incredible surprise in the story is no longer an incredible surprise to most
people. But if you take a look at that story, just go into the beginning of it youll
find its interesting to read all over again. It bears repeating again and again.
I think I know the answer to this question but do you think he was really
disturbed? He was suicidal at times.
(And as naive as that question was, words cannot convey what this
man shared with me, as he looked in my eyes and answered my query with total conviction
... A performance?. ... Or perhaps a revelation .....)
Disturbed. No. Ill tell you. He knew that they called him a lunatic, and he
"Who is to say whether madness is,
or is not,
the loftiest intelligence.
Whether much that is glorious,
whether all that is profound,
does not spring from "disease of thought."
From "moods of mind."
We who dream by day
are aware of many things that escape those who dream only by night.
In our gray visions, we obtain glimpses of eternity,
and thrill, in awaking,
to find that we have been upon the verge of the great secret.
We penetrate, however rudderless, however compassless,
into a vast ocean of light.
Who, then, shall blame me for my visionary hours?
Who dare call my conduct into question?
To dream has been the business of my life."
See thats Poe.
(After catching my breath)
Where is that from?
From, several things. Primarily most of its from Elenora, with some
slight revisions. Isn't that powerful?
Oh Yeah, thats probably why he wasnt committed, because he could
articulate exactly that.
At a certain point he was very popular, from the "Raven". He was never
fully appreciated, never made the money, and you know he was looked upon with admiration
by some people, but also as an oddball. But that was his point.
Have you ever had a haunted or a supernatural experience?
Any really intense ones?
I figure I basically am a ghost. I think we all are.
I cant argue with that. But what brings you to that conclusion?
My background is basically scientific math. My Dad was a physicist, so I have it in
my blood somewhere. Scientific method is very important to me. I think anything that
contradicts it is probably not true. I think it was Bertrand Russel or Alfred North
Whitehead, a who said, "What science cannot discover, mankind can not know."
That's good up to a point, but there are things so deep and complex that only intuition
can reach it in our stage of development as human beings. And to Poe...well a great
logician could be an enemy to him, what he called conventional world reason, and
"logic" as laid out by some of the philosophers. This is one of the things he
attacks in Eureka and it is implicit in many of his other works. Dupin, the great
detective from The Murders of the Rue Morgue, was wonderful at deduction, but it
was intuition that Dupin used to unravel that crime, unravel the mystery. Poe says at one
point in the play "As children we remember that we have lived before, until
'conventional world reason' awakens us from the truth of the dream."
This article was just a small sliver of the conversation I had
with Mr. Astin about Poe. We also touched on many more topics: Magic, Night Gallery, Night
Court, Evil Roy Slade, Batman, Ethics, and of course The Addams Family. A quick
deaditorial note: At the time of this interview, I hadn't seen the play, and although I
researched his life, I was woefully ignorant about a lot of Poe's works. But now after
reading Eureka and about half of The Complete Poe, and seeing John Astin
in "Edgar Allan Poe- Once upon a midnight," I've learned you can understand far
more about the artist from his work than from any biography. That is the beauty of the
approach that John Astin took with "Edgar Allan Poe- Once upon a midnight". The
way Poe's writings are woven together to tell his life story is nothing short of story
telling at it's finest, at least half of the dialogue was meticulously chosen from Poe's
own words. I've seen the play three times (and it's only played a week).
"Edgar Allan Poe- Once upon a midnight" is much more
than an ordinary play or one evening's entertainment. It is a celebration of an
extraordinary man, who did not receive the proper recognition and deserved respect for his
craft until well after his death (and to some extent, even to this day). The play cleans
up much of the sloppy history that is still so pervasive about Poe. It also brings some of
Poe's more enlightening and obscure works to light. To see Mr. John Astin in "Edgar
Allan Poe- Once upon a midnight" is to see Poe himself revealing the frank
autobiography of his life; the passion, the rapturous love, the total heartbreak, the
failures, the successes, the confusion, the insights and revelations. He relates each
person's connection to this vast universe by which we are all joined.
In this vampires humble opinion, "Edgar Allan Poe- Once
upon a midnight" truly is "a journey of the soul!"
Listen to Dagon
Edgar Allan Poe
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