The Washington Stage Guild
POUND, a play by Sean O’Leary, directed by John MacDonald
Review by Grace Cavalieri
To attend a world premiere of a play is special indeed. To attend a play about the most important poet of the 20th century increases the anticipation. To witness an award winning playwright in action is raising the stakes. How do we to take on an historical figure, a Goliath, and make him interesting enough a character for the audience to care about?
Ezra Pound was incarcerated in St Elizabeth’s Hospital for the insane at the end of World War ll. He’d been committed for complex reasons, mostly for making “treasonous” broadcasts for the Fascists, during the war. His anti-Semitism was fanatic, blaming Jews for the plight of European economy, and worse, taking a moral ground which gave fodder to the persecution of innocent Jews in Italy and elsewhere. Pound was speaking about abstractions, but the damage of his broadcasts cannot be measured, even today, except that we know they influenced and encouraged the Fascistic cause. Kept in a cage by US forces until he could be brought from Italy to America, Pound arrived at St Elizabeth’s in Washington DC a bewildered and depressed despot.
But here we have the play. The question in our minds as we enter the theater: Did Ezra Pound ever feel remorse for his tirades against a Jewish population already victimized and persecuted? The play holds this as a subtext, perhaps even its spine, although unspoken throughout.
Four characters grapple with the man’s destiny. Pound, himself, who builds grandiose defenses as an armor to his hospital stay; a sympathetic nurse (Nurse Priscomb); a young doctor (Mary Polley); and the poet Archibald MacLeish who - as lawyer and friend - works for Pound’s release from the hospital.
The pleasure is in watching the action lines. If we take a string from one character to the other it could be a tangled web indeed. But with crystal clarity O’Leary connects Pound to Priscomb, Pound to Polley, Pound to MacLeish, and – do the math- each of the others also has a multiple storyline. This is the work of intelligence and precision. It is a better play, actually, than "WIT" which won the Pulitzer, because WIT was antiseptic.
This play turns on its deft use of exposition. Imagine Ezra Pound, the father of modernism, kept in confinement by mere mortals. He does what superior beings do: He holds forth and even has an entourage (not seen) who visit daily to bask in his brilliant lectures. When a new doctor arrives to “cure” Pound where others have failed, she proceeds with ruthless psychoanalysis, determined to find the child within who caused so much havoc to the adult who is so out of control. But is her purpose altruistic? In that she (it is slowly revealed) is a Jew, we have an obvious motivation for mischief; but thank O’Leary for the fact that there are many layers at all times. We believe the doctor truly wishes to accomplish her goal. Days before Pound’s release she hones in, reducing the man to the same state when he entered the hospital.
Interestingly, the nurse who attends Pound has been at the hospital 12 years, the same length of Pound’s incarceration. And she has never married. This a subtle disclosure which gives more richness to the plot, for who in fact would have room or energy in a life for Pound PLUS any other?
The play is a tug of war between the law and psychiatry, where words are things, powerful things.
Whether you like the play may be the way you view Pound and whether you regard him as our playwright does. But if you like a well made play, with the right words in the right order, where every line moves the action forward, where the mind and heart clash incessantly, and where complexity stays even to the end, I think you’ll side with the playwright.
We are watching this play as it moves to regional theaters across the country, and having had a producer’s showcase in NYC, perhaps we will see it mounted there. Too bad this cast will not travel with it. One could not ask for better actors.
Ezra Pound was played by Conrad Feininger, Nurse Priscomb by Lynn Steinmetz, Dr. Mary Polley by Kathleen Coons, Vincent Clark played Archibald MacLeish.
Grace Cavalieri is a Playwright, a Poet, and Producer of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" on public radio.