Friday, June 10, 2011

Darkness and Decay

The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
by Edgar Allan Poe

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical ...

Love me some Poe.  And The Masque of the Red Death is my favorite Poe short story.  Prince Prospero and his friends in the nobility have sought refuge in Prospero's abbey from a deadly plague, The Red Death, that is sweeping the land.  They seal the doors and throw a grand masked ball, completely indifferent to the suffering of the common people outside.  The seven abbey rooms are decorated in a different color with the final room decorated in black and lit by a blood-red light.  Also in this room, that no one at the party dares to enter, is a large ebony clock whose toll each hour stops the revelry.

At midnight, an uninvited masked figure appears.  The mask of the stranger is the shocking visage of a Red Death victim and he is cloaked in what appears to be a blood-spattered funeral shroud.  Demanding to know the uninvited guest's identity, Prospero chases him through the seven rooms.  When he faces the stranger in the final black room, Prospero is struck dead.  The guests descend upon the stranger and pull off the mask, only to discover no one beneath it.  The Red Death has found them even behind the walls and the guests succumb to the plague ... as the last line proclaims -

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death
held illimitable dominion over all.

I have often considered the theatrical opportunities in the work of Poe.  Not too long ago, my friend Aaron and I began work on a musical based on the puzzling last four days of Poe's life as he lay dying in a hospital.  We were going to call the musical Nevermore (from his poem "The Raven") and had some terrific ideas for the show.  Unfortunately, we discovered that there was a recent Off-Broadway musical with the same name and with some of the same story components.  I'm not sure if we've given up on it completely ... we'll see ...

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