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Poe's Bohemian Rhapsody

Prague, a City of Shadows, Fetes the Don of Doom

By G.A. Cerny | Posted 10/27/1999

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC—On a cold, clear night in October, some 200 people sit in the cellar of the Prague Castle, which was completed in the 11th century and is rarely open to the public. The cellar is a narrow, damp, and chilly stone chamber surrounded by winding corridors and steep stairways. When the lights flicker off for a moment, the darkness is absolute. The seeping cold calls forth the constant sound of muffled coughs in the audience. Then, from the back of the chamber, a tall, gaunt man dressed in black walks slowly to the front and announces, "Good evening. My name is Edgar Allan Poe, and tonight, I've been dead for 150 years."

The gentleman with a Southern accent is not a ghost, but American actor Kevin Mitchell Martin, who appears as part of the three-month-long International Edgar Allan Poe Festival in Prague. The event commemorates the 150th anniversary of the writer's death in Baltimore on Oct. 7, 1849. Sponsored by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Prague, this one-time event is the largest Poe exhibition ever held in Europe.

Peter Fawn, organizer of the festival and founder of the Prague Poe Society, is outwardly normal—37, British, an executive with American Express—but his devotion to Poe resembles a mania worthy of one of the writer's characters. "On my 10th birthday, my babysitter gave me a collection of stories that had "The Black Cat' in it," Fawn recalls. "I read it over and over."

He was hooked. At age 17, he used his first paycheck to start his now considerable collection of Poe memorabilia. His son's middle name is Vincent, in honor of Vincent Price, star of many movies based (rather loosely) on Poe's writings. Fawn's daughter's middle name is Ligeia, for the title character and doomed heroine of a Poe story.

Fawn was working in Prague four years ago when he first considered a tribute to his favorite writer. He originally planned a relatively modest two-week exhibition of his own Poe collection, but what Fawn cheerfully calls "my madness" took over, and the plan grew to include a film festival, several plays and one-man shows, an opera based on two Poe stories, an exhibit of rare manuscripts, and an exhibition of Czech paintings and sculptures inspired by Poe.

There's also a display of Poe artifacts and memorabilia, much of which Fawn borrowed from collectors in Baltimore, including Stephan Lowentheil, owner of the 19th Century Shop in Sowebo, whose collection Fawn calls "the finest and most varied catalogue of Poe items that I have ever seen." Other exhibits came from the Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., and several private collections.

Poe did not set any of his stories in Prague, nor did he ever visit here. Prague is, however, a very appropriate place for this tribute. It takes little effort to imagine Baltimore's favorite literary son here. With the bloody and sad history of Bohemia, full of executions and defeats, Prague strikes a chord with the gloom pervading much of Poe's most famous work. This is a city with two museums devoted to torture instruments. Until the 19th century, the resident hangman lived near the center of town, on Platnérska Street, where American tourists now drink overpriced Czech beer. The Old Jewish Cemetery could almost be taken straight from a Poe story. Its small courtyard bursts with tombstones piled almost on top of each other, jutting out at bizarre angles under craggy trees and high walls that block out the sun.

The elaborately Gothic and often menacing architecture of Prague is still intact, unlike in most cities in Central and Eastern Europe. (The Munich accord, which ratified Hitler's occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia, also spared Prague from the worst bombing of World War II.) Prague is full of narrow cobblestone streets that snake between buildings with stunning facades and half-hidden passages, creating an urban labyrinth. By day, the sun barely penetrates to the side streets, putting everything in shade. At night, street lamps give off a weak light that bathes the alleys in a dull and hazy yellow glow. It is a place for ghosts. It might have also been an appropriate place for C. Auguste Dupin, Poe's brilliant and perhaps half-mad detective who inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to invent Sherlock Holmes.

Across the Vlatava River, on the other side of the Charles Bridge, rises the hill that supports Hradcany, Prague Castle, the seat of the kings of Bohemia and now the home of Czech President Vaclav Havel. Hradcany looms over and dominates Prague's skyline and history. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries it housed Rudolf II, who surrounded himself with scientists, artists, freaks, and alchemists. According to legend, the alchemists were frequently tossed into the castle's moat when lead obstinately refused to turn into gold. Prince Prospero's court in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" could have been Rudolf's: "There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust."

Rudolf's entourage faded away after his death in 1612, and shortly afterward, his collection of treasures, as well as his realm, were ravaged by the Thirty Years War. But legends, like ghosts, do not rest easy, and Prague has long been in the thrall of both. This spirit fuels the work of the best Czech writers, including the great Czech poet Vitezslav Nezval, who translated Poe's poetry, and Bohumil Hrabl, widely held to be the greatest writer of Czech prose, who could quote Poe from memory.

And, of course, there is Franz Kafka, the literary icon of Prague who, like Poe, died young and in obscurity. In theme, his stories of existential terror and incomprehensible fate mirror Poe's bleak outlook. The writers have mutual fans, including the British actor and playwright Steven Berkoff, who performed with the festival and has adapted the work of both writers for the stage.

Actor David Keltz, a man who inhabits Poe for hours at a time, believes Poe would have found much inspiration in the Czech capital. "Oh, he would have used it," Keltz says.

Keltz, who is based in Baltimore, is performing his one-man show, Poe: His Life and Works, in Prague for most of the festival's three months. Keltz will spend Halloween at Poe's grave at Westminster Cemetery in Baltimore, marking the seventh year he has portrayed the tormented writer. (Fawn saw Keltz perform at the Poe House in Baltimore and recruited him for the festival.) But Keltz says the Prague Festival has provided him with the best space to conjure the dead writer's spirit. He performs in a small room in the cellar of the Carolinium, the Charles University, which dates from the 12th century. The walls evoke the catacombs as Keltz performs "Cask of Amontillado," and an insane asylum when he begins "The Tell-Tale Heart" (". . . but why will you say that I am mad?").

Keltz shares the space with Kevin Mitchell Martin. (Festival artistic director Clive Perrot quickly dubbed them "Poe I" and "Poe II.") After Martin, as Poe, begins the evening, the Prague Symphony Chamber Orchestra delivers the European premiere of American composer Russell Currie's opera based on Poe's writings. Opera is well suited to Poe's works, especially the stories Currie (who is also serving as the festival's music director) adapted—the hysterical revenge of "Cask of Amontillado" and the mounting doom of "The Fall of the House of Usher." Throughout the evening, actors give dramatic readings of Poe's poetry.

All the while, Peter Fawn stands, sipping amontillado and watching over the mixed audience of Czechs and Americans. In the four years of planning the festival, Fawn has probably seen more renditions of Poe than anyone, living or dead.

"I don't think anything like [the Prague festival] will ever happen again," he says softly.

After the festivities die down, I wander alone around Hradcany, the Castle district, and think about Poe and Prague. I lose my bearings and find myself in the Golden Lane, the narrow street of tiny houses where, according to legend, Rudolf kept his alchemists, and where Kafka briefly lived. During the day, the area teems with tourists, but it's completely empty tonight. I look down over the Vlatava River, the city at my feet glowing faintly from the moon and the street lamps.

Prague's fate, and Poe's, are tightly linked, perhaps parallel. Every year Prague fills with tourists seeking a peek at the Bohemian lifestyle. For many of them, the Golden City is Amsterdam East: a place to get fucked up cheap in historic surroundings. They throng to the discos where "Mambo #5" plays incessantly, and crowd the "American- style" bars that have displaced many of the traditional Czech hostinece. They drink absinthe in cocktails. It is likely that more Americans bought T-shirts of Kafka in Prague this summer than have ever read The Trial.

Poe has also been commercialized, treated as something to be brought out around Halloween along with the skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. Poe, like Prague, will likely outlast such ignorant exploitation. The power of Poe's most violent, even lurid stories, such as "The Black Cat" or "The Tell-Tale Heart," comes from the shock of watching the human mind work through its madness. Poe leaves us wondering how close we are to insanity, how far our own obsessions and annoyances are from turning on us, like the sound of a heart, "like a watch wrapped in cotton."

That sound voices the terror, not of being trapped in a haunted house with a monster, but of realizing that you are the monster. This realization is part of the human condition, and no one dwelled on it more eloquently or powerfully than Poe.

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