“The best you can hope for is that your appreciation will reach fifty percent.” I still don’t understand why high-school and college teachers of drama don’t make that honest statement to their students at the outset of their first class together. No instructor of mine ever admitted it or even hinted at it. Yet we all know that plays are written to be performed. Without attending a good or hopefully great performance, students may miss out on as much as half the depth and breadth of a drama. Apart from the specialized appeal of radio plays, the real magic of drama occurs on the stage, not on the page, no matter how transportive your imagination is. Besides, even if you restrict yourself solely to reading Long Day’s Journey into Night, why would you assume that Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions should be leapt over like rain puddles? I always felt that if students are mystified by the text of O’Neill’s or especially Shakespeare’s plays, including the ubiquitously assigned Macbeth, they should get off their Macduff and head off to the theater. Setting, sound, movement, and communally shared experience cannot be duplicated by lucubrating in a Barcalounger.
Sound made on stage or an album is at the center of my life as a music critic, and I first became smitten with sound in a literal literary sense when, in my parochial school’s small library, I found Caedmon recordings of Basil Rathbone reciting the poetry and short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Until then, I had never heard the power of the human voice to transform the “voices” of writers into something aurally visceral and almost palpable.
Reciting Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a short story first published in 1846 in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, Rathbone scared the hell out of me as his sonorous British (by way of Johannesburg) accent and vowel-elastic, menace-dripping intonation immeasurably deepened the impact of Montresor plotting his revenge against Fortunato, whom he finally immured. And the introductory Latin I picked up as an altar boy freed me from lifting the phonograph needle and scurrying to footnotes for “in pace requiescat“ (“may he rest in peace”) and “nemo me impune lacessit” (“no one insults me with impunity”). Not long afterward, in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I recognized what Captain Nemo stood for, narratively and etymologically.
It was Basil Rathbone’s recitation of Poe’s “The Raven” that wholly hooked me into the sonorities, cadences, rhymes, and repetitions of verse in all its potential wonder. The poem made Poe an outsized celebrity in 1845, and I instantly knew why as I listened to Rathbone’s recitation verging on salivation right from the start:
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
Strictly on the page, those lines made me, a towheaded schoolboy, snicker. But listening to Rathbone’s magnificent recitation, I was mesmerized, if not pole-axed, by the structural beauty and profound effect of Poe’s most famous verse.
Poe’s poem with its preface (presumed to be written at least partly, if not totally, by the author) was first set into type in 1845 in American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art and Science, yet sadly some anthologies today omit the preface, which explained the prosody used to create the poem. For someone who became increasingly interested in literary sausage-making as much as sausage-eating, I considered Poe’s preface a crucial insight into craft. Why leave it out? He didn’t.
This Halloween, take a break from the endless reruns of movies featuring Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and their not-so-grand Grand Guignol ilk. Instead, seek your shudders and screams by listening to Basil Rathbone recite Edgar Allan Poe’s far more horripilating work, such as “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” on Caedmon Records, now an imprint of Harper Audio, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. Rathbone will help get the virtuosic, variegated sounds of Poe’s poetry and short stories more fully into your ear and mind. Trust me rather than the raven: your soul shall be lifted—evermore!