This summer, director Richard Spaul brings a pair of one-man shows on spectral themes to the atmospheric setting of the Leper Chapel. Tales of Mystery and Imagination contains two of the stories from Edgar Allan Poe’s collection of the same name. Here, Richard talks about his inspirations and hopes for the performance.
The choice of tales
When I developed the Ghost Stories performance, I found I really liked the format and wanted to do another – a sort of Episode 2.
As my source, I took Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The era of the Tales is that of a different century to that of Ghost Stories, and the topics, themes and atmosphere are subtly different. But the performance strategy I use is the same – a one-man show encompassing two stories, preceded, divided and then concluded by three songs which offer both insight and counterpoint.
I wanted to avoid the very famous tales – like The Fall of the House of Usher and Murders in the Rue Morgue – which are in any case not necessarily the best stories in the collection.
I particularly wanted stories that would benefit from being channelled through a live performer – otherwise why should people not read the book rather than attending the show? So I looked for tales with an interesting, problematic, even unreliable narrator because that offered me complex performance opportunities.
Of the two stories I have chosen, The Premature Burial has a fascinating, deranged narrator with a morbid fear of being buried alive. Thou Art the Man is told by an urbane and chatty individual who appears to be an idiot with no understanding of what’s going on – but who is actually way ahead of the audience.
I’m fascinated – as most people are, I think – by the boundary between life and death. As an author, Poe differs from almost all his predecessors in that he seems convinced there is actually nothing after death.
Both of the stories I perform explore what that phrase – ‘after death’ – might actually mean. When does death happen exactly? What if a person isn’t dead but looks so? What if they are dead but suddenly sit up and talk?
This is the world of the horror story – a modern genre which seems to stem from a collapse of belief in an afterlife; Poe is right at the forefront of this shift.
The songs come from a different time period from the stories but there is a thematic fit.
The Lover’s Ghost, a traditional English folk song, is about the visit of a dead lover who is mis-recognised as still alive; it’s mysterious and creepy and sets up Poe’s great core theme of the boundary between death and life. The second song, Oh Well!, is simply about digging a hole!
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean is the song that concludes the performance, and it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum of belief about death. The song is from the black spiritual tradition and embodies a confident belief in an afterlife that’s actually going to be much better then being alive. I wanted to end with that song because it represents the complete opposite of Poe’s denial of a heavenly afterlife.
Poe’s tales sometimes dwell on how seemingly terrible events can change people. So could the performing of the tales change the audience? Who knows… I hope that people find the work enjoyable and use it in some way in their lives, but it’s not really for me to say how it might affect them.
What the tales do, however – like much good art – is to confront the terrifying, the disturbing, the destabilising. I myself need to experience these things in art and I think many people have similar needs.
But, of course, at the heart of Tales of Mystery and Imagination is also the hope that people will simply enjoy, that they will be entertained.
What next? Another one-man show focussing on suspense and horror? Well yes – there might be an Episode 3…
Tales of Mystery and Imagination, is performed by Richard Spaul on Saturday June 3rd at 20.00 at the Leper Chapel, Newmarket Road, Cambridge CB4 1DH. Tickets £12 (£10 concessions) available in advance and from 7.30pm at the venue. You are advised to wrap up warmly as the venue has no heating.