Sure, Gomez Addams got his kicks scaring the bejeezus out of strangers, but that’s nothing compared with John Astin, who portrayed him. These days Astin is swooping around the country with his one-man play Edgar Allan Poe—Once Upon A Midnight. This screamathon takes place on Halloween at Patchogue Theater for the Performing Arts. Astin recently spoke with Ian D’Giff.
It has been five years since you’ve undertaken the Poe persona. Do you ever find yourself slipping into bouts of madness?
That’s interesting. A different Poe is most likely going to emerge from this play—a Poe that we believe is closer to the real thing than the image that we have. We are somewhat corrupted by the lies that were told about Poe by his biographer and literary executor, which started with his obituary. It’s a very sad thing. This is a man who did have a problem with alcohol, but he definitely was not a drunkard, because in his forty years of life he produced seventeen volumes of work. A drunkard can’t come up with that. He was not a drug addict. He lived in poverty most of his life and experienced all kinds of tragedy that sent him off the deep end. What he called the “insanity” came from that and sent him into drinking.
Was drinking where his rage came from?
I would say what rage there was in Poe came from the sense of injustice he felt and sometimes the unfairness of life. Poe was always interested in trying to understand life with a capital L. He wanted to ferret out the secret of life and of the universe. That’s why some of the stories are so dark, because that darkness exists in the human being. Today we have the horror exploitation film and people often say that this derives from Poe. This is really a mockery of what Poe was doing. These are things that are manufactured, with horror thrown in gratuitously.
Do you have a favorite Poe piece?
It’s like asking me which of my five boys is my favorite. Unquestionably The Raven is an artistic tour-de-force. I don’t know that there’s a better poem anywhere. It goes so directly to the heart of the matter. So many of the artists today approach things obliquely—it’s part of the style. In a sense they’re afraid of being corny, afraid of being clichéd, and so poets generally approach things from an angle, not directly. Poe confronts this whole question of loss and the permanence of loss in The Raven very directly: the inevitability of death, the immovability of death and the permanence of death. It’s a dead-on direct approach that continues to work today, and it was written over 150 years ago. It’s still just as hot as it was then.
If Poe had written The Addams Family, would he have killed off any of the characters?
No, I don’t think he would have killed anyone. But, I think one of them might have been lost. We would have had to figure out where he or she was.
John Astin in Edgar Allan Poe—Once Upon A Midnight, 7:30pm, October 31 at Patchogue Theater for Performing Arts, 71 E. Main St, Patchogue, 516-286-1133. $18-$27.