Toronto
5 min

A human horror story

Timothy Findley avoids making Ezra Pound easy

WHY DID HE HAVE NO CONTROL? Writer Timothy Findley wonders at Ezra Pound's genius and madness. Credit: Xtra files

Both writer and director are humanizing a devil. Not an ordinary, unequivocal demon, but Ezra Pound, the great US poet who turned into a rabid fascist and anti-Semite.



With The Trials Of Ezra Pound, Timothy Findley adds yet another icon to his gallery in fiction and drama (remember Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare and Conrad’s Kurtz?).



And at the Stratford Festival, Findley gets the creative assistance of director Dennis Garnhum, most recently acclaimed for his productions of Closer at Can Stage, Slavs! at Tarragon, and The Mystery Of Edwin Drood at the Shaw fest. The two men, far more than a generation apart in age, share a fascination with the excruciating paradox of Pound.



Findley’s began in his youth when he read and was swept away by the power of Personae and the Mauberley poems. He admired Pound’s sense of language, imagery and “ability to bring life to subject matter that seemed inaccessible to a majority of poets in his time.” However, Findley’s writing about Pound is “driven by confusion and anger about his fascism and anti-Semitism.”



Findley tells how he visited the poet’s grave at San Michele in Venice in 1994. He found a gigantic marble slab lying flat on the ground with the inscription, “Ezra Pound 1885-1972.” At the back was a curved laurel hedge from where a large, grey lizard, some 10 inches long, came swooping out and sat squarely on Ezra’s name, looked up at Findley and hissed. Taking this as a sign of disapproval from the dead poet, Findley bowed his head and said: “Yes, Ezra, it is me.” Then burst into tears.



What worried Findley most was why such a genius would turn to destructive prejudices.



“He seemed to have no interest in controlling them. It was so alarming to me and so confusing.”



On the one hand, there was the scrupulous craftsman of verse; on the other, there were the virulent, hysterical outcries and wartime radio broadcasts against the “kikes,” US President Roosevelt, and all “robber-barons.” His political, social and economic ideology was bound up with incongruous figures such as Confucius, Mussolini, Alexander Del Mar (the 19th century US money theorist) and Clifford Hugh Douglas (the English father of Social Credit).



As Findley says, Pound was a paranoid megalomaniac, “almost to the point of being ungovernable.” After his arrest for treason and incarceration in a small cage, he was in terrible shape because “his mind couldn’t pull things together.”



Findley’s play exposes Pound to the judgement of others and of history, but it does not dismiss him as a human being. Pound was generous to other poets in whose talent he believed, such as WB Yeats, TS Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Pound was cruel to his long-suffering wife, the English painter Dorothy Shakespear, by refusing to give up his mistress Olga Rudge, by whom he had a daughter.



In The Trials, the poet is shown to do strange things: wandering around, scrutinizing other characters, commenting on them, speaking in ironic undertones, screaming his defiance of the tribunal, launching a rant, suddenly stopping and almost begging for mercy.



“What makes the piece distinctive,” remarks director Garnhum, is that Findley “puts a controversial character right out front and gives you so many facets of the man – the great, the horrible, the shocking, the sad, the tragic – and then basically gets you to decide. There are lots of questions asked and you are left to decide whether history should have been different, whether persons should be persecuted for what they say on radio.”



The play is structured around a tribunal into Pound’s sanity, to determine if he was mentally fit to stand trial for treason. Partly based on the transcripts of a hearing in Washington, DC, in late 1945 and early 1946, the play portrays Pound almost as a ghost of himself, distancing himself from the proceedings at times and reliving moments of his patched history.



The trials are, therefore, more than judicial: they are also the trials of Pound as a husband, lover, writer, friend, American and expatriate.



The courtroom setting also allows the drama to fit the thematic pattern of “trials” in the current Stratford repertory. Having decided to stage The Merchant Of Venice (where Shylock goes on trial before a rather perverse court) and Inherit The Wind (which is about the Scopes Monkey Trial over creationism in the classroom,), artistic director Richard Monette was interested in having a third piece with courtroom drama about destructive prejudices. He remembered Findley’s radio play, and then he remembered Dennis Garnhum.



Garnhum did get to direct a very lightly staged reading at Stratford last season of The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, a play he had cobbled together from various courtroom transcripts. Then, all of a sudden, he got a call to do the Findley play with a handpicked cast that includes Jane Spidell, Damien Atkins, David Storch and David Fox.



“I still wake up in my little house in Stratford and I can’t believe I’m directing Timothy Findley’s play with David Fox.”



Fox is playing Pound, and Garnhum vibrates with rapture: “All his investment of energy goes into the work. I don’t know how one goes beyond an expectation of brilliance, but he does. David goes into all the ugliness and menace, and he manages to find the humour.”



This is a view shared by Findley as well, who marvels at a particular moment when Fox suggests Pound’s mind spinning out of control by simply stopping cold in the middle of a rant, turning and talking calmly about Confucius.



Findley marvels even more at what Garnhum has done with the play.



“It’s Orson Welles time. Bare stage, 12 chairs, four tables, a microphone, and three speakers. And it’s breathtaking,” says Findley. “It was as if he were on a camera dolly – as if the room were mechanically turned. You never get a single view. You get a moving view of everybody.”



Garnhum has used cross-fades and music (particularly “The Banks Of The Wabash” and Polish writer Treisner’s “Requiem For My Friend”) to accentuate the drama.



For his part, Garnhum can’t believe the luck and magic of working with Findley.



“What a generous gentleman he is! From day one he decided he was going to give me all the confidence in the world. When we have questions, we don’t have to waste time figuring out the answers. It’s a great help to have him help make it work in terms of cuts, changes, and word clarity,” says Garnhum. “He so loves actors, he’s a source of inspiration. He comes to most rehearsals and it’s comforting to have him there. It’s also very exciting to be part of his project and watch it all come together.”



THE TRIALS OF EZRA POUND.

$65.65-$70.65.

In repertory.

Sun, Jul 8 to Fri, Aug 17.

Tom Paterson Theatre.

111 Lakeside Dr, Stratford.

1-800-567-1600.



SINGING AT STRATFORD



With a solid reputation as a vocal jazz stylist in a soulful, swing tradition, Toronto-born John Alcorn will now try something a little different: co-ordinating and hosting a series of concerts at The Church Restaurant (70 Brunswick St) for the new Stratford Summer Music Festival. Shows are at 11:30pm; tickets cost $18.



Alcorn is responsible for the jazz component for six late-night cabarets, with a different composer’s music featured each night and with a special guest vocalist drawn from the jazz and theatre worlds.



Cole Porter is paired with singer Arlene Duncan (Thu, Jul 26); Rodgers and Hart get Rita Di Ghent (Fri, Jul 27); Irving Berlin is served up by Theresa Tova (Sat, Jul 28); George Gershwin has Molly Johnson (Wed, Aug 1); Harold Arlen gets Barbara Fulton (Thu, Aug 2); and Jerome Kern is delivered by Melissa Stylianou (Fri, Aug 3).



The series concludes with a “best of” concert on Sat, Aug 4, with special guest Jackie Richardson.