Kelly Gallagher ‘22
Many of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous works resonate particularly well with the spooky Halloween spirit of October, a theme which is embraced by the International Edgar Allan Poe Festival based in Baltimore. The Poe Fest traditionally occurs on the first weekend of October, commemorating Poe’s date of death on Oct. 7, 1849, and this year it has been moved to an online format, which has opened the doors for creative contributions. Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross, developed an innovative plan to present the first act of her screenplay, The Raven Woos the Dove, at the Poe Fest.
In only the second meeting of Professor Sweeney’s Fall 2020 seminar, “Poe’s Haunted World,” students read through the screenplay’s first act in a recorded Zoom session. Thanks to the technical direction of Will Armstrong ‘21 and the video editing skills of Matthew Wasser, technical theatre fellow at the College, students appear on-screen only when they are reading. The resulting video was clean and professional, and Professor Sweeney told The Spire that she is “tremendously excited” to share it at the Poe Fest, which will feature other fun pop-culture representations of Poe. The reading will be streamed on Saturday, Oct. 3, at 6 P.M. ET.
Poe and Whitman’s courtship is a lesser-explored period of Poe’s life, and Professor Sweeney’s interest in it stems from her experience teaching previous classes on Poe. Professor Sweeney enjoys taking students on field trips, but there aren’t many significant locations related to Poe near the College, except for Providence, Rhode Island, which Poe visited in order to court Sarah Helen Whitman. Professor Sweeney structured the tour in terms of Poe’s courtship with Whitman. Classes visited Whitman’s house, which hasn’t changed much since she lived there, and locations the pair frequented – including Swan Point Cemetery, where Poe proposed to Whitman two days after meeting her in person for the first time.
Professor Sweeney, who is an ardent movie-lover, later read a book on screenplays and realized that Poe’s courtship with Whitman would be the perfect three-act screenplay. The first act consists of a call to adventure, which occurs when Whitman writes a rather “sexy poem kind of hitting on Poe,” as Professor Sweeney explained. Professor Sweeney described Poe and Whitman’s “complicated, indirect, oblique courtship,” which involves “sending anonymous unsigned poems back and forth, sending letters with forged signatures, letters that go to the wrong address.” The first act culminates when Poe, who lives in New York, goes to Providence to meet Whitman.
The screenplay explores the conflict between romance and reality that characterizes Poe and Whitman’s relationship. The relationship begins in a burst of intense passion. As Professor Sweeney explained, “These two sort of lost souls, who are both needy in different ways, meet in person, and they immediately fall in love. They have this idea that they’re meant to be.” But when Poe proposes to Whitman, she turns him down. Later in the screenplay, Poe proposes again and Whitman accepts, but only on the condition that he quits drinking. Two days before they are scheduled to marry on Christmas Day of 1848, Whitman receives an anonymous note which reveals that Poe has broken his vow, and the pair call off the marriage. Even today, the writer of the note remains unknown, and Professor Sweeney theorizes that either Poe or Whitman wrote it in order to get out of the marriage. She notes that Whitman “was actually pretty conservative, even though she had these romantic ideas. It was one thing to write about them in poems, but it was another thing to actually marry Edgar Allan Poe and spend the rest of your life with him.” Ultimately, Professor Sweeney wonders “how much either of them, for much of their relationship, thought it would work.”
The courtship struck Professor Sweeney as a perfect three act screenplay, and she decided to give it a shot herself. She drafted the screenplay after she received a Faculty Fellowship from Holy Cross and an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship to the Lilly Library at Indiana University in 2013. Almost everything in her script is true, with Professor Sweeney changing only a few details.
When sharing her experience with The Spire, Professor Sweeney stated, “It is very hard to write a screenplay. I’m still not sure if I know how to write a screenplay, because it takes the form of pictures. In a movie, there’s actually hardly any dialogue. Most of the emotion and story is communicated by seeing a character do something. It was hard to learn how to tell a story just by describing what the camera is looking at. I think I’m still trying to figure out how to tell a story just with pictures, and not telling a story the way you tell stories, which is with words. It’s a wonderful challenge, but I have to get my mind to think in a different way. It’s strange because I love movies so much, so I’m used to experiencing this as a viewer, but as a producer, it’s really a challenge. On the other hand… just imagining it is the best part of writing anything for me.”Information on viewing the reading of The Raven Woos the Dove and other Poe Fest activities can be found here.