Volume 76, Number 4 | June 14 - 20 2006

Theater

Great poet and World War II traitor Ezra Pound is the subject of Sallie Bingham’s “Treason,” now at the Perry Street Theater.

Poet in a cage, long before Guantánamo

By Jerry Tallmer

In the opening moments of a play called “Treason,” the poet Ezra Pound, dressed flamboyantly in cape, sombrero, flowing cravat, and ruffled shirt, speaks into a microphone at a broadcast studio in Rome in 1941. “Kike Rosenfelt,” he exclaims, “that snotty barbarian … If ever a nation produced efficient democracy it has been in Germany … Eliminate Roosevelt and his Jews, or the Jews and their Roosevelt … ”

In the middle of the play called “Treason,” Pound, now at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Alexandria, Virginia, is visited in 1955 by a young American agitator named John Kasper, who does Pound one better with: “This ain’t about poetry, Pops, this is about the Mission: Cleansing the Anglo-Saxon race of befouling elements – Nigs, Yids, and the rest of the gutter trash. Write that, Pops!”

In the closing moments of Sallie Bingham’s “Treason,” Ezra Pound toward the end of his long life (1885-1972) is visited in his “hidden nest” in Venice by an American poet named Allen Ginsberg, then in his 40s, who comes bearing books, records, and flowers.

Allen puts on, for the old man’s benefit, the Beatles singing “Yellow Submarine.” As Olga Rudge, Pound’s lifelong mistress, starts to shoo the visitor out so Pound can rest, the writer of “Howl” says to the man who, traitor or otherwise, shaped the course of modern poetry in the English language: “Your Cantos are enormously important to me” and extends a hand to shake farewell. “My worst mistake,” Ezra Pound grunts to Allen Ginsberg, “was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism – spoiled everything.”

Did he really say that? Apologize like that? “Well,” says Sallie Bingham, here in New York for the opening of “Treason” at the Perry Street Theatre, “according to Allen Ginsberg he did.”

But Allen, said a journalist who had known him, was an extremely generous man.

“An extremely generous man,” playwright Bingham agreed. “So he may have hoped Ezra said that. It is crucial; it’s the only bit of remorse Ezra ever expressed, if he did express it.”

Wheels within wheels within wheels. On page 28 of one draft of the script of “Treason” – “There’ve been at least ten drafts,” says the playwright – Ezra Pound, a prisoner of the U.S. Army in a cage in Pisa, Italy, where Pound faces the prospect of execution for treason, says to his jailor, Sgt. Paul Whiteside, a black American as irony would have it: “Do you favor putting men in cages, Whiteside?”

Alongside which, the reading journalist has scribbled one word: “Guantánamo!”

“What made me want to write this play?” says Sallie Bingham. “When we got into the Iraq War, and started putting people in iron cages, it seemed such a connection to Ezra.

“You know, in those broadcasts from Rome he believed he was only doing his duty as an American citizen. What polluted it was he was such an anti-Semite. The rantings and ravings of a madman. How do you divide these things?”

Pound’s “Pisan Cantos” may have been enormously important to Allen Ginsberg, but to Sallie Bingham, today, “they are almost unreadable,” and not only to her. But without Pound, as mentor and dross-remover, there would be no Yeats, no T.S. Eliot, no Robert Frost, no William Carlos Williams, no dozens of others as we know them today, no Ernest Hemingway even. And no H.D.

H.D. was Hilda Doolittle, the poet who, when they were teenagers outside Philadelphia, was one of Ezra Pound’s first romances – a romance she wrote about years later in “End to Torment” – and it was an interest in H.D. that led novelist and short-story writer Sallie Bingham to an interest in Pound.

“In Pound and in his many betrayals – of his wife, his mistress, his daughter, various other women, and his country, and his talent.”

Wife Dorothy Shakespeare Pound, mistress Olga Rudge, daughter Mary Rudge, interim priapic rejuvenator Sherri Martinelli, interim priapic rejuvenator Marcella Spann, Dr. Overholser the St. Elizabeth’s shrink, Sgt. Whiteside the keeper of the cage, John Kasper the vicious nutcake, Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux the nutcake evangelist, poet Allen Ginsberg, and Pound himself – they’re all here and in fine, passionate fettle, even if the endearment that Ezra and Dorothy’s keep tossing back and forth, one to the other – an inexplicable “Mao” that must surely have nothing to do with China – may drive you gaga.

“We don’t know where they got that, or why, or what it referred to,” says Ms. Bingham. We do know that Ezra Pound, lover of many women, firmly believed “a female is a chaos.”

The actors, under the direction of Martin Platt, cofounder with Ms. Bingham of Santa Fe (New Mexico) Stages, are Jennifer Sternberg as Dorothy, Niccole Orth Pallavicini (Olga), Rachel Fowler (daughter Mary), Kathleen Early (Sherri), Mary Bacon (Marcella), Peter van Wagner (Overholser), Damon Gupton (Whiteside/Michaux), David Heuvelman (Kasper/Ginsberg – rather clever casting), and, the ne plus ultra, Philip Pleasants as Ezra Pound.

It was Pleasants – the Pound of a reading in Santa Fe in 1999 and another at the Women’s Project here in 2002 – for whose availability the Perry Street production had to wait from last fall until now.

Wheels within wheels within wheels.

Two of “Treason’s” characters, John Kasper and Sherri Martinelli, were once, back in the ’50s, rather well-known presences in Greenwich Village. Not to mention Ginsberg, of course. Matter of fact, Kasper for a while ran a bookstore of sorts on Bleecker Street.

“I knew about John Kasper,” says Sallie Bingham, “before I knew about Ezra. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where Kasper gave a speech against integration of the schools just after the Supreme Court’s 1952 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. ‘Niggers have tails’ – all that stuff. It was a very inflammatory speech, and this whole mass of people marched

to the Louisville Courrier-Journal and smashed the newspaper’s windows.

“Well, that was my family’s newspaper.”

It was indeed. Sallie Bingham’s father was Barry Bingham, famed editor of that newspaper – “a good old liberal Southern newspaperman … In 1952 I would have been 15,” says Barry Bingham’s daughter (who today has three grown sons of her own). “So of course all that made a terrific impression on me. When John Kasper suddenly came back into the Ezra story, it was eerie.”

When iron cages come back into democracy’s story, that’s eerie too.

 TREASON. By Sallie Bingham. Directed by Martin Platt. Enters previews June 8 toward June 15 opening of an engagement through July 29 at the Perry Street Theatre, 31 Perry Street, (212) 868-4444.

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