Jeffrey Combs is no stranger to horror. Best known for his work in films like The Frighteners, The Pit and the Pendulum, and the Re-Animator series, Combs is taking to the stage. His one-man show, Nevermore, directed by long-time collaborator Stuart Gordon, debuted in Los Angeles in 2009, and after touring with it around the country, he is settling back in for a run at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood. As the name may suggest, Combs plays Edgar Allan Poe, who is giving a poetry recital when he starts to unravel mentally. I chatted with Combs about his role, John Cusack, and the real Poe.
Tell me about Nevermore.
I'm on my third or fourth year with the show. It originated about five or six years ago, when I read a biography of Poe. I really had no intention of doing a one-man-show with him. I was looking for a historical figure that I could focus on. I love history, so I was looking for a historical figure I could portray in a movie. I was resistant to Poe, frankly because I am known in horror and I was looking for a way to expand. But once I read his biography, I was captivated by how complex he was, how multifaceted he was. He was tragic and sublime and ridiculous.
I mentioned it to Stuart Gordon. About a year later, out of the blue, he sent me an email and said, "Hey, check out this script." It was a script that had already been greenlit for an episode of Masters of Horror on Showtime. Stuart and Dennis Paoli, his writing partner, took Poe's The Black Cat and made Poe the main character in the story. So you could tell the story of The Black Cat, and weave into that biographical details of Poe. While we were shooting that, Stu said, "You ought to do a one-man show." I was not interested. Another year went by, and Stuart kept bringing it up, and I started exploring what a show might look like. It blossomed in such a natural way. A theater became available that wanted us to do it - we didn't have to find a venue. I called [Showtime] about the Poe costume. They had just sold the wardrobe to a wardrobe house, but hadn't sent it yet, so they were able to pull the Poe costume and send it to me. A week later, and I would have been in a difficult place. They built that costume for me, and those are difficult and expensive details. All these little, fortunate "gifts" made it possible.
The first year, it was a four-week run, back in 2009. My four-week run turned into six months. For the last few years, I have been touring it. I have done it in Montreal, in Austin... for Poe's bicentennial, I did it in the chapel next to his grave in Baltimore. I did it at Halloween at Lincoln Center last year. The theater I started it at, the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood, asked me to come back and just do it once a month. I really liked that idea. It has its own special challenges. I tell people, "I only have one line; it's just an hour and a half long." So it's a little hard to keep that memorized. But I like doing it once a month because it keeps it fresh and it isn't too much of a commitment, if other projects come up, or if I have to go out of town. It is a happy medium.
It sounds like a great combination: Jeffrey Combs and Poe. What more could a person want?
It is a very special evening. We try to recreate one of Poe's recitals. In his day, writers did not get royalties. They sold it once and it could be reprinted without any additional fees. In order to augment their income, writers would do recitals. They would sell tickets as "An Evening With..." and read some of their material. We took that format and played with it a little bit. We tried to incorporate Poe's self-destructive tendencies. His own inner demons start coming forth, and the evening doesn't remain particularly formal or proper.
As one would expect from Poe!
You'd be surprised... When I did the show in Baltimore, there were some hardcore Poe-ophiles there who couldn't get around the idea that I would portray Poe with flaws. They would say that Poe never did that on stage. I'm talking about drinking here. [In my play] Poe pulls out a bottle and starts drinking. True, he never did that, but there are plenty of stories in which Poe's life was destroyed by drinking. We just incorporated it into a condensed evening, trying to show all the colors of Poe.
Another guy insisted that Poe was not an alcoholic.
Well that guy is just delusional.
I said, "How do you reconcile the reports of him being drunk in public?" He would say that Poe was allergic to alcohol. Wouldn't that be the same thing? That's the sort of enabling people who have put him on a high pedestal have done. He can't have any flaws.
The vast majority of people love the show. But one woman saw it and said to me, "I'm a teacher and I have been teaching Poe for a long time. How could you convey him like this? He was perfect and didn't have psychological issues and was not manic-depressive. He didn't have a drinking problem, he just wrote twisted stories and beautiful poetry." That's what makes it fun, though. I'm not out to please anybody; I'm out to convey the spirit of the man and his genius - and his demons.
Do you find the fact that he is such a tragic figure on of the allures in Poe as a character?
I've said this before: I see Poe as America's Van Gogh. Brilliant and haunted. People don't realize that a lot of the stories he wrote were to make a dollar. He preferred to be a poet. He was a magazine editor and sometimes, to fill space, he would come up with something, and he clicked [with audiences]. He's a very good writer, so he could come up with stories. He did not begin his career thinking, "I am going to write twisted stories." He wanted to be a poet and write high literature, but it wasn't as lucrative. His day job was as an editor and literary critic. He was scathing because he had high standards. When he moved north-east to New York and Philadelphia, his reputation followed him, and writers there looked down on him because he had already ripped them a new one. One review he wrote said, "The binding on this book is beautiful." That kind of thing.
He had a real chip on his shoulder. Being from the south, he was ostracized; his own opinions ostracized him. When he published "The Raven" - a Poe scholar told me this - he published the poem under a pseudonym. What the reviews were good, he stepped forward and claimed it.
That seems a good way to do it. Maybe I should start doing that with some of my reviews.
[Laughs] There you go! Poe worried that if he put his name on [a poem] there would be bias, even if it was good.
He was also desperately poor. He was an orphan - his mother died when he was three - and he married his 13-year-old first cousin. But he loved her. She died of consumption - tuberculosis - when she was like 22. It broke his heart, and he didn't live much longer after that.
Do you worry that, with John Cusack's The Raven coming out, people will think that you are jumping on the Poe bandwagon, or compare the two properties?
Well, Jeffrey Combs jumped on the bandwagon four years ago!
You know that, and I know that.
The producers of The Raven actually came and saw my show. Maybe they were just doing research. I'm not the first. John Astin toured with a Poe show for many, many years. There are many Poe performers. When I went to Baltimore, three or four of them came up to me after the show. One of them was 6'8" - Poe was only 5'8" - and he said, "I do a Poe show!" Okay then!
I wish The Raven movie all the best. If it keeps the Poe legacy alive, more power to it. I haven't seen it yet.
I saw it last night. You are actually my first Poe of the day - I am interviewing John Cusack about it in a few hours.
I am! It's so bizarre - it's the day of Poes.
Oh my god. Will you ask him, "Why a goatee?" Poe never wore a goatee. I guess there is no reason why he couldn't wear a goatee, but he took a lot of photos for the time, and in not even one did he have a goatee. [Cusack said they wanted to do a different portrayal of Poe; he wanted to bring his own take to the role - ed.]
Nevermore plays every third Thursday of the month at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood, California. To buy tickets or check the schedule, visit Trepany House.