"A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears . . . E is for Ernest who choked on a peach, F is for Fanny sucked dry by a leech . . . U is for Una who slipped down a drain, V is for Victor squashed under a train . . ."
From Edward Gorey's "The Gashleycrumb Tricks."
EDWARD ST. JOHN GOREY, one can only presume after meeting him, must have had a hand in creating himself. He's so much like the Victorian weirdos who populate his little drawings and books - and this includes his name, which obviously predestined his career - that he seems to walk right off his own drawing board. Tall, gaunt, bearded, sunken-eyed, he could easily double, say, for the Baron de Zabrus, the vulpine impresario in his uproarious ballet fable, "The Gilded Bat," or for any one of dozens of other spooky eccentrics that have crept from the spidery crannies of his imagination.
Washington is about to get its first large dose of Goreyana, in the form of his designs for the production of "Dracula" that opens this week at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater for a five-week run. The show bowed at the Martin Beck on Broadway last October and the original company is still firmly ensconced there. Without question, its success - a movie version is in the works - is largely due to Gorey's gaily macabre decor.
"Do I have dreams when I sleep,?" he said in a recent interview at Manhattan's Gotham Book Mart, his home-away-from-home. "All the time. All my life is one endless movie, when you come right down to it. And my dreams - they're movies, plays, books, ballets. Yes, once in a while they end up as books of mine. Often I dream these horror movies, awful nightmares from which I wake up paralyzed, consumed with anxiety - which I sort of enjoy. Usually they're caused by something totally trival I've been concerned about."
Though the "Dracula" hit has added another huge contingent to his already ample store of admirers, Gorey admits to being partial to another monument of monsterdom. "I'm really much more of a Frankenstein person myself," he says, agreeing that all of humanity can be divided into two classes, the Dracula people and the Frankenstein people. "I was quite precocious as a child and read a lot. I read 'Dracula' when I was 5, and 'Frankenstein' at 7. It scared the bejesus out of me. Of course, I was bored by a lot of the book. At that age, it hadn't ever occurred to me you could skip anything.
"But I've always liked thrillers, and especially horror storied and movies. Maybe the one I liked best through all the years was 'Nosferatu.'" "Nosferatu," as it happens, is one of the earliest screen versions of the Dracula tale, directed by F.W. Murnau in 1921, 10 years before the Bela Lugosi classic. Oddly enough, it was this same film that inspired composer Aaron Copland to write his first ballet score - oddly,because Gorey happens to be a ballet groupie nonpareil. Since the late '50s, he has attended virtually every New York performance of the New York City Ballet, and he still arranges his life to fit the company's schedulle.
Another silent horror movie Gorey unstintingly, adores is Carl Dreyer's "Vampyr," which he calls "the greatest horror movie ever." "I've heard Werner Herzog is getting ready to make a vampire film and I'm really looking forward to it," he says. "I loved his 'Aguirre.' It was one of the 10 best movie experiences of my life. I'd put it right up there with Griffith. But I detested his 'Heart of Glass' - it was so arty-darty, I was really disappointed. All that glass-blowing and that baroque ending on the island, what was that all about? I didn't understand a word of it."
By no means are all the characters in Gorey's books and drawings vampires, but most of them look as if they could be. His first book, written not long after his graduation from Harvard as a French literature major, was called "The Beastly Baby," and it begins, with fittingly Gothic illustration, "Once upon a time there was a baby. It was worse than other babies. For one thing, it was larger. It's body was not merely obese, but downright bloated. One of its feet had too many toes, and the other one not enough."
Eventually, the baby is carried off by an eagle and bursts in midair like a baloon. "And that, thank heaverst was the end of the Beastly Baby." It may have been the end for the baby, but it was only the beginning for Gorey. It took some years before the book world began to view such stuff as commercially viable - "The Beastly Baby"wasn't published until 1962, and then under Gorey's own imprint, the Fantod Press - but from the beginning a sort of underground Gorey cult grew and flourished.
After his move from Boston to New York in 1953, he recalls, "Someone in the publishing business who'd seen my drawings asked me if I'd like to do a miniature book, yay big (he demonstrates with pursed fingers). I'd always loved looking over lots of 18th-and 19th- century children's books, these tiny things with woodcuts and strange animals and illustrated alphabets." The result was his first published work, "Unstrung Harp; or, Mr.Earbrass Writes a Noval."
Since then there've been some 50-odd Gorey booklettes, as well as drawings, illustrations for other authors, book jackets, posters, ballet and theater designs, and his coterie following has broadened out to a mass market. "Amphigorey," a sampler of 15 of his works from 1953 to 1965, issued in hardcover in 1972 and thereafter in paperback, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies internationally, and "Amphigorey Too," a sequel that came out in 1975, is currently in its third printing.
The stories have titles like "The Gashlycrumb Tinies or, After the Outing," "The Curious Sofa," "The Epiplectic Bicycle," "The Deranged Cousins." Characters tend to have names such as Mrs.Umlaut and Mme. Trepidovska, and to inhabit such places as Penetralia and Bogus Corners. Gorey also goes in for anagrammatic pea-names. Ordred Weary, Wardore Edgy, Edward Blueting ("blueting" is German for "bloody"), Roy Grewdead among others.
He was born in 1925 in Chicago, the only child of Edward Lee and Helen Gorey. His father was a journalist for the Hearst papers. The parents were divorced when Gorey was 11 but remained on friendly terms, and after 16 years they remarried.
As an artist, Gorey was largely self-taught, although he'd taken some courses at the Chicago Art Institute. After a stint in the Army, he entered Harvard, rooming for a couple of years with poet Frank O'Hara. While he was still in Boston he involved himself with the Poet's Theater, illustrated some covers for Anchor paperbacks, worked for the Harvard Advocate, and started downs of unfinished novels. Then came "The Beastly Baby" and the move to New York.
His literary reputation gots a sudden boost in 1959 when Edmund Wilson wrote an extended appraisal for The New Yorker hailing Gorey as enroute to becoming "a master," and lauding the style of his prose and pictures as "amusing and somber, nostalgic and claustrophotic, at the smae time poetic and poisoned."
Gorey began attending New York City Ballet performances in 1953, and after a few seasons became so addicted that he decided there was "no point in not seeing everything - it's easier to see every performance than to anguish over which five performances out of eight to sea." By now he's such a regular fixture at the New York State Theater, in his floor-length fur-cost, sneakers and voluminous muffler, that City Ballet fans who've never met him can tell you all about Gorey's mid- Manhattan apartment with its literary clutter and multitude of cats.
Gorey's devotation to the ballet is not universal or promiscuous. He's very narrowly zeroed in on the New York City Ballet company, and even more particularly on its guiding light, choreographer George Balanchine, whom Gorey has declared to be "the greatest living genius in the arts."
"Balanchine is perfect," he said in an interview. "Inever disagree with what he's done, even in his worst things. I'm probably the only living person who thinks 'PAMTGG' was a good ballet." ("PAMTGG," premiered in 1971 and quickly withdrawn from the repertory, was generally conceded to have been a rare Balanchine booboo; the music was taken from a TV jingle, the initials standing for "Pan Am Makes The Going Great"). Curiously, Gorey has had scarcely and social exchange with his hero. "I've met Mr. B. a couple of times. I suppose he knows who I am. I don't find him offputting or anything, but I guess I don't have much I could say to him. After devoting 25 years of my life to his works, I've got nothing left over for him. "
Gorey says he'd like to design a ballet for Balanchine sometime, and there's been some vague talk along those lines. In the theater, he mostly prefers to sit in front row of the second ring, but "for some reason I just didn't want to pay the full price for all those 'Nutcrakers,' so for 10 years I stook in the back during the holiday season." Occasionally, he'll sit in the orchestra, though he detests continental seating: "I hate not having any aisles - I'm always thinking, suppose I don't like this ballet, how'm I going to get out?"
His favorite Balanchine ballerina is Patricia McBride ("she gets better all the time, as far as I'm concerned"), but he can go on for hours about what he considers the fine points or weaknesses of virtually every dancer in the troup. "Bart Cook is my favorite young male dancer of all time," he'll aver, for instance. "He's the only male besides Todd Bolender I've ever seen who isn't all start-stop all the time - he has the same kind of flow that goes through female dancing."
Occasionally he has changes of heart. "Someone suggested I should keep my eye on Krya Nichols," he says, "but for a long while she just didn't interest me. I couldn't see anything there. Then last season all of a sudden I realized omigod they're all absolutely right, she's so musical." And some cases he regards as question marks. "Stephanie Saland? She's the longest study in world history - they say it take her five years to learn three steps. But I must say, she did one 'Coppelia' that was ravinlingly beautiful, I can't figure it out. And she's a dancer who stands out whether she means to or not; people are always turning around and asking, who's that girl."
"I think it's admirable and brave of Baryshnikov to do this, and I hope it works, but I think it might prove a little more drastic than he's prepared for. Everyone's expecting him to take over all the Villella roles, but you know, no other dancer ever had Villella's incredible horizontal thrust. I saw Baryshnikov do 'Theme and Variations' with American Ballet Theatre and it wasn't good; the part went all squishy. Don't get me wrong, I think he's an absolutely magnificient dancer - I'm just not personally jumping up and down and screaming, if you know what I mean. Still, I'd love to see him do 'Harlequinade' and 'Rubles' and 'Tarantella' and 'Apollo,' with Mr. B. coaching him. I think all the Mischa-freaks may get quite disgusted - 'Oh God, not another Balanchine ballet'. And it would be just like the company to do something out of sheer perversion - have him partnering Karin vos Aroldingen for his debut, or something like that." (Baryshnikov is short; von Aroldingen, who would tower over him, is one of the troupe's tallest ballerinas).
At the moment, Gorey is working on sets and costumes for "Gorey Stories," a musical revue based on his work that will open on Broadway next October, and he's also completing a "Dracula" book as a follow-up to the stage triumph ("they offered me a pot of money for it, how could I refuse?"). Gorey is still amazed at his new-found popularity. "I couldn't have been more surprised that the 'Dracula' production even got on the boards' - we were bouncing the idea around for four years," he says. "But then, I'm one of these people who drift through life - I feel as if I was never supplied with an oar, only a canoe and a small bit of driftwood." CAPTION: Picture, The designer for the macabre stage decor of "Dracula," Gorey says, "I'm really much more of a Frankenstein person myself." Copyright (c) 1978, Nancy Crampton; Illustration, self portrait, by Edward Gorey for the Washington Post