SEAN O'LEARY'S new play, "Pound," explores the psyche of poet and social commentator Ezra Pound. Although he is often seen as an unsympathetic figure, given his public support of fascism during World War II, the Washington Stage Guild's production offers a different view. The arrogant poet, one of the most famous patients ever held at Washington's St. Elizabeths Hospital, is presented as a sad old man with regrets about his past.
Though his own poetry was practically unreadable by even a fairly well-educated audience, Pound had tremendous impact on modern literature, influencing the work of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. Pound has been called a literary genius, but when it came to politics, his thinking took some strange twists. An ardent supporter of Benito Mussolini, Pound lived in Italy through World War II and made a number of heated, anti-Semitic radio broadcasts upholding the fascist regime. At the war's end, Pound was arrested by the U.S. Army and was to stand trial for treason, the penalty for which was death. Pound's defense claimed the writer was insane and unfit to be tried; thus he was sent to St. Elizabeths, where he remained for 14 years.
"Pound was a fairly overwhelming character who dominated his surroundings and in many respects dominated the hospital," said O'Leary. Conrad Feininger's portrayal reinforces the poet's reputation. An overbearing loudmouth, Pound routinely yells at the staff, calling one kindly, middle-aged nurse "Ole Blue-Hair." He argues with portraits hanging on hospital walls and insults visitors, including fellow poet Archibald MacLeish. A lawyer as well as a writer, MacLeish helped orchestrate Pound's release from St. Elizabeths in 1958.
Shortly before he was discharged, however, Pound underwent a profound psychological transformation. According to O'Leary, he became "a very withdrawn person. . . . I think it's fair to say he was a tortured soul." The play is a fictitious account of what may have caused Pound's breakdown.
A young psychiatrist, Mary Polley (Kathleen Coons), arrives at St. Elizabeths determined to "treat" Pound over several days of marathon therapy sessions. Instead of helping him out of his despondency, she psychologically abuses Pound as an act of revenge. The doctor's parents, Italian Jews, were rounded up by the fascists and killed, spurred, in her mind, by Pound's declarations on the radio.
"There is some historical basis for the character," O'Leary said of Polley. "Two weeks prior to his discharge over a period of a few days, Pound was seen by a new young woman psychiatrist, but there is no indication . . . that she had any impact on Pound." O'Leary did not research the poet's psychiatric records at St. Elizabeths. Yet during preliminary public readings of the script in Washington, O'Leary encountered people who had known Pound at the hospital, including a number of doctors and a psychiatric nurse. "None of these people specifically said that they had treated Pound, but they had met him," he said. "Believe me, [it] is frightening when somebody stands up in the audience and says, 'Well, I'm a psychiatrist, and I was doing my residency at St. Elizabeths when Ezra Pound was there.' " Another time O'Leary was buttonholed by a doctor who summoned up "incredible memories about what a pain . . . Ezra Pound could be."
While at St. Elizabeths, Pound regularly met with an assortment of artists and writers who were eager to hear the writer espouse his radical theories on politics, economy and art. The doctor told O'Leary that Pound was famous for conducting those sessions out on the lawn. "People visiting the hospital [would] enter the grounds, and as they went into a building they would look out over the rolling lawn and see Ezra Pound with his gaggle and immediately assume that it must be a doctor lecturing," O'Leary said.
These indirect contacts with Pound's past reaffirm O'Leary's vivid psychological portrait of what the poet may have been like. However, O'Leary is careful to explain that his play is not a biography. "I used the character Ezra Pound . . . to go through a set of circumstances I largely created for him," he said. "The action you see take place on the stage is pure speculation."