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Ezra Pound may be best known for his literary pursuits, but for playwright Sean O’Leary, who’s made the infamous expat the subject of his latest work, Pound, “themes of self-delusion and denial” were what made the writer’s life worth exploring.
It’s a topic that’s interested West Virginia native O’Leary since his first play, 1999’s Wine to Blood, put him in contact with Americans who had traveled abroad to fight alongside the Stalin-supported foes of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. In old age, O’Leary found, some had repudiated Communism, but others “were Stalinists…up to the day they died.”
Pound’s life offered up the political converse: After settling in Italy in 1924, he became a supporter of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini; before and during World War II, Pound made a series of regime-supporting, anti-Semitic statements that were broadcast on Rome Radio.
When Mussolini’s government collapsed, Pound was turned over to the U.S. Army. Facing treason charges in the States, he underwent a psychiatric evaluation in 1945 and was found unfit to stand trial. So began the poet’s 13-year stay at D.C.’s St. Elizabeths mental hospital.
A fictionalized account of a single week shortly before its subject’s 1958 release, Pound attempts to explain what was to become a permanent and drastic change in the title character.
“He was a very gregarious and energetic guy who in many respects dominated the place,” O’Leary, 48, says. “He was famous for virtually owning the tennis courts there.” But shortly before he left, Pound became “physically enfeebled and very withdrawn.”
O’Leary’s work dramatizes this shift, attributing it to a series of psychiatric sessions in which Pound is compelled to face his past—and himself—without delusion. As the play opens, the 73-year-old Pound is still an “absolutely hell-on-wheels, dominating character” who was often hostile to the hospital’s doctors—not necessarily the type to share his emotions. Enter Mary Polley, a fictitious young Jewish psychiatrist new to the hospital. After some initial stumbling, she gets through to Pound—with ulterior motives—and eventually convinces him to open up.
“How can a psychiatrist or anybody else come in and completely tear down [Pound’s] self-esteem and self-image and leave it in tatters on the floor?” O’Leary asks. The playwright created Pound’s hypothetical foil in order to strip away the writer’s elitist rationalizations, to “take him back to being the same strange and alienated kid he was before he was able to persuade everybody to follow his notion of literature and how the world works.”
Humanizing someone as reprehensible as Pound isn’t always a popular move, O’Leary acknowledges, because “doing it reminds us that in many respects…we’re not too different from them.”
Though his father directs a community theater in West Virginia, this is only O’Leary’s second attempt at creative writing. “In most families the kids rebel by going into theater,” he says. “I rebelled by not going anywhere near the damn institution.”
Poised to premiere in a Washington Stage Guild production later this month, Pound has already won the 2004 Pittsburgh New Play Festival and received a glowing review from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. O’Leary has already moved on to his next project: Human Remains, about a massacre of 13 suspected Union sympathizers during the Civil War. The $3,000 commission from the Southern Appalachian Repertoire Theatre should bring O’Leary, who currently works as a marketing consultant, a step closer to his goal of being able to write full-time within the next five years.
“[I’m] getting paid at least a reasonable sum to do something that I would have done anyway,” he says.—Joe Dempsey