Arts: The international terrorist

Edgar Allan Poe, America's most influential writer, died 150 years ago. But why is that such big news in Prague?

A hundred and fifty years ago, a middle-aged man was found in a state of collapse on a Baltimore street. Rambling and delirious, he died a few days later in a local hospital, leaving a mystery as grotesque and disturbing as any in his famous stories. What killed Edgar Allan Poe? Was it alcoholism, his weak heart, rabies, or even murder? The argument still rages, but it is clear enough that the prime culprit was simply the poverty that had dogged and frustrated him throughout his adult life. Poe once claimed that he had been to St Petersburg, allegedly en route to fight for Greek independence. Unfortunately he was fibbing and trying, as he often did, to "out-Byron Byron".

The man who was to become America's greatest literary influence on European culture simply didn't have the cash to travel. He would surely find it ironic, but also very gratifying, that today the greatest ever celebration of his life and work is being held in the city of Prague, which likes to call itself "the heart of Europe".

The Poe Festival, which began in August and continues until the end of October, is unequalled in scope and ambition even by anniversary events in the United States. It aims to show the vast, dizzying impact of Poe's dark visions on every branch of highbrow and popular culture. Beside a major exhibition of Poe memorabilia and works of art inspired by his stories and poems of terror, there are concerts, plays, lectures and a two-week film season featuring favourites and rarities among the many movies inspired by Poe from the silent era onwards.

On 7 October, the anniversary of his death, the festival will culminate with two productions by the Czech State Opera of Philip Glass's Fall of the House of Usher and Russell Currie's The Cask of Amontillado in the the Prague Castle cellars.

The festival's honorary patron is Christopher Lee, and although the grand old man of horror may well turn up in Prague, the unlikely mastermind behind the event is Peter Fawn, 37, a British executive with American Express. Mr Fawn's mild manner is deceptive, since he has been a Poe fanatic, since his first reading, aged 10, of "The Black Cat" in The Boys' Book of Horror Stories. At 16 he spent his first pay-packet on a Poe first edition, and at 17 he ordered his own personal raven from a taxidermist. Now married to a very understanding wife, he named his son Vincent (after Vincent Price, the great Poe interpreter), and his daughter Ligeia (after the doomed Poe heroine).

If Peter Fawn's first love was Poe, then his second was Prague, where he lived from 1993 to 1998, setting up American Express all across post- communist Europe. All the time he was setting Amex wheels in motion, however, his mind was on the tortured genius whose credit rating, based on his constant insolvency and gambling debts, unfortunately would not have allowed him an American Express card. Mr Fawn drew Czech friends into a search for local editions of Poe, sought out Czech artists and conceived the idea of a small Prague Poe exhibition. A chance meeting with Scottish actor and director Clive Perrot, a fellow Poe-enthusiast, inspired him to think bigger.

Mr Perrot is now the festival's artistic director. He is the director of an 18-minute movie of The Black Cat, which will be screened this month, and has brought the London Indelible Theatre to Prague to perform his own show, Poezest!, at President Vaclav Havel's old Theatre on the Balustrade. Poezest! is a light, lightning collage of Poe stories with music and ballet, designed to appeal "even to people who don't know Poe, or don't like him."

The first half presents Poe as the father of psychological horror, with an especially chilling rendition of "The Tell-Tale Heart". The second half consists of comic-strip versions of "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", during which Poe's super-logical amateur detective, Dupin, disturbingly metamorphoses into Sherlock Holmes and reveals that the orphan from Baltimore, not Arthur Conan Doyle, was the true father of detective fiction.

For a darker, more complex view of Poe, the festival has brought over two American incarnations of the master - David Kelz and Kevin Mitchell Martin whose one-man shows alternate nightly in the gothic vaults of Charles University. Martin deservedly won an Edinburgh Festival Fringe award three years ago with his heart-wrenching portrayal of the boy rejected and humiliated by his rich Virginian adoptive father, and the adoring husband forced to watch the lingering death of his young wife (later immortalised as the lost Annabel Lee of his poetry).

David Kelz plays more the self-conscious literary lion, mauled but still dangerous as he savages the reputations of lesser literary talents in more comfortable positions. Both performances draw spooky power from the setting in the vaults of the Carolinum that they share with the Poe exhibition.

The sight of first editions under glass or an author's laundry bills usually leaves me cold. Here, however, the beautiful but sinister surroundings lend poignancy to exhibits like the copy of Poe's first published book, Tamerlaine, (now one of the rarest and most valuable American first editions), not to mention his stockings, boothooks and cane, and a piece of his coffin, which disintegrated with appropriate ghastliness when he was disinterred for reburial in a more imposing tomb.

The most valuable historical objects, on their first visit to Europe, have been lent by the Poe Museum in Richmond and the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection. Peter Fawn has added his own entertaining selection of film posters, comics, sheet music, foreign language editions and curiosities, including Buddy Holly's feeble piece of high-school homework on the Father of American Literature. Poe also looks down mournfully from a blow-up of Peter Blake's montage album cover of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper (he's eighth from the left on the top row).

But what, you might ask, has any of this really got to with Prague or the Czech Republic? The answer lies in the Czech artists, living and dead, whose Poe-inspired works form a major part of the exhibition. Downstairs in the vaults, the room dedicated to "The Masque of the Red Death" is dominated by an enormous, glowing skull, the work of Czech sculptor Josef Hnizdil.

Next door the highlight of "The Pit and the Pendulum" display is a real, operational pendulum with a lethally sharp blade that had Clive Perrot panicking when he posed as the victim for a photo opportunity at the festival press conference. Made of four types of matured wood, it is the creation of artist Jindrich Vydra, who also contributed several superb mosaics on Poe themes.

These works were commissioned by the single-minded Fawn, but Poe had already inspired some of the great names of earlier 20th-century Czech art (such as the symbolists Josef Vachal and Alois Bilek) whose haunting, disturbing and witty pictures of ravens, red death and black cats are now hanging in the Carolinum Cloisters.

The first Czech translations of Poe's work appeared in the 1830s, and Czechs immediately seemed to form a special relationship with the poetry and fiction. Twelve Czech poets have produced versions of "The Raven", and, as Jindrich Vydra reminded me, Prague's greatest author, Franz Kafka, was fascinated by Poe, whose dreadful pendulum may well have inspired the even more horrible and elaborate killing machine of his story "In the Penal Settlement".

Oldrich Kulhanek, a leading graphic artist whose Poe illustrations and portrait of the artist are part of the exhibition, stresses that the tortured American has become "everybody's property", but admits that Poe has had a special appeal to the Czech artistic tradition with its taste for the grotesque, extreme and fantastical. Art historian Dr Jiri Setlik goes further, suggesting that Poe helped to inspire the Czech national revival movement in the 19th Century, as well as the symbolists and avant-gardists of later generations.

At all events, Czechs take Poe quite as seriously as he would have wanted. The Czech contribution to the exhibition is, indeed, a striking contrast to the lurid sensationalism of many western treatments of Poe themes in comics and movies. Poe, after all, insisted that "terror is from the soul", never created unambiguously supernatural monsters, and would have had no truck whatsoever with the blood-and-guts literalism of some of his Hollywood adaptations.

Peter Fawn would like to take his exhibition and some of the accompanying shows to London, but that depends on finding a sponsor. Meanwhile Poe himself, whose spirit has never been confined in his premature grave, seems very much at home in Prague.

The Edgar Allan Poe International Festival, Carolinum, Charles University, Prague, continues until 30 October. For programme details see Website: Tel: 01273 594226 Fax: 01273 594229

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