In the summer of 1816, Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord George Byron, both fleeing scandal in their native England, met in Switzerland, sparking one of literature’s most storied, passionate and tumultuous friendships.
This month, the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences will revisit those days with Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, a swirling, lyrical and darkly satirical look at that legendary encounter and its political, emotional and artistic consequences.
Performances will begin at 8 p.m. Feb. 17-19 and at 2 p.m. Feb. 19-20 in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in Mallinckrodt Student Center.
Written in 1984, Bloody Poetry opens on a sunlit beach as Bysshe (played by freshman Lee Osorio) and Byron (senior Brian Stojak) are introduced by Byron’s mistress, Claire Clairemont (junior Emily Harrison). Also on hand is the young Mary (Godwin) Shelley (junior Barrie Golden), Claire’s stepsister and Bysshe’s mistress and future wife.
Aristocratic revolutionaries, the two poets hold much in common, advocating Utopian ideals of freedom and social justice. At the same time, both are often careless in their personal relationships, particularly with women. Byron has left England and a young bride amidst gossip about an affair with his half-sister, while Bysshe has abandoned his first wife, Harriet (sophomore Shari Steinman), and their two children.
Still, for the increasingly tightly knit group, the weeks that follow are marked by free love, lively exchanges and political debate, as well as the birth of two new literary creations. As Mary develops her novel Frankenstein, Byron’s biographer and personal physician William Polidori (senior John Stadler) gathers material for The Vampyre, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
“Much has been made of that practically mythical summer,” noted Jason Cannon, a graduate student in English in Arts & Science, who directs the cast of six. “Was that orgiastic little band of free-thinkers simply wallowing around in self-indulgence? Or were they — in some deep, dark way — actually transfigured for a few short months, to such an extent that they ever after tried to return? What is the kernel of truth at the center of this particular myth?
“Thankfully, this play explores not only that summer, but also the subsequent years, and ponders the ramifications of Bysshe Shelley’s single-minded search for a Utopian society,” Cannon added.
In the end, the poet emerges as wanting “so very deeply, perhaps too deeply — certainly more deeply than most of us allow ourselves — to be ‘good, great and joyous, beautiful and free.'”
The production team is led by seniors Sally Dolembo (costume design) and Lindsay Neeman (set design).
Lighting and sound design are by senior Les Karpas and freshman Andrew Benard, respectively. Dramaturge is senior Amy Soll.
Tickets — $12 for the general public; $8 for senior citizens and WUSTL faculty, staff and students — are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.
For more information, call 935-6543.