When I went looking for a permanent home on Cape Cod, I picked the village of Yarmouthport for two reasons. One was a hilltop house overlooking a farm and a salt marsh. The other was my realtor’s assurance that artists lived here. This was welcome news. Everybody knew the Cape’s arts center was Provincetown–30 more miles out and an hour farther from Boston, AKA civilization, than I cared to be.
In the mid-Cape, where I’d been house-sitting, only one artist had crossed my path: Kurt Vonnegut. His home was on the west side of Barnstable Village, not far from the Barnstable Comedy Club, where he’d directed and occasionally acted. Although he’d moved to New York now that his children were grown, he was still regarded as a local. Someone told me he was known for giving parties where he’d sit at a table with a bottle of whiskey, not mingling with his guests, just slowly sinking forward while the night, the whiskey, and consciousness disappeared.
I hadn’t met Kurt Vonnegut, but he’d terrified me by telephone. He called after I wrote to ask if he’d like to read the part of Julian Castle in a staged reading of his novel Cat’s Cradle. I’d chosen to adapt that book for my long-overdue return to theater because I loved it, it was patently unstageable, I’d first read it on this very peninsula in its and my youth, and this was its 25th anniversary. And, most of all, because of a letter Vonnegut wrote to the Comedy Club, granting them permission to perform any work of his anytime, without fee and without notification.
I assumed Vonnegut would be pleased the Club had finally accepted his generous offer. On the contrary: He was furious.
What he told me that night on the phone–as fiercely as his lawyer must have reminded him–was that he didn’t own the rights to most of his work, including Cat’s Cradle. “I was bringing up six kids,” he snapped. “I sold everything as fast as I finished it.”
I was still quaking in shock “But–your letter,” I protested. “The Comedy Club has it blown up and posted on the office wall.”
“That was a love letter,” Vonnegut retorted, “and like all love letters, was not meant to be taken seriously.”
After a long and (from my viewpoint) harrowing conversation, he agreed the show could go on. It was only a staged reading, after all, only for a weekend, only to earn money to fix the building’s leaky roof. I didn’t emphasize that although the actors would perform with scripts in hand, we hadn’t skimped on costumes, sets, or rehearsals. Losing our shot at Broadway I could live with, but not losing a long-awaited visit with my sister Bonnie.
Bonnie, a children’s book editor, had recently started a new job in New York. With it came a pile of old contracts needing to be either revived or canceled. One of those was with the artist Edward Gorey, who’d left Manhattan for Cape Cod. Catching up with him was the perfect excuse for Bonnie to come see me and Cat’s Cradle.
About her bringing him to the play I had mixed feelings. Kurt Vonnegut I’d expected to be sardonic and charming, like his character Julian Castle, and look how that had turned out. Edward Gorey I already knew would fall somewhere between grim and blood-curdling.
I’d never been much of a Gorey fan. My taste in fiction ran to action, magic, drama, color. Gorey’s little black-and-white books were too quietly creepy, his delicately etched interiors too hushed, his characters too decoratively enervated, their fates too gruesome.
The tall thin man my sister brought to the play wasn’t like that at all. He wore faded jeans and sneakers, a yellow sweater, two bronze Coptic crosses hung on black strings around his neck. The hair on his head was scant, but as snow-white as his full mustache and beard. Wire-rimmed glasses perched on his aquiline nose; his eyes were radiantly blue. Edward Gorey was as airy and nonchalant as Kurt Vonnegut was brusque and fierce.
After the play we moved with the crowd across the street to the Barnstable Tavern, and talked until the bar closed.
Like me, Edward was fascinated with theater. A script he’d put together, Lost Shoelaces, had been performed on the Cape not long ago. I’d met the director, Genie Stevens. Like Edward, I’d trekked to her production of Top Girls in Woods Hole and was impressed enough to seek her out afterwards. He’d gone one step further and asked if she’d like to take on a project of his. Of course she said yes. I certainly would! With no idea how, when, or where, I recognized this was a man I wanted to work with.
My chance came four years later. I’d bought my Yarmouthport house, not realizing that the artists who lived there were Helen Pond and Herbert Senn, whose brilliant set designs I’d admired for years at the Opera Company of Boston, and their friend Edward Gorey. Helen and Herbert’s home was a gloriously remodeled church called Strawberry Hill. Edward’s was a rambling warren on the other side of Main Street, with a Greek Revival facade facing the town green, a porte-cochere, and one section built in each century from the 17th to the 19th.
My artistic HQ had shifted to Provincetown, where I’d joined a fledgling Playwrights’ Workshop and become board chair of the Provincetown Theatre Company. A friend from Lost Shoelaces mentioned that the Woods Hole Theatre Company had tapped Edward to do another show. I called him (he was listed in the phone book) to ask if he would bring the production to Provincetown after it closed in Woods Hole. Edward said he’d rather write us another one.
Useful Urns opened at the Provincetown Inn in July, written, designed, and directed by Edward and produced and stage-managed by me. Two days before its August finale, he opened Stuffed Elephants in Woods Hole.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and a creative collaboration that lasted until his death. We staged two more original entertainments (as Edward called them) in Provincetown, half a dozen in Bourne, and another half dozen in Cotuit, as well as transfers, benefits, and special performances at the MBL Club in Woods Hole, the Cape Museum of Fine Arts in Dennis, The Heron Bistro in Sandwich, and Storyopolis in Los Angeles, among others.
The pinnacle of Edward’s writing for the stage, in my opinion, was The White Canoe: an Opera Seria for Hand Puppets. Sadly, composer Daniel Wolf finished the score the same week that a heart attack finished Edward. Dan sent me the script, which Edward’s puppeteers performed and I directed. Our friends Herbert and Helen created the set. Only Edward never got to see his doomed lovers paddle across the Dismal Swamp into theater history.
My book Edward Gorey Plays Cape Cod is a recollection of our ten years putting on plays, including Edward’s approach to directing, sets, costumes, and puppets. I drafted it shortly after he died, when I really couldn’t stand to lose him. That same impulse brought me back to a project I’d started while he was alive, which we’d discussed over lunch: Croaked: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery. We’d agreed that our neighborhood restaurant, Jack’s Outback, would make a perfect setting for a murder mystery. Jack agreed, too. When Edward, then Jack’s Outback, then Jack himself all vanished, I didn’t want to finish the book. But even more, I didn’t want to let them all disappear. So Croaked is my tribute to a place and a group of characters who’ll live in my memory, and many others, for a long time to come.
You can find Carol Verburg’s books at www.boom-books.com
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