by Robert Klimowski
LIGEIA $13.99 . 55 minutes Audible https://www.audible.com/pd/Edgar-Allan-Poes-Ligeia-Audiobook/1645551318?fbclid=IwAR1ZGKAzN85VzgDNrNmIc7yETcLf8WDc2n6BisOaSBUNPFKSQUeowaDNIxY
How does one properly evaluate an oral interpretation of a written work? The first qualification, of course, is an intimate knowledge of the work itself, but preferably from an actor’s point of view. A scholarly knowledge of the text alone does not enable one to perceive or appreciate the vocal nuances required “to bring the work to life.” As the actor reads the text, she faces an unrelenting flow of choices that must be made in the service of efficient, but deeper comprehension. The critic or reviewer, few of whom are actors, must also be familiar with such choices when evaluating a performance. Critics and audiences agree that the actor who consistently perceives the most suitable interpretive choice, and then successfully executes their intention, is the actor most worthy of praise.
Actor Elizabeth Shepherd has just released a new recording of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “Ligeia,” through Redfield Arts Audio(RedfieldArtsAudio.com). In 1964, she starred with Vincent Price in the Roger Corman film version of the tale, TOMB OF LIGEIA (A.I.P.1964), and played a double role as both the deceased Lady Ligeia, and as her pert successor, the Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine. She has been deservedly remembered and recognized for this superb performance, and so brings a wealth of experience to her reading.
But Robert Towne’s screenplay to TOMB OF LIGEIA, faithful as it is to the spirit of Poe, is not, of course, Poe’s original text. In this recording, Ms. Shepherd has had to radically shift gears to inhabit an entirely different character: the nameless male narrator of Poe’s “Ligeia.”
Some may hesitate, at first, to accept the viability of a female actor portraying a male writing his remembrances of his deceased wife. But such apprehension immediately proves itself groundless. We accept the gender switch unconsciously and instantaneously due primarily to Ms. Shepherd’s intense and utter immersion in the obsessed persona of the narrator, aided by her marvelous facility in the lower vocal range.
Before commenting further on Ms. Shepherd’s performance, however, it’s important to first consider the nature of this story that Poe himself considered his “best tale.”
Unlike the first-person narrators of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the narrator of “Ligeia” is explicitly writing, rather than speaking his story (“And now, while I write, a recollection flashes upon me…” [paragraph 1]). By its very nature as a written document, then, “Ligeia” is inherently more reflective than Poe’s more orally inclined tales. And as such, “Ligeia” requires a different type of delivery – an “internal narration,” if you will, in which the actor speaks the thoughts of the narrator in the process of writing them on paper. In short, it’s the difference between reading a diary aloud and reading dialogue aloud. The first is inward-oriented, while the latter is outward-oriented. And while these distinctions may appear subtle in print, they are much easier to detect in performance. Ms. Shepherd’s performance succeeds, in large part, due of her recognition of the narrator’s literary, rather than conversational, mode of communication, and the resultant intense, yet intimate, “internal narration” she so convincingly delivers.
Those who journal regularly well know that the very process of penning one’s thoughts tends to prompt unexpected connections, and in “Ligeia”such unforeseen realizations and speculations by the narrator are frequent. In an oral performance, then, we would expect these moments to seem as surprising and fresh to the actor as they are to the narrator, and Ms. Shepherd does not disappoint on this count. Her delivery is very much “present” and “in the moment” rather than “retrospective” in character. Let’s examine now some of the more specific aspects of Ms. Shepherd’s performance, restricting ourselves to the story’s first paragraph, both for ease of reference and as representative of her artistry throughout the story’s telling.
From the outset, Ms. Shepherd begins her narration forcefully and abruptly, in a state of exasperation (“I cannot, for my soul, remember…”), as if the lapse of time and “much suffering” have robbed the narrator of memories once so dear. By foregrounding this frustration, Ms. Shepherd immediately suggests that the narrator is mentally impaired. It is, after all, unusual for someone to forget how, when, and where they met the very person they so idolize. So, by initially assuming a forceful vocal attitude of vexation, Ms. Shepherd emphasizes the fact that we are listening to the thoughts of an unreliable narrator and signals the listener not to accept everything that he relates at face value.
As the story progresses, we learn the probable cause of the narrator’s disability: he “had become a bounden slave in the trammels of opium” and “was habitually fettered in the shackles of the drug.” And as he writes this account of poignant mania, Ms. Shepherd’s reading leads us to suspect that he still is.
Identified and footnoted below, are six “creative pauses” Ms. Shepherd makes in her narration of the first paragraph. These pauses are motivated purely by character concerns rather than what punctuation or natural phrasing would suggest. And it is just such touches as these (which the actor often unconsciously employs) that lift a performance from the adequate to the engrossing. The footnotes attempt to explain the reasons behind Ms. Shepherd’s creative choices.
“I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or * even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her * singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so * steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown. Yet I believe that I met her first and most frequently in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine. Of her family — I have surely heard her speak. That it is of a remotely ancient date cannot be doubted. Ligeia! Ligeia! Buried in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world, it is by that sweet word alone — by * Ligeia —that I bring before mine eyes in fancy the image of her who is no more. And now, while I write, a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known * the paternal name of her who * was my friend and my betrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my bosom.”
One could catalog many more instances of Ms. Shepherd’s expressiveness in this recording. Suffice it to say that 55 years after her tour de force performance in TOMB OF LIGEIA, she has significantly widened the scope of her accomplishments in the Poe-interpretation sphere.
Note: The reviewer strongly recommends comparing Ms. Shepherd’s reading with that of Vincent Price’s 1977 recording of “Ligeia” on Caedmon records – a rare and fortunate opportunity to hear the stars of a film adaptation independently interpreting its literary source text.
Robert Klimowski is a retired school teacher from Des Moines, Iowa, currently researching the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe.”
This is Robert’s first piece for SCARLET ,but we hope not his last-Kevin
 This pause in a series (“how, when…”) suggests the writer’s own surprise at his failure to remember details which, especially regarding significant relationships, are usually indelibly imprinted on one’s consciousness.
 Another pause in a series (this time of descriptive phrases) which may be intended to highlight the narrator’s initial difficulty in describing Ligeia’s “singular yet placid cast of beauty,” or simply to emphasize it.
 A pause intended to emphasize the subtle nature of Ligeia’s growing influence.
 A pause to emphasize “that sweet word alone.”
 This pause signals the narrator’s sudden surprise on realizing that he has “never known“ Ligeia’s last name. This pause, however, comes after the italicized phrase is spoken, not before.
 This pause may reflect the narrator’s temporary difficulty in trying to sum up his rich and various relationships with Ligeia.
Want to write or illustrate for us?? Write to Kevin at Scarletthefilmmag@yahoo.com