|Pound: The Poet on Trial
This play gives Ezra Pound his trial on charges of
treason that the government never permitted. This play
also deals with issues of freedom of speech, economic
theory with an emphasis on the Social Credit movement
of the 1930s, and prejudice (especially anti-Semitism).
The play is written as a one-man show.
The play takes place on an
empty stage. The only
required prop is a 1940
vintage radio microphone
About the Poet:
Ezra Pound is most noted for the literary
figures that he mentored and
supported, including James Joyce, TS
Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, DH
Lawrence, and many others. He was a
passionate economist and advocate of
an economic theory called social credit.
During World War 2 he made regular
anti-American and anti-semitic radio
broadcasts on Italian radio, and after
the war he was charged with treason.
He was never tried, but was imprisoned
in an insane asylum for eighteen years.
Six performance run, Midtown
International Theatre Festival,
NYC. One month run,
Theatre Row, NYC. One
Artists Festival, NYC.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis, New Theatre Corps
Ezra Pound, the Modernist poet, became a controversial expatriate when he fled during World War II to regularly dispatch
ludicrous left-wing commentary on American economics and politics from Rome. When he returned, he was accused of treason,
but was deemed too mentally unstable to stand trial and so never faced charges. Until now: at Theater Row, William Roetzheim is
giving him the trial he never had, and each night the audience acts as the jury and provides the final verdict. (Inside every program
is a double-sided card: guilty/innocent.) It’s up to Jeff Berg, who plays Pound and six of Pound’s testifying peers, to keep the
proceedings evenly balanced. He succeeds, running the gamut from vulnerable and condoning to unapologetic and obstinate.
Roetzheim’s script is an invaluable resource—thorough, well-researched, and bias-less—but it’s Berg’s performance that makes
it more than just another drama rooted in historical fiction; it truly paints a portrait of a poet’s life.
Pound’s signature stream-of-consciousness lends itself to Roetzheim’s vignette-style monologues as the play (and spotlight)
revolves around the different witnesses brought into the courtroom to be interrogated. Berg takes on a total of seven different
characters, from the Department of Justice’s prosecutor (his deep Southern drawl and Bible-Belt morals) to members of Pound’s
literary circle (Berg embodies both Allen Ginsberg and Ernest Hemingway in this play, and as Pound he reminisces of Lost
Generation comrades during his time in Paris such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein) to the irrational and impossible
Pound himself. By dividing the stage into zones, Roetzheim makes it easy for the audience to identify scene transitions without
harsh fadeouts or the untimely use of music, and also gives Berg space to transform. This clear staging showcases Berg’s
range of tones, limitless energy, and his fun-loving, engaging approach to his role: at times he flirts directly with the audience, and
even takes one onstage with him as a dance partner while talking of the parties he attended in Europe.
As an effeminate Italian socialite who knew Pound in Rome, Berg sits center stage, legs crossed at the knees and his hands
folded over them, leaning forward. His one signature accessory is a black scarf, which he drapes around his neck for added flair.
Then, crossing downstage, he leans against a wall, close to the front row. His voice lowers, his eyes narrow, and his shoulders
widen, giving him a sense of height and burliness. He adds to this brute masculinity by wrapping and unwrapping that scarf with
the methodically slow confidence of someone who enjoys fighting: suddenly, he is Ernest Hemingway. Berg strings his
sentences along with a smooth confidence, believably reciting the emphasized, powerhouse lines Roetzheim scripts, which he
obviously based on Hemingway’s prose. As the play progresses so does Pound’s madness, and Berg’s ascension into these
depths is just as believable and jarring: his monologues become impassioned rants where he raises his voice uncontrollably
and takes shorter breaths.
While audiences may need to brush up on their American literature to follow all the namedropping, Pound is no dusty
regurgitation of literary criticism. True, it has enough high-brow appeal to indulge poetry buffs but it’s also fun-loving and
stimulating thanks to the intelligent but never patronizing script and the brilliant lead actor. Jeff Berg performs with so much
assurance, it’s obvious he’s done his homework, bringing honor and homage to the challenging topical landscape Roetzheim
has laid out. Together they fuse the two genres of poetry and theater without watering down either, making for an incredibly well-
researched script about a man who has reached his breaking point and the special opportunity for audiences to directly react to
all of it.
Reviewed by Ron Cohen, Backstage
Ezra Pound, the influential American poet accused of treason during World War II but never tried, finally gets his chance for a jury
verdict in Pound, written and directed by William Roetzheim. The jury in this case is the audience, whose programs contain cards
with Guilty printed on one side and Innocent on the other. After Pound and various other characters, all of them played by Jeff Berg,
have their say, the audience renders its verdict by flashing the cards.
It's an interesting conceit, and the production during its 75 minutes or so briskly demonstrates how Pound, broadcasting from
fascist Italy, railed against U.S. participation in the war in talks filled with anti-Semitic ranting and hatred for President Franklin D.
Roosevelt. It tells how Pound, arrested after the war, was judged mentally unfit to stand trial and confined to a mental hospital for
12 years. We're also filled in by no less than Ernest Hemingway on how Pound advanced Hemingway's career and those of other
major writers, such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.
With nothing more than a scarf for costume changes, Berger expertly brings to life the play's various personas, from the smug
but magnetic Pound and self-assured Hemingway to a charmingly sincere female Italian propaganda official. But the potential for
courtroom tension is dissipated because the script asks the actor to continuously switch from one role to another, from accusers
to accused and supporters. Rather than emotionally engaging drama, Pound in essence shapes up as a dialectic examining the
role of the artist in relation to his art and society as a whole.
Toward the finish, the poet Alan Ginsberg shows up to testify, arguing that what's happening is about every artist "who is trying to
tell the truth as we see it no matter what the consequences. It doesn't matter whether we're right or wrong; what matters is that
we're honest and passionate." Specious reasoning or not, as it's not Pound's art on trial, the audience at the performance
reviewed found Pound innocent.
Interview published in the Clyde Fitch Report
Playwright William Roetzheim has hit the bifecta — a better word might be quintfecta, since he is the author of five “loosely
integrated” full-length plays about five famous poets: Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Amy Lowell.
Roetzheim appropriately calls his collection Five Poet Plays, but I’m using the word bifeca because Dickinson is running in the
Planet Connections Theatre Festivity (read Roetzheim’s commentary on the play, written for the Clyde Fitch Report, here) and
Pound, which stars Jeff Berg as the hugely controversial poet and political figure as well as various other characters that
intersected memorably with Pound’s life.
Pound already had performances at Tada Theater (May 4, as part of Emerging Artists’ Illuminating Artists Festival) and Studio
Theatre on Theater Row (until June 19, www.ticketcentral.org); now the play is slated to run as part of the Midtown International
Theatre Festival. I guess if you consider these three runs plus the Dickinson run all together, what we’re really talking about is a
quadrifecta. Then again, too many fectas spoil the froth.
Roetzheim, it should be noted, is the author of “22 books, over 100 articles, and 20 spoken-word audio CDs.” For information on
the various plays in this series go to www.roetzheim.com.
And now, five questions William Roetzheim has never been asked. And a bonus question.
1) What’s the most perceptive question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
In the play, Pound talks about Robert Frost, and he is quite clear that he does not like Robert Frost’s poetry. Yet he worked hard
to promote Frost and was a big part of his early success as a poet. If Frost was an unknown poet, and Pound didn’t like Frost’s
poetry, why did he bother? I liked this question because it gets to the heart of Ezra Pound, and also to the heart of my play about
Pound. In terms of Pound the man, he believed that great art was new and honest — that it “bears true witness.” He thought that
whether people liked it or not was irrelevant. No, even stronger than that: he believed if the masses did like it, then by definition it
could not be great art. In the case of Frost, he even applied this criteria to himself, recognizing Frost’s poetry as great art even
though he did not personally like it. In terms of Pound the play, a central question is whether we as society will allow our poets,
our artists, to say what they sincerely believe no matter how much we disagree with them, no matter how much we are offended
by them and no matter how much we are insulted by them.
2) What’s the most idiotic question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
“In the part in the play where Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese but Pound continued to talk on the radio, was that
during the Vietnam War?”
3) What’s the weirdest question about your work anyone has ever asked you?
“You paint a pretty controversial picture of the poets in your plays. Do you ever get concerned that the spirits of these people will
haunt you?” That question was even more weird because the person asking the question had hit on something: By the time I start
writing each play, I’m so immersed in the subject that the poet involved is very much alive and speaking to me in my head, with a
personality of their own. For me, anyway, they are alive and if I wrote something that offended them, or in Pound’s words, that did
not “bear true witness,” I believe that I would be haunted by it.
4) From its description, Pound sounds like the classic conundrum — a fearsomely bright, thoughtful man who was highly
unlikable and combative and unpleasant. In terms of his personality, what were his most misunderstood attributes and what
specific actions did you undertake as a playwright to rectify those perceptions?
Yes, but there’s an underlying characteristic of Pound that was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. When he
bought into something (a person, a trend, a concept) he was dogmatic in his loyalty and did not turn his back even given
tremendous pressure telling him that he was wrong. This characteristic was his greatest strength in his support of several
movements in the art and writing fields, giving us imagism and vorticism and writers such as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William
Carlos Williams and Ernest Hemingway. It was also his greatest weakness. Fascism in general and Mussolini in particular were
extremely popular in the 1920s and early 1930s, and Pound was in the mainstream of intellectuals in his support for them both.
However, as time went on the supporters recognized the flaws of both and ceased their support.
5) Pound was an adherent of the “social credit movement” during the 1930s. Could you, in a sentence, explain what this was? Do
you endorse it personally? Why? Why not?
Well, I can explain it in a compound sentence if that isn’t cheating. An increasing gross domestic product requires a
corresponding increasing monetary supply, and that newly introduced money should be distributed to the workers who caused
the increasing gross domestic product. See, for most of history the goal was to keep the monetary supply more or less fixed —
hence the gold standard. But the rapid increases in the gross domestic product, caused by a combination of population growth
and the industrial revolution, created a series of depressions. Economists finally figured out that the monetary supply needs to
grow at roughly the same pace as the growth in the gross domestic product. Much more than that and you have inflation; much
less than that and you have a depression. Today, that growth in the monetary supply happens using a combination of the
government deficit and banks loaning out more money than they have on deposit (bank credit). Bank credit benefits the banks
(they can loan out money and charge interest on the loans without ever having the money on deposit). The deficit, as it is currently
financed, transfers money from the U.S. taxpayers (interest on the national debt) to buyers of Treasury notes (primarily foreign
governments, especially China). Pound felt that since the workers were responsible for the increasing gross domestic product,
they should directly benefit. The concept was that instead of increasing the monetary supply with interest-bearing Treasury notes
or bank credit, it would be directly increased by the government printing the money and distributing it to the citizens of the U.S. It
does make sense to me, and I do endorse it.
6) It seems a basic tenet of the “social credit movement” is the idea that wealth belongs to the people. That seems rather
Republican, don’t you think?
Yes, the idea is that wealth generated by the people (as a whole) belongs to those same people. I’m careful to differentiate this
from wealth transference, which I do not support. My greatly oversimplified idea is that communism transfers fixed assets (e.g.,
factories) to the people, socialism transfers moving money to the people using high taxes, and social credit transfers newly
created money to the people. It’s the only one of the three where the money is not taken from anyone prior to being distributed.
American International Theatre, Inc. is currently
booking Pound for touring productions. Jeff Berg,
the NYC based actor shown below, and Kate
Gibson, our Stagemanager/Board Operator, will
bring Pound to life for a one-night, one-weekend,
or one-week performance. No set is required, so
it's a perfect show to run between regular season
shows. We cover performer salaries under an AEA
contract, plus all performer travel costs. You
provide the space and publicity. Ticket proceeds
are split 50/50. We require a guarantee of $1.5K
for the first performance and $750 for each
subsequent performance. To book Pound into
your facility, Send email