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The ABCs of Edward Gorey in Provincetown

October 28, 2015 6:00 am0 commentsViews: 94
Edward Gorey photo by Kevin McDermott from their Collaboration, The Elephant House.

Edward Gorey photo by Kevin McDermott from their Collaboration, The Elephant House.

by Steve Desroches

One night during the summer of 1990 at the Provincetown Theater Company’s production of Edward Gorey’s Useful Urns at the Provincetown Inn, things didn’t go as planned, which was perfect.  Gorey himself directed it, and he just couldn’t stop tinkering with scenes even moments before curtain. One of the lighting techs didn’t show up and the room became so hot and steamy audience members started to leave. To stop the exodus, all the windows and doors were opened… and then a skunk walked in during the middle of the play. This was not New York City, but rather a very Provincetown evening. And it fit in well with Gorey’s sense of “let it be.” After all, when raccoons appeared in the attic of his Yarmouth Port home, which was covered with overgrown vines and weeds, he maintained they could stay, no matter how much damage they did. So for a skunk to decide to become part of the show, well, it was all part of the aesthetic, even if unplanned.

“It was much more fun,” says Carol Verburg, former president of the board of the Provincetown Theater Company and close friend of Gorey’s.

As Halloween celebrations are underway in Provincetown it seems appropriate to reflect on Gorey’s work, with its playfully morbid themes and spooky execution. While he never lived in Provincetown he nevertheless made an artistic and theatrical splash here in the 1990s. Already a legend for his illustrations by the time he moved to Cape Cod permanently in 1988, Gorey was especially well known for the 1963 abecedarian book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which chronicles the death of 26 little children, and for the opening credit art for Mystery! on PBS.

Gorey was also a playwright, and after a production of his play Stuffed Elephants at the Woods Hole Theatre Company, Verburg invited Gorey to Provincetown, later with the encouragement of Provincetown Theater Company co-founder Ray Martan Wells.  After years of working in New York, Verburg was concerned that Gorey might not fit in with Provincetown’s culture and libertine ways.

“I hadn’t realized how congenial Provincetown would be for him, coming from more buttoned up Yarmouth Port, “ laughs Verburg, adding that the former Pucci’s restaurant was one of his favorite haunts. “He fell into Provincetown quite comfortably. He had a great time.”

In all, the Provincetown Theater Company performed three of Gorey’s plays: Useful Urns; and then Flapping Ankles in 1991; and Crazed Teacups in 1992, while the Provincetown Repertory Theatre presented Amphoragorey, a musical “entertainment” based on stories by Gorey, in 1999.  Throughout that decade his work also appeared on the stages of Cape Cod theaters in Cotuit, Dennis, Bourne, Sandwich, Hyannis, and Woods Hole, while his Yarmouth Port home became a beloved curiosity in the otherwise sleepy and quaint hamlet.

He purchased the home in 1979, shortly after achieving great success, both artistically and financially, designing the set and costumes for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula, for which he won a Tony Award for his costuming.  It earned his house at 8 Strawberry Lane the nickname “the house that Dracula built”—again, a perfectly sinister story to go along with the macabre spirit of his work, even though he never fully understood why people saw his work that way, says Verburg.  He decided to move to Cape Cod full-time after the death of his close friend George Balanchine, co-founder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet, of which Gorey was a devoted fan. After Balanchine’s death, Gorey lost his passion for the New York City Ballet, and the city itself, and moved to Yarmouth Port.  His home is now a museum dedicated to his legacy, and like his work, the house museum is full of hidden jokes and carefully planted surprises.

“It came out of a mind no one thoroughly understood,” says Verburg of Gorey’s work. “He loved seeing what actors would find for themselves.”

With a true artist’s brain and a genuine eccentricity, Gorey’s interests were wide and varied, and while popularly his work is perceived as gothic and dark, he himself was a caring and kind man, albeit a bit complicated and distant at times and happy to spend time pursuing his own passions and visions.  He had a deep love for animals, and after his death in 2000 at the age of 75, his estate created the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, which benefits organizations that work to protect and care for animals, including the Carrie A Seamen Animal Shelter here in Provincetown.

Despite all his ghastly characters and illustrations of vampires, bats, and skulls, he had no particular affinity for Halloween, though he understood why many connected his work with the holiday.  He just had a passion for all the “vagaries of the human condition” says Verburg, including the morbid. An avid collector, as anyone who visits the Edward Gorey House can see and learn, he had 25,000 books in his relatively small home. All of his various treasures speak of a man intensely interested in the world, even if some of his prized possessions startled the average person. When he left his long time home in New York for good, he had his many, many belongings packed and sent to the Cape. However, some were unintentionally left behind, and the new occupants discovered a mummified human head in their new home. The New York City police tracked him down, and he calmly explained how he had acquired the head, legally, and that it was not the remnants of some awful crime or a real life reenactment of one of his gashlycrumb tinies. He found the whole affair rather amusing.

The Edward Gorey House is located at 8 Strawberry Lane in Yarmouth Port. Admission is $8, students and seniors $5, children 6 to 12 $2, and children under 6 are free. The Edward Gorey House is open weekends now through December 27: Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays 12 to 4 p.m. and reopens in April. For more information call 508.362.3909 or visit edwardgoreyhouse.org.