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‘Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive’ review: PBS shows poet in a new light

Denis O'Hare stars in

Denis O'Hare stars in "Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive" on "American Masters" Monday on PBS. Credit: PBS / L. Brandon

THE DOCUMENTARY “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” on “American Masters”

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) may be among the most influential authors in American history, but he’s also perhaps the most misunderstood, this “American Masters” portrait argues. Based on modern scholarship, “Buried Alive” is also enlivened with some modern show-biz touches: Denis O’Hare plays Poe in many re-created scenes, while Chris Sarandon and Ben Schnetzer (“Goat”) perform some readings. (O’Hare’s reading of “The Raven” is particularly memorable.)

MY SAY Poe has been around for about 160 years and “American Masters” around for about 30 of those. What took these two so long to get together? Perhaps the show was just waiting for O’Hare to become available, in between his various editions of “American Horror Story” and guest-judging stints on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” If so, the wait has been rewarded. With soaring forehead, clipped mustache, furrowed brow and haunted eyes, O’Hare nearly out-Poes Poe himself. “True! Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I have been, and am,” he reads from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “but why will you say I am mad?” Why indeed.

 In fact, there was a portrait on Poe back in the mid-’90s, but “Masters” would rather you forget about that one. “Buried Alive” isn’t just a do-over but a reinterpretation built on modern scholarship, which insists Poe was maligned ever since the day he died.

Or at least since two days later, on Oct. 9, 1849, when a long-forgotten rival, one Rufus Wilmot Griswold, published a notorious obit in the New York Tribune. Poe, he wrote, was “a dreamer, dwelling in ideal realms, in heaven or hell, peopled with creations and the accidents of his brain. He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses.”

 Griswold had succeeded in avenging a bad review Poe had given his book — “[Poe] was little better than a carping grammarian” — and creating a myth for the ages, of a melancholic madman tormented by demons or driven by them.

 “Buried Alive” says the truth was less interesting. “Throughout his life he was searching for unequivocal love,” says Poe biographer James Hutchisson. Most of his 75 extant stories were comedies and satires, while only a handful were the ones we still remember — and which changed sci-fi, detective fiction and horror forever. He was sociable, witty, irascible, insecure, emotional, jealous, vain, and always — always — worried about money. In other words, he was like nearly every other writer throughout history.

 Except, of course, that he was not. “His themes resonated in a new nation that had yet to wrestle with some basic flaws [such as] violence, cruelty, madness, existential doubt and dread,” Poe scholar J. Gerald Kennedy says here. “He wanted Americans to understand what was strange about their own culture.”

 “Buried Alive” doesn’t even attempt to explore Poe’s vast legacy. That’s understandable. It needed to humanize him first.

BOTTOM LINE Fascinating and — even better — fun.

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