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Edvard Munch Is More Than the Scream, Much More

by Noah Asimow, Vineyard Gazette

In the world of fine arts, there isn’t much Oak Bluffs resident Rich Michelson hasn’t done. He’s a full-time poet, a full-time children’s book author, and a full-time gallery operator. He’s had his literature listed among the top 10 books of the year by the New York Times, and among the top 12 books of the decade by Amazon.com. He’s served as Northampton’s poet laureate, Leonard Nimoy’s art dealer and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ping Pong Hustler.”

“But I have no experience writing plays,” Mr. Michelson said. “Until now.”

On Monday, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse will do a reading of Dear Edvard, Mr. Michelson’s recent artistic collaboration with composer Steven Schoenberg and director Kevin Newbury. The play, set in 1908, follows Norwegian artist Edvard Munch after he commits himself to a clinic for alcoholism and nervous disorders. While institutionalized, Mr. Munch undergoes a newfangled role-playing therapy in which his administering nurse undertakes the personas of his family members, friends and lovers. A different Munch painting represents each of the play’s 26 scenes.

“This is nothing that I intended to do,” Mr. Michelson said at his home in the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground. “It was pure happenstance.”

Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Michelson wrote a few poems about Edvard Munch, an artist he said has always spoken to him, particularly in his youth. Over the next quarter-century, Mr. Schoenberg read the poems and asked to set them to music, to which Mr. Michelson consented. Ten years later Mr. Newbury heard the songs and asked to use them in a show, to which Mr. Michelson said, “what show?”

“So they asked if I wanted to write a show, and I said sure. I’d never done that before, but I love theatre.”

The trio — Michelson, Schoenberg and Newbury — have now done three readings of Dear Edvard, with the fourth and final iteration coming on Monday.

“Steven Schoenberg is a genius musician,” Mr. Michelson said. “To me, as a poet, it has been an unbelievable thrill to see my words set to music. Because music is such a great conveyor of the emotional states, I didn’t have to be as explicit in my words because the mood was already set. And I’m excited to see how Kevin as the director turns it into a real thing, and makes it come alive on stage.”

As a writer and art dealer, Mr. Michelson had the background to balance his historically truthful depiction of Mr. Munch’s emotional journey with that of his nurse, a real person lost to the annals of history.

“The nurse had to be a character equal in stature to Munch, which was not easy because he was quite a personality,” Mr. Michelson said. “Here’s a young, innocent woman having to role play with this infamous, overwhelming artist, and she had to play his various lovers, his mother, his family, and so the question I came away with was, what would this have done to her psyche?”

By focusing the play’s central question on the nurse, rather than Munch, Mr. Michelson afforded himself the artistic and creative freedom impossible with traditional biographical theatre. It also gave Mr. Michelson a lens through which the audience could better understand the artist himself.

“People tend to know Munch as a one-hit wonder with The Scream,” Mr. Michelson said. “But in fact he had one of the longest and most influential artistic careers. His aim was to paint a portrait of people’s emotional states. One of the characters in the play uses a line which I adapted from his diaries, which is, ‘DaVinci would dissect a corpse to find a body’s secret music. For Munch, he left a slicing of the soul.’”

Even though Mr. Munch grew up in a strictly religious household, the bohemian artist spent most of his adult life trying to maintain a relationship with the austere branch of his family. This inner duality — what Mr. Michelson describes a war within the artist — drives Munch to commit himself at the height of his artistic career.

“Munch lived at a time of great turmoil,” Mr. Michelson said. “He lived with a lot of death. His mother died, his sister died, and yet he used his art as a survival mechanism, and it spoke to a lot of people.”

The play begins with the nurse as a 98-year-old woman, revisiting the hospital room where she administered to Mr. Munch almost a century before.

“Then the memories come flooding back through her own thoughts and life,” Mr. Michelson said. “And that’s what the play’s about.”

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