December 05, 2015

Madmen Know Nothing

Enoch Pratt House, Circa 1920s. Photo: Maryland Historical Society

I was looking for the Maryland Historical Society.

I'd seen it on the map.

I'd seen signs for it on Cathedral Street, by Mount Vernon Place.

I followed the directions to its address, and recognized an old building on the corner that certainly could pass as a historical society.

I walked up to its front door and tried the handle, but it was locked.

And then I noticed a sign that read:

Doors Open 7:50
Show Starts 8:10
Enjoy the fireworks at 7:45

I was puzzled, because the historical society was only supposed to be open until 7 for their holiday open house, scheduled on the night of the lighting of the Washington Monument (the Baltimore one, not the nation's capitol one).

I started playing with my hair as I skulked around to the back in the dark, nervous about the amount of vagrants I'd seen on the Baltimore streets over the past couple of weeks, and remembering how I'd been told not to go out on my own after dark.

It was 6:30 in the evening, and very dark.

When I found the historical society, it was not only around back, but in a completely different building. So I set off to explore, forgetting about that corner building and its brief case of mistaken identity.

Forgetting about it, that is, until I went to leave. I spotted some postcards and a poster about an Edgar Allan Poe show happening in conjunction with the Maryland Historical Society, and I started putting it together in my mind.

"What do you know about this Poe show?" I asked the front desk attendants.

"Well, not much actually..." they said.

But Poe is huge in Baltimore. They must have known something about it.

"I read that it's like an immersive theater show in a creepy old house."

"That sounds about right," they agreed.

I pressed on. "So do you think it's like wandering around the different rooms with something Poe-related happening and it's kind of weird?"

They nodded. "I think that's exactly what it is..."

"Excellent!" I said, hoisting my phone up in the air, triumphant. It was 7:20 p.m. and I proceeded to buy one ticket for myself.

I arrived promptly, after having wolfed down a pizza and worried that I'd wasted my money on something so spontaneous. I checked in, and slipped inside the front vestibule of the house with the first group of people. We were greeted and briefed on what was about to happen to us.

The rules, as I remember them, were roughly:

  • Explore all the objects of intrigue—touch, and even smell, them, but put them back in their place
  • Speak to the "residents" until which point you're told not to speak unless spoken to
  • Don't touch anyone, and be careful to step over anyone who lies on the floor, looking dead
  • Don't walk through any closed doors or up any staircases unless invited
  • Be prepared to be pulled into a room or up a staircase
  • Don't be afraid to be alone, or just sit. You don't have to do anything.
The final and most important rule was: there are no rules. There is not any one experience of the show. There is no right or wrong. Some things make sense; some things do not. Whatever experience you have is the experience you're supposed to have. Don't try to figure it out. Just enjoy it.

And so we entered this historic space, into some other time and place, with characters both fictional and real. It's hard to walk into an unfamiliar place and not know what's going to happen—when the show begins or how, and where it will take you by the wrist.

We mingled for a while in the downstairs hallway, surrounded by closed doors. We'd been asked not to photograph the proceedings, and since I'd come alone, I had to find some other way to entertain myself.

I had no interest in chatting up my fellow theatergoers, but when a basket was slowly lowered by a faceless figure atop the stairwell, I reached inside to read the note.

Are you asleep?
Yes   No

I circled "No," and wrote below it:

Are you?
Y    N

I then put the paper and pencil back into the basket, and gave its ribbon a slight tug to signal my reply.

The basket was raised and again lowered, with its answer marked. Both Y and N were circled.

And so began our Mesmeric Revelation. "Sweet dreams," I wrote.

A chambermaid thrust a note into my hands and asked me to deliver it inside one of the rooms. The door was closed. I knocked, and had to push hard to get in. There, I was greeted by Eliza, an actress getting ready for her show. My note was her 15 minute warning.

And then we embarked on some strange dual reality, in which I explained how I'd come I was from out of town and only visiting and had seen the sign on the door and just bought a ticket on a I'd literally just come in off the street. And although Eliza responded to me with her own particular character flair, the conversation we had was real and unscripted.

No other attendee had exactly that experience, that night or any other night.

I left her to get ready, but I soon found myself back inside her room, when I'd spotted a door open and blue light shining through the crack. I didn't know it, but it was yet another door to her room, and she'd been peeking out at the crowd—and I'd caught her. And so then I was caught, and invited back in by Eliza and her chambermaid for a little more "girl time" before the "official" start of the show.

I spent much of the rest of the show hanging back a bit, observing. There was definitely a narrative that was being followed, and eventually all the doors opened up to us for further exploration. The characters scattered, each occupying their own space in their own unique ways, sometimes switching position by running...or crawling.

I could see some of my fellow audience members trying to put themselves in the path of the action so that they could do more. Personally I thought they were getting in the way of the show—and in the way of themselves. I relished the opportunity to not try so hard. I'm always trying so hard.

At some point midway through the two-hour experience, the butler summoned me. "We need your help" he said, as he led me by the arm through a forbidden doorway, passage through which was by invitation only.

I then found myself scurrying down a staircase with a summoned guest of the house, who couldn't quite remember how he'd gotten there or why everyone looked so familiar. Most importantly, he was looking for a way out.

This was my own private monologue. It was scripted but directed only to me in those few moments, as he grasped my hands and said, "Listen to me, my friend..."

I didn't have to say anything. I didn't have to do anything. I just looked into his eyes, and listened. And when he broke away to write something to me on a scrap of paper, I took it, read it, and kept it close to me as we hid together under the stairs while others arrived.

His message was, "Madmen know nothing"—a quote from Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.

After he led me back upstairs, I gestured with the note to the butler, as though to say, "What do I do with this?"

He said, "Keep it."

Before the show was over, I had one more exchange with whomever was manning the basket telegram service. This time, there were two notes inside, on two separate sheets of paper:

What have you lost?

Whom have you lost?

I took the pencil, and I wrote my answers:

What have you lost?

Whom have you lost?

Without pause, I placed both notes and the pencil in the basket, signaled my reply, and walked away. There were no right answers. There were no wrong answers. And I didn't have to wait for the basket to come back down.

I suppose the truly mad don't know that they're mad.

So what does that make you when you know that you are mad? When you know that you know nothing?

When it comes down to it, I bought a ticket for the show so I could see the inside of that building, which has been closed to the public for 10 years and can't be otherwise accessed. But in attending the show—and playing by their rules—I got so much more out of it.

Am I asleep?


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