September 18, 2019

The Arrogant Poet You Love to Hate

In “Pound of Flesh,” at the Odyssey Theater, Ezra Pound spars with Pvt. Cooper, a young soldier who keeps him company while he awaits trial in Italy for his crimes of treachery against the United States in World War II. If this private is not Pound’s intellectual match, he more than matches the poet on moral grounds.

Michael Peter Bolus, who wrote and directed the play, first considered using a Jewish soldier as Pound’s foil. But Pvt. Rothberg, the fictional man he created, was too brainy, too intellectual, and the debates between the two divested the play of its inherent drama and left it as a case of talking heads. Though Bolus changed Rothberg into a non-Jew, the character “wouldn’t go away,” says the playwright. Rothberg turned into “a shadowy presence” haunting the play. Behind the scenes, it is Rothberg who teaches Cooper what Pound’s poetry is all about — hatred.

This is not a new point of view. Critics as eminent as Harold Bloom find little aesthetic value in Pound’s work. Still, Pound was one of the leading poets of the past century. As Bolus says, “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to confront 20th century literature without confronting Ezra Pound.”

Thirteen years after the Odyssey staged Tom Dulack’s “Incommunicado,” a play that also tackled Pound’s days in a wartime prison but with a larger cast, “Pound of Flesh” goes beyond the modern question of asking whether an artist can be separated from his art. Where writers like Philip Roth still produce inspiring work even if they live morally dubious lives, Pound did not conceal the malevolence in his poetry.

“Unlike a lot of anti-Semites and racists, his racism is right there in the poetry,” says playwright Bolus, who studied poetry with Derek Walcott, and got a Ph.D. in theater studies at the City University of New York.

The title of “Pound of Flesh,” of course, invokes Shylock’s famous words in “The Merchant of Venice,” and Bolus does a remarkable job of capturing the arrogance, the brilliance and the over-the-top hubris of the poet. His voice is quite distinctive and comes through even when reading the script. Bolus also nicely allows the non-Jewish soldier to turn the tables on Pound, even correcting him on his grammar.

Say what one will about Shylock, but he never ended a sentence with a preposition — something Pound does in this play.

“Pound of Flesh” plays at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (except June 4 and June 11 shows at 2 p.m.). Through June 25. (310) 477-2055.