In 1856, British artist Henry Wallis completed “The Death of Chatterton.” The oil painting was Romantic with a capital “R”: a loving depiction of 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton, who’d just committed suicide by ingesting arsenic. Chatterton, age 17, lays draped on a bed, washed in dawn light.
On the floor, the emptied vial of arsenic. In his cold fist, scraps of paper, presumably bearing his unsold writings.
The painting, like Chatterton’s legacy as an unappreciated genius, has inspired many artists and poets – including Peter Ackroyd, the British author whose acclaimed 1988 novel Chatterton asks, “What if Chatterton didn’t really die?” Ackroyd’s story depicts Chatterton in the 18th century; Wallis and his artist’s model, poet George Meredith, in the 19th; and, in the 20th, a poet and an aging novelist who investigate Chatterton’s fabled suicide.
That novel, in turn, captured the imagination of Karla Boos. The Quantum Theatre artistic director loved the way Ackroyd played with ideas about the authentic and inauthentic in life and art. Now Boos has adapted Chatterton into a full-scale immersive play, its world premiere to be mounted on (or rather, in) a grand stage: downtown Pittsburgh’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.
By Bill O’Driscoll, 90.5 WESA