Poet / Playwright / Filmmaker / Script Editor / Mentor

Sixteen Words for Water - a play about Ezra Pound

In 1943, the American poet, Ezra Pound, was indicted by the United States government on the charge of treason. It was alleged that Pound, an American citizen, had made anti-American broadcasts over Italian radio during wartime, and that these same broadcasts had given "aid and comfort" to the enemy. By war's end Pound found himself in the custody of U.S. marshals.

Mindful of the political hysteria of the times, and fearing for Pound's life, his wife, friends and colleagues, urged him to enter a plea of insanity as a means of escaping trial and the possibility of a death penalty. This he did, and the court subsequently upheld the plea. However, instead of releasing him into the care of his wife as had been expected, the government chose to confine him at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., an institution that housed hundreds of the criminally insane. Pound - "one of the great literary figures of our time" - would remain incarcerated at St Elizabeth’s for nearly thirteen years.

Sixteen Words for Water takes up Pound's life in the final days of his "imprisonment", when the balance between life and death had reached its most critical point. The Ezra Pound of the present play must choose between sanity and the possibility of the electric chair, or insanity and the surety of safety at the expense of freedom. In the midst of this, he finds himself invaded by strange thoughts - memories of the ancient Aboriginal myth of the Wandjina... the creative spirits of the Dreamtime who fashioned the world out of words and who, in the act of naming, threatened the world with chaos. 


                                My creative process 
                                                                          by Billy Marshall Stoneking

I begin with research, research, research, not so much because I am interested in gathering information but because I want to be free of it. I look for contradictions, confusions, chaos. I court them. I love to find experts who disagree. It is really a kind of meditative process. When the "facts" and "counter facts" reach critical mass, they explode, dissolve, and what I am left with is the hint of a voice, a gesture, an impression I can coax into light and sound.

The early drafts of the script are mere lures... super-structures into which I pour my own ideas, propositions, suggestions, nuances, in order to draw out the persons (and voices) that lurk in the dark. Some are more eager than others to tell their stories. Others less trusting. Some extremely shy. I listen. Listen for the characters to interject, disagree, champ at the bit of the script I have so cold-bloodedly fashioned from the conflicting opinions of research and my forgetting. I listen. Listen for the broad rhythms of their speech and physical movements. Their peculiarities. Some times these come stampeding out and I get carried away and go on writing way past the actual stampede. Next day when I return to the script-in-progress, I see it is only the actual stampede I can use... the willful parts must be deleted. I listen and refine. Listen and argue. Listen and dispose of more and more of the cold-blooded wilfullness. It is a stripping away. Stripping away the writerliness, the literariness, all that is an expression of my ego and not the egos of the characters whose voices are a part of me and somehow not me.

I guess what I am talking about is the unconscious. One enters into a kind of dream, a reverie; communes with spirits. Sometimes, often, their voices are audible. I have frequently been heard talking "to myself"... actually I am talking to "them". In the midst of my luring we enter into a kind of marriage. They become more real, more substantial, more interesting, than the people one stands in the queue with at K-Mart. One begins to feel rather fictional oneself in the presence of those heavily materialised masses trudging down Main Street. One loses the self one shows to the world and enters their world, their voices, their fears, their hope.

The Pound play was a four year marriage in which we (Pound and I) often fought most hideously. He offering, then withdrawing assistance. Back and forth. I never bowed to his threats, but I learned his idiosyncracies enough to know how to deal with him. We grew to understand one another. A kind of love-hate relationship. A marriage. When the play was finally produced it was like some horrendous separation. Neither of us wanted it to end quite so soon. Maybe there was more that could have - or should have - been said. But it was over. A divorce without mental cruelty, other than the self-imposed cruelty which occasions all creative acts.


January, 2000] The Irish Times Theatre Awards committee nominated Gail Fitzpatrick for Best Supporting Actress as the Psychiatrist in Celtic Mouse Theatre Company's much-acclaimed production of Billy Marshall Stoneking's play, Sixteen Words for Water. The awards are Ireland's equivalent of the Tonys.














don’t fail

Crypt Theatre (Dublin)

This is a beautifully written piece of theatre. The lines crackle with wry wit and poisonous barbs directed at an establishment steeped in conspiracies against 'the people', at least as far as poet, Ezra Pound, locked away for thirteen years in a mental institution, is concerned.

The author, Billy Marshall-Stoneking, uses three actors, Vincent McCabe, Laura Brennan and Gail Fitzpatrick to explore the issue of Pound’s avowed fanaticism.

In the end, one feels, even if against one’s will, some sympathy for his viewpoint which is exposed as being a shock tactic for highlighting the idiocies and inanities of modern society.

All the acting is of a high standard.

Although this brief description makes it sound dreadfully dark, this is, surprisingly, a very funny play.

(Evening Herald, Dublin)

From The Sydney Morning Herald

Pound for Pound one of the best

Ezra Pound was an irascible old fascist who was probably the most famous person to be indicted for treason in America during World War II. He was also one of the century's greatest poets, often mentioned in dispatches with the likes of T.S. Eliot, Yeats and James Joyce.

Billy Marshall Stoneking's play, Sixteen Words for Water, is set in St Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane in Washington, where Pound was effectively incarcerated after the war. An adept bureaucratic application of the Catch 22 principle kept him locked up for 13 years without the benefit of a trial or the unseemly publicity that might have gone with it.

Marshall Stoneking's script is a tour de force. It is dense, evocative and loaded with more intellectual argument than a busload of rabbis. Pound attacks almost every shibboleth of modern social engineering with the pronounced vigour of fanaticism and displays all the aspects of his deranged and ugly anti-semitism.

Simon Chilvers' bravura performance as Pound creates an image of a mighty mad old man who is a cross between a modern-day King Lear and William Blake.

Despite the tension and the seriousness of many of the themes, there is wit aplenty, with more one-liners than the phone book.

Beautifully produced, it will repay more than one viewing or hearing.



From The Antigonish Review

"Sixteen Words For Water has all the simplicity of Beckett and all the bathos too. Pound is the Ham and Clov, the Nell and Nagg of Endgame. He is victim and persecutor, hero and villain... Stoneking’s play is wonderful theatre and it will remain for a long time the best dramatic portrayal of the grim and tragic figure that Ezra Pound became in the last quarter of his extraordinary life."

The Antigonish Review
St Francis Xavier University
Nova Scotia


To read the script CLICK HERE

From The Melbourne AGE

Tim Robertson as Ezra Pound.

Tim Robertson as Ezra Pound

Many people are familiar with at least the name of Ezra Pound, if not his poetry, but few will know that he was indicted for treason and detained without trial for 13 years.

This play about that period of imprisonment has contemporary resonances as Australia continues to incarcerate asylum seekers.

Pound was found guilty of making radio broadcasts from fascist Italy during the Second World War, attacking the involvement of the US and what he saw as the pernicious Jewish abuse of the monetary system.

After six months in an open cage in Pisa, from which issued his award- winning work The Pisan Cantos, Pound was placed in a Washington institution for the criminally insane.

Stoneking's play examines Pound's paradoxical situation where to remain "insane" will mean life imprisonment, while to be declared sane will result in trial and a possible death sentence.

He also ingeniously incorporates the Australian connection. Pound's memories of Aboriginal Wandjina stories finally bring him to recognise the need for reining in freedom of speech.

Ironically, this happens just as the Justice Department decides to release him, officially despairing of ever proving his sanity, or fearful of what might emerge in a courtroom confrontation.

The story is interesting, but this rather low-keyed production only emphasises the play's shortcomings. There is very little in the way of dramatic conflict, although this does flare into brief life when the Justice Department's psychiatrist goes on the attack.

Tim Robertson makes a remarkably convincing Pound, creating the sense of a highly intelligent man made even more irascible by his acute awareness of his dilemma.

As the psychiatrist, Caroline Lee is suitably intense, but the play doesn't provide much on which to build a memorable characterisation.

Peter Corrigan's design is arresting, but creates some practical difficulties for the actors.  -  Helen Thomason



Sixteen Words for Water was named one of the Top Ten productions of 1992 by Theatre Record.


What the Critics said:

“Zenana Theatre Company's interpretation guarantees that the audience is encouraged to further pursue their work.”

Di Parker

“The best emotional, imaginative and spiritual questions…a production of undoubted intelligence.”

Benedict Nightingale
The Times

“Madeleine Wynn has created a convincing and stifling world in which poetry and modern definitions of lunacy are disturbingly entwined.”

Rosalind Garry
The Guardian

“The clarity and precision of Madeleine Wynn's production disguises a morass of complexity and elusiveness… a fine production of a valuable work."

Michael Wright
Time Out

“The play is vigorously animated by director Madeleine Wynn…Tom Georgeson gives a blistering portrayal of the poet (Ezra Pound).”

Michael Arditti
Evening Standard



'Words' mixes poetry, politics

By LARRY PARNASS, Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 11, 2000 -- (CHESTER, MASS) - Reno Roop's precise and intense portrayal of poet
Ezra Pound, in a season-opening production of the Miniature Theatre of Chester, is the
sort audiences will remember.

That quality of lasting is vital for this unusual drama, for it is so rich with ideas and
unresolvable edges we need time to mull its meaning. The effort is a pleasure, for
those who like their theater heavily salted with politics and aesthetics. Those who want
to understand Ezra Pound have to have some taste for that.

Still, "Sixteen Words for Water," by William Marshall Stoneking, and directed here by Byam
Stevens, is an intriguing and frequently funny look at a man, a time, a confrontation,
a crime and a consciousness. Roop is enormously appealing as Pound and makes us feel the
claustrophobia of a caged creative mind.

The play takes place in 1958 at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where
Pound was incarcerated for 13 years by the U.S. government. He was placed at the Washington, D.C.,
area institution after having pled insanity when charged with treason for broadcasts on
Italian radio during World War II that were deemed anti-American.

We see Pound's cell-like room, where wrinkled sheets of verse are hung like laundry on
two lines projecting out from the stage. Pound gets two visitors, one for each act, roughly.
It is through their interactions that we see two sides of the poet. In the second act,
the playwright winds up his pitching arm a little differently and delivers as if it's a
new game - this one less didactic and more in the sinews.

In the first act, Roop and Bonnie Black, playing the psychiatrist known only as Woman, chart
the fundamental conflict between Pound's alleged treason, his alliance with Italian fascism
and his anti-Semitism and the plausibility of the things he says in his defense.

The Woman is there to determine whether Pound can be declared competent to stand trial.
Her questions and his answers drive an interesting hour, for we take keen interest in
sorting out the despicable Pound's apparent turn away from humanity, through his support
of fascism, and the many things he says that are right about intellectual independence,
honesty and free speech.

Pound's answers are tart and drip with erudition. Stories about writers can stumble here.
A character who writes for a living should speak as if his lines are scripted. And yet, that
quality can bring a hollow tone.

Roop convinces us his repartee is fresh. He even gets a chance to mock his glibness. "What
comes out of the mouth doesn't necessarily explain anything," Pound says at one point. Though
boxed in by his keepers, no one restrains his volcanic mind.

The psychiatrist attempts to use science to probe the genius. Of course it proves difficult.
The interview offers Stoneking a chance to provide a ticklish exposition in which our
sympathies see-saw. While we get a lot here, the play seems to conceal from us the most
horrid things Pound said, as it shapes that tension between respect and rejection.

Pound himself outlines two treasons: speaking when one should be quiet, or worse, he says,
being quiet when one should speak.

His second visitor, a young Columbia University student played with a mix of innocence and
grit by Judith Stambler, is there to save him from a trial and possible death sentence.
She wants to show through his recorded words that he's insane.

It is with Stambler on stage that we come to the point where this play's name is probed.
The people who had 16 words for water were Aboriginals in Australia. Their culture
shares something with what happened to Pound. Finding out what it is draws a useful bow around this package.

Even so, such moments - when the meaning of titles become evident - can take us out of a
story, not more deeply in. The submarine surfaces and people climb the conning tower for
a look around.

The cast has kept us wonderfully low in the water, though, and a well-rendered story of a
singular mind stays the course.

Chester Minature Theatre production


The Critics

16 Words for Water  (the London production, directed by Madelaine Wynn)


“Zenana Theatre Company's interpretation guarantees that the audience is encouraged to further pursue their work.”

Di Parker


“The best emotional, imaginative and spiritual questions…a production of undoubted intelligence.”

Benedict Nightingale
The Times


“Madeleine Wynn has created a convincing and stifling world in which poetry and modern definitions of lunacy are disturbingly entwined.”

Rosalind Garry
The Guardian


“The clarity and precision of Madeleine Wynn's production disguises a morass of complexity and elusiveness… a fine production of a valuable work."

Michael Wright
Time Out


“The play is vigorously animated by director Madeleine Wynn…Tom Georgeson gives a blistering portrayal of the poet (Ezra Pound).”

Michael Arditti
Evening Standard

Stage Production details - Sixteen Words for Water

California (North Hollywood, USA)    Interact Theatre Company, 5th December 2011, As part of the Monday Night Reading series at Interact. Sponsored by Kent Minault, directed by Jeffrey Phillips, and featuring Armin Shimerman, D.J. Harner and Jessica Evans.

Western Australia (Perth WA) : Garrick Theatre, March-April, 2010. Directed by Jeff Watkins.

Victoria (Melbourne, Australia) : La Mama (Carlton Courthouse Theatre), March, 2005. Starring Tim Robertson. Directed by Lawrence Strangio. Design by Peter Corrigan.

Washington (USA) : Harlequin Productions. January-February, 2001.  Directed by Scot Whitney.

North Carolina (USA) : Burning Coal Theatre Company. A rehearsed reading of the play, December, 2000. Directed by Brad Shelton.

Massachusetts (USA): The Miniature Theatre of Chester, Massachusetts.  July, 2000. Directed by Byam Stevens.

New York: Alleyway Theatre Company, Buffalo, NY. March-April, 2000.  Directed by Neal Radice.

Dublin Ireland. Celtic Mouse Theatre Company, Crypt Theatre Arts  Centre. March-April, 1999. Directed by James Watson.

New South Wales: Chalkdust Theatre Company, Q Theatre, Penrith,  NSW. October, 1996.

Victoria: Melbourne University student production. Guild Theatre,  University of Melbourne. November, 1994. Directed by Michael Cathcart.

Western Australia: Theatre West, in association with Black Swan Theatre Company. July/August, 1994. Starring Arthur Dignam. Directed by Leith Taylor.

New Zealand: The Fortune Theatre, Dunedin, South Island. September/October, 1993. Directed by Campbell Thomas.

Tasmania: The Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Place, Hobart. March, 1992.  Starring Richard Davey. Directed by Robert Jarman.

British premiere: The Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington, London. September, 1991. Starring Tom Georgeson. Directed by Madeleine Wynn.

Sixteen Words for Water (World premiere): Sydney Theatre Company,  The Wharf Theatre. August/September, 1991. Starring Simon Chilvers, Rosemary Harris, and Miranda Otto. Directed by Rhys McConnochie.



Writer - (Radio adaptation) Sixteen Words For Water. ABC Radio National (FM), Starring Simon Chilvers, Pamela Rabe and Rachel Szalay. Produced by Mike Ladd. Directed by Chris Williams. Broadcast February, 1996.