PORTLAND – Sir William Topaz McGonagall was a lost, wonderful soul.

A Scotsman, he lived from 1825 to 1902, and went down in history as one of the worst poets of his time — or any time, for that matter.

The American playwright Willy Holtzman has been interested in McGonagall since he spent time in Dundee, Scotland, some 30 years ago.

“My research consisted of pub crawls,” said Holtzman, who lives in Connecticut and was in Portland last week helping to prepare for the premiere production of his new play “The Real McGonagall” at the studio theater at Portland Stage Company.

The one-man, one-act show starring Portland actor Mark Honan runs through Feb. 27. Ron Botting directs.

In every pub that Holtzman frequented during his Scottish sojourn, he heard the poetry of McGonagall and stories of the man. Bar dwellers would stand up and recite the lines, often from memory. “It was perfectly bad, and there is something to be said for perfection,” said Holtzman.

The playwright sympathized with McGonagall because of the poet’s commitment to his art. Despite his lack of polish, the guy was a determined artist. He found the muse at age 50 and pursued it hard the rest of his life. He gave up his job and almost everything in his life to follow a poet’s dream. He never accepted the ridicule that sometimes came his way as anything other than encouragement.

In the end, despite being treated as somewhat of a joke, he achieved what could only be described as success. He published more than 200 poems, and to this day is the second most well-known poet in Scottish history, after Robert Burns.

“Any of us who has done this can identify with McGonagall,” Holtzman said. “We have our wounds. We have our dark nights, but you go on. He was our patron saint.”

This play celebrates McGonagall’s life. It is set in a New York pub on the night before McGonagall is to return to Scotland.

Honan, a Englishman, does a great Scottish accent, and also affects many other accents and dialects as he moves from one character to another throughout McGonagall’s life.

As Honan learned more about McGonagall, he too found the sympathy for the man.

“He really does have a soul of a poet. His enthusiasm and his passion cuts through the fact that he can be a complete prat,” said Honan, invoking English slang for a twit.

Botting fell in love with Holtzman’s script when he read it, because it exposed McGonagall’s vulnerabilities and humiliation with a measure of dignity and determination.

“In the end, he’s got a big, open heart, and that is what we want to get across,” Botting said. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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