As the ninety-minute, one-act Ezra opens, Ezra Pound paces the six-by-six-foot gorilla cage in which American troops have imprisoned him. It is May, 1945, somewhere between Pisa and Viareggio. Under arrest for treason, narrating his own situation, the poet moves from self-pity to a joke about Walt Disney; Ezra then sings a song from the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) just as his pants fall down. He soon stops mourning the confiscation of his belt and shoelaces as he conjures up visions of two men he admires, composer Antonio Vivaldi and dictator Benito Mussolini. The former dances with Ezra to “Primavera,” the spring section of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (1725). The latter enters belting “Funiculi Funicula.”
Both try to cheer him with amusing badinage. “I’m the dead one, remember?” quips Il Duce, who then introduces himself to Vivaldi, joining him in singing a bit of “Me and My Shadow.” Mussolini’s mistress, Clara, appears long enough to scold these leaders—“Men will be boys”—but shifts in the demented Ezra’s mind to his own mistress, Olga. Before she is displaced among Ezra’s apparitions by his wife, Dorothy, Mussolini and Vivaldi exchange such barbed remarks as the dictator’s thrust, “Never trust a composer. A decomposer now, eh!” and the musician’s parry, “Italy had a future in the past.”
Ezra’s free association prompts his connection of his wife Dorothy’s entrance to “the yellow brick road.” Moments later, a voice-over of one of his pro-fascist radio broadcasts segues into a prison guard ordering the women to leave and then Ezra’s fantasy of the two women living together, united by their desire to protect his books and reputation.
As the action jumps backward and forward across 1945, Ezra faces down his interrogator by singing snatches of “Pennies from Heaven” and “Ten Cents a Dance” to explain his anti-Semitic economic theories; he confesses to having personally bombed Pearl Harbor. At his home, American authorities—represented onstage by a Guard—confiscate his typewriter and seven thousand manuscript pages, including his latest Cantos and his translations of Confucius. When asked specifically about his radio broadcasts, Ezra praises Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. Ezra excuses his views by proclaiming that he is above the law, because “a poet listens to his own voice.”
Ezra’s digressions grow increasingly bizarre. Rather than discuss events of 1943, he invokes Vergil, rambles into World War I, quotes one of his broadcasts calling upon American troops to desert, and focuses upon the question only when permitted, in the longest coherent stretch of text, a long reenactment of his walk from Rome north into the Tyrol to see his daughter. Then Clara complains that she and Benito are being kept awake, apparently by Ezra’s having willed them into his brain. Ezra broadcasts another anti-Semitic tirade, then recounts the occupation of his town, Rapallo, by American soldiers, and his arrest.
Although the caged Ezra increasingly appears more genuinely mad than self-mocking, doctors pronounce him sane, and he is shipped off to Washington, D.C., for trial. There, after reminiscences of his youth, he hears the indictment against him, his attorney’s halfhearted plea for his release, and a psychiatrist’s testimony regarding his paranoia. Alone in his cell at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane after he has been pronounced of unsound mind, Ezra, seeming more rational than at any other time in the play, reflects upon the other geniuses who have been imprisoned or accused of treason or declared insane.
During this soliloquy, eleven years pass. Ezra hears quoted thereafter the pleas of famous men for his release, interrupting the litany to protest that he is “the patsy, the fall guy” for them because he has said what they only thought and to insist that he had known nothing about the gas chambers; had he known, he would have rescued the Jews. Thirteen years after his incarceration at St. Elizabeth’s, a voice dismisses the charges of treason against him.
For a few moments Ezra and Dorothy are upon a ship’s deck, bound for his beloved Italy. Then they stroll through the Ghetto Vecchio in Venice, as he calls the names of his Jewish friends. Only the wind replies. Confused at first by the empty houses, he then, too late, acknowledges the error of his anti-Semitism. Now the cage that contains him is the shame of his guilt.