His poetry has not aged well. The two styles in which he wrote—black-dialect dramatic monologues and formally intricate, “literary English” poems that echo Tennyson and Wordsworth (or, as Act 2, Scene 1, of The Mask in the Mirror has it, Byron and Longfellow)—have long been considered off-puttingly passé. His emotionally direct letters to Moore, however, and hers to him, will still strike a chord in anyone who has ever plunged headlong into a great passion only to discover too late that that way lies madness.
Moore, dazzled by Dunbar’s talent and fame, ignored numerous warning signs. Not only was Dunbar an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a “mama’s boy,” but he also nourished a sense of entitlement based on his self-perception as a “great poet” and a “genius” (at least one of which, to be fair, he was).
The libretto homes in on the turbulence inevitable in such a combustible situation, a turbulence that Thompson’s largely recitative-based vocal melodies and the voices of his classically trained cast bring to a life both tender and terrifying. Whether proud, angry, self-pitying, or pleading, the tenor Cameo Humes and the soprano Angela Owens are resplendent as Dunbar and Moore respectively. And the supporting cast—especially John Polhamus (as the well-meaning but racially blinkered critic William Dean Howells) and Roland Mills (doubling as a Dodd, Mead & Co. sales representative and Dunbar’s “drinking buddy”)—is no less so.
Meanwhile, the music as played by a Stephen Tucker-conducted chamber orchestra gives voice to the inchoate elements of Dunbar’s and Moore’s internal and external conflicts, connecting them with a moody, at times almost melodramatic tension. Even the relief provided by the ragtime syncopations of Act 2, Scene 2 (“Paul in a Harlem Bar”), feels portentous.
What it portends is Moore’s inability to save Dunbar from himself, Dunbar’s unwillingness to abandon his self-destructive course, and the crashing failure of their marriage.
In that sense, The Mask in the Mirror is a richer, more challenging, and more universal work than A Star Is Born as well.