Monday, November 25, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE TRAGEDY OF TRAGEDIES, OR THE LIFE AND DEATH OF TOM THUMB THE GREAT” by Henry Fielding (published anonymously, 1731); and “A VOYAGE TO PURILIA” by Elmer Rice (first published in book form 1930)

            Simply because I can, I have chosen to bore you this week in my “Something Old” by presenting, side-by-side, two in-jokes which doubtless caused much mirth at the time they were written, but which are now so time-and-place specific that they cannot help being of historical interest only. You would have to be a specialist or desperate PhD student to wish to read either in its entirety. They were written almost exactly two centuries apart, but they both show the short shelf-life of parody when the thing being parodied itself had a short shelf-life.

First comes The Tragedy or Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, from the early eighteenth century. It was written as a joke by Henry Fielding when he was in his early twenties and before he had yet become the great novelist. Then it was called simply Tom Thumb. Some years later, he revised it for the published version as The Tragedy of Tragedies. It is a burlesque on bombastic tragedies that were still current on the English stage in 1731.

            In the days of King Arthur and Queen Dollalolla, Tom Thumb is the renowned hero of the realm, despite his small size. Tom is in love with the king’s daughter, the buxom Princess Huncamunca. She is in love with both Tom and the conspiring villain Lord Grizzle. Meanwhile the queen is also in love with Tom Thumb but the king is in love with the captured giantess Glumdalca – who is also in love with Tom.

The play’s absurd speeches include the appearance of a ghost (Tom’s father) and a prophecy by Merlin. The climax comes when Tom fights and kills the rebellious Lord Grizzle but then (as is reported by a courtier) he is himself eaten by an oversized cow (and presumably pooed out the other end). The final scene has all the other main characters killing one other in quick succession, so that the stage is covered with the requisite tragic pile of corpses.

            It is hard to believe that this was ever actually acted on stage, but apparently it was – and with considerable success. In fact, it is still occasionally revived as a piece of spectacular silliness. Every speech is deliberate nonsense, every situation an overblown theatrical cliché. It is as much pantomime as burlesque, and I assume the opportunities for slapstick would have worked a treat if the leading character were performed by somebody appropriately diminutive. The perennial dwarf-in-giant’s-armour joke.

The plays that Fielding ridicules are the tragedies written between John Dryden’s time and his own – everything from Dryden’s Aurungzebe to Richard Steele’s Cato. Maybe we too would buckle over with laughter if we actually knew these plays as well as Fielding’s audience presumably did. Adding to the joke is the published version of the play in which every page is filled with the annotations of “H.Scriblerus Secundus” pointing out the excellencies of the tragedy. Having ridiculed the serious drama of his day, here Fielding ridicules the pedantic scholarship of the likes of Theobald and Dennis with their overlong and redundant notes on Shakespeare. However, the notes also allow Fielding to quote at length from the plays he is parodying, showing just how absurd their bombast is and how little his parody has exaggerated them.

Having said all this, it is of course yesterday’s laughter and quite unrecoverable.

            My puerile and schoolboyish sense of humour found at least two moments of excellent fun. In the first, Lord Grizzle apostrophises the buxom Huncamunca, ridiculing Tom Thumb and giving Fielding the opportunity to play with every little boy’s chief obsession – women’s boobs:

            “Oh let him seek some Dwarf, some fairy Miss

            Where no Joint-stool must lift him to the Kiss.

            But by the Stars and Glory you appear

            Much fitter for a Prussian Grenadier.

            One Globe alone on Atlas’ Shoulders rests,

            Two Globes are less than Huncamunca’s Breasts:

            The Milky-way is not so white, that’s flat,

            And sure thy Breasts are full as large as that.” (Act II, Scene V)

In the second jolly moment, a parson speaks of Tom’s possible progeny, using a conceit that is at least as pompous as an heroic simile, but somehow not quite a propos:

            “Long may they live, and love and propagate

            Till the whole Land be peopled with Tom Thumbs.

            So when the Chesire Cheese a Maggot breeds,

            Another and another still succeeds.

            By thousands and ten thousands they increase,

            Till one continued Maggot fills the rotten Cheese.” (Act II, Scene IX)

            Ho ho ho, and back on the shelf it goes, whence I took it in the first place only because, at the time, I was doggedly reading my way through all of Fielding’s readily-accessible works.

            Flashing forward two centuries, we come to Elmer Rice.

Elmer Rice (1892-1967)? Now there’s a name not to conjure with. In the 1920s and early 1930s his expressionist plays (especially The Adding Machine and Street Scene) were the last word in experimentalism and drew some critics’ gasps. But (despite one of them having been made into an opera and a film), they are little performed now and seem fairly passé. Indeed Rice himself, who turned out many plays, gradually became something of a Broadway bore. A back number who hasn’t been revived.

            My business here is with his novel A Voyage to Purilia, which, like Fielding’s Tom Thumb, is really criticism in the guise of parody. I am not surprised to discover that A Voyage to Purilia was first published in serial parts in the New Yorker magazine in 1929 before it appeared in book form in 1930. It reads like the type of thing that could be enjoyable in small bites, but it is downright tedious and overlong even as a book of modest length (180 pages in my battered old Penguin copy).

            Briefly, this is a satire of, and commentary upon, the clichés of Hollywood films. The first-person narrator and a friend fly to the land of Purilia, which is permanently wrapped in pink clouds. The name Purilia is never explained, but it seems to be a combination of “pure” and “puerile”, which is Elmer Rice’s view of the movies.

            In Purilia, narrator and friend have endless adventures, all of which involve the stock situations and characters of Hollywood films. The running thread is their attempt to rescue a beautiful, innocent and virginal girl from the clutches of a designing villain. This is the cue for scenes in a Chinese opium den, on South Sea islands, among prospectors in the Frozen North, with cowboys in the Wild West, complete with much emoting, last-minute rescues, last-minute stays of execution and so forth; and plenty of slapstick comedy provided by the “low” characters. In Purilia, people divide into Pudencians (helpless and virginal white women), Paragonians (heroic and athletic white men) and Vauriens (sinister or comic dark-skinned people). It is all written in a fastidious, deadpan voice as the narrator describes the customs of Purilians, and thus displays ironically how unlike real life the movies are.

            Apart from skewering the improbabilities of melodrama, and the casual racism of old Hollywood films, Rice is most concerned to satirize the unreality of the social perspective of films (who ever sees people working for a living at a real job in the movies?) and their sexlessness. “Love” is presented dishonestly and real sexuality never displayed.

At which point we understand that this is a satire on movies written over eighty years ago. What satirist of cinema would now accuse films of being sexless?

I wonder, too, if Rice’s parody isn’t really proof that parody becomes easier when its objects are already fading? It seems to me that, while some of them persisted into the talkie era of Hollywood films, the clichés that Rice attacks were already passing out of existence even as he was writing. They belong to the silent cinema, which was on its last legs in 1930. This is also true of the device Elmer Rice uses in the novel of “the Presence”, an omniscient voice, which butts in every so often to set up new scenes. It is clearly a reference to the explanatory inter-titles, which set up scenes in silent movies. As I read A Voyage to Purilia, I saw in my mind’s eye the slapstick and pantomimed melodrama of silent movies of the 1920s. A whole new set of clichés was already emerging in the spoken-dialogue-driven cinema of 1930 (hard-bitten tough guys, wise-cracking hard-boiled dames etc.). This proves only that each age has its clichés.

Rice has nailed down a limited era of American movies. He has not nailed down movies per se any more than Fielding has nailed down tragedy. A Voyage to Purilia continued to be re-printed for a number of years (my old Penguin copy is dated 1954 – by which time movies were quite different from those of 1930). But, like Tom Thumb, most of its laughter is so topical as to be unrecoverable.

No comments:

Post a Comment