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archy and mehitabel: a back alley opera – 1954

archy and mehitabel: a back alley opera – 1954

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Synopsis

Notes to Columbia Masterworks ML 4963 by E.B. White Among books of humor by American authors, there are only a handful that rest solidly on the shelf … archy and mehitabel, hammered out at such awful cost by the bug hurling himself at the [typewriter] keys, is one of those books. It is funny, it is wise, it is tender, and it is tough. I know (or think I do) at what cost Don Marquis produced these gaudy and irreverent tales. He was the sort of poet who does not create easily; he was left unsatisfied and gloomy by what he produced; day and night he felt the juices squeezed out of him by the merciless demands of daily newspaper work; he was never quite certified by intellectuals and serious critics of belles lettres. He ended up in an exhausted condition – his money gone, his strength gone. Describing the coming of Archy [Marquis always used the capital letter when referring to the cockroach in the third person] in the “Sun Dial” column of the New York Sun one afternoon in 1916, he wrote: “After an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of poems which are always there in profusion.” In that sentence Don Marquis was writing his own obituary notice. After about a lifetime of frightfully difficult literary labor keeping newspapers supplied with copy, he fell exhausted. The device of having a cockroach leave messages in his typewriter in the Sun office was a lucky accident and a happy solution for an acute problem. Marquis did not have the patience to adjust himself easily and comfortably to the rigors of daily columning, and he did not go about it in the steady, conscientious way that (for example) his contemporary Franklin P. Adams did. Consequently Marquis was always hard up for stuff to fill his space. Adams was a great editor, an insatiable proofreader, a good make-up man. Marquis was none of these. Adams, operating his “Conning Tower” in The World, moved in the commodious margins of column-and-a-half width and built up a reliable stable of contributors. Marquis, cramped by single-column width, produced his column largely without outside assistance. He never assembled a hard-hitting bunch of contributors and never tried to. He was impatient of hard work and humdrum restrictions, yet expression was the need of his soul. (It is significant that the first words Archy left in his machine were “expression is the need of my soul.”) The creation of Archy, whose communications were in free verse, was part inspiration, part desperation. It enabled Marquis to use short (sometimes very, very short) lines, which fill space rapidly, and at the same time it allowed his spirit to soar while viewing things from the under side, insect fashion. Even Archy’s physical limitations (his inability to operate the shift key) relieved Marquis of the toilsome business of capital letters, apostrophes, and quotation marks, those small irritations that slow up all men who are hoping their spirit will soar in time to catch the edition. Typographically, the vers libre did away with the turned or runover line that every single-column practitioner suffers from. Archy has endeared himself in a special way to thousands of poets and creators and newspaper slaves, and there are reasons for this beyond the sheer merit of his literary output. The details of his creative life make him blood brother to writing men. He cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward. So do we all. And when he was through his labors, he fell to the floor, spent. He was vain (so are we all), hungry, saw things from the under side, and was continually bringing up the matter of whether he should be paid for his work. He was bold, disrespectful, possessed of the revolutionary spirit (he organized the Worms Turnverein), was never subservient to the boss yet always trying to wheedle food out of him, always getting right to the heart of the matter. And he was contemptuous of those persons who were absorbed in the mere technical details of his writing. “The question is whether the stuff is literature or not.” That question dogged his boss; it dogs us all. In one sense Archy and his racy pal Mehitabel are timeless. In another sense, they belong rather intimately to an era – an era in American letters when this century was in its teens and its early twenties, an era before the newspaper column had degenerated. In 1916 to hold a job on a daily paper, a columnist was expected to be something of a scholar and a poet – or if not a poet, at least to harbor the transmigrated soul of a dead poet. Nowadays, to get a columning job, a man need only have the soul of a Peep Tom or a third-rate prophet. There are plenty of loud clowns and bad poets at work on papers today, but there are not many columnists adding to belles lettres, and certainly there is no Don Marquis at work on any big daily, or if there is, I haven’t encountered his stuff. This seems to me a serious falling-off of the press. Mr. Marquis’s cockroach was more than the natural issue of a creative and humorous mind. Archy was the child of compulsion, the stern compulsion of journalism. The compulsion is as great today as it ever was, but it is met in a different spirit. Archy used to come back from the golden companionship of the tavern with a poet’s report of life as seen from the under side. Today’s columnist returns from the platinum companionship of the night club with a dozen pieces of watered gossip and a few bottomless anecdotes. Archy returned carrying a heavy load of wine and dreams. These later cockroaches come sober from their taverns, carrying a basket of fluff. I think newspaper publishers in this decade ought to ask themselves why. What accounts for so great a falling-off? The days of the “Sun Dial” were, as one gazes back on them, pleasantly preposterous times, and Marquis was made for them, or they for him. Vers libre was in vogue, and tons of souped-up prose and other dribble poured from young free-verse artists who were suddenly experiencing a gorgeous release in the disorderly high-sounding tangle of non-metrical lines. Spiritualism had captured people’s fancy also. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in close touch with the hereafter, and received frequent communications from the other side. Ectoplasm swirled around all our heads in those days. (It was great stuff, Archy pointed out, to mend broken furniture with.) Souls, at this period, were being transmigrated in Pythagorean fashion. It was the time of “swat the fly,” dancing the shimmy, and speakeasies. Marquis imbibed freely of this carnival air, and it all turned up, somehow, in Archy’s report. Thanks to Archy, Marquis was able to write rapidly and almost (but not quite) carelessly. In the very act of spoofing free verse, he was enjoying some of its obvious advantages. And he could always let the chips fall where they might, since the burden of responsibility for his sentiments, prejudices, and opinions was neatly shifted to the roach and the cat. It was quite in character for them to write either beautifully or sourly, and Marquis turned it on and off the way an orchestra plays first hot, then sweet. At bottom Don Marquis was a poet, and his life followed the precarious pattern of a poet’s existence. He danced on bitter nights with Boreas, he ground out copy on drowsy afternoons when he felt no urge to write and in newspaper offices where he didn’t want to be. After he had exhausted himself columning, he tried playwriting and made a pot of money (on The Old Soak) and then lost it all on another play (about the Crucifixion). He tried Hollywood and was utterly miserable and angry, and came away with a violent, unprintable poem in his pocket describing the place. In his domestic life he suffered one tragedy after another – the death of a young son, the death of his first wife, the death of his daughter, finally the death of his second wife. Then sickness and poverty. All these things happened in the space of a few years. I think the new generation of newspaper readers is missing a lot that we used to have, and I am deeply sensible of what it meant to be a young man when Archy was at the top of his form and when Marquis was discussing the Almost Perfect State in the daily paper. Buying a paper then was quietly exciting, in a way that it has ceased to be. Marquis was by temperament a city dweller, and both his little friends were of the city: the cockroach, most common of city bugs; the cat, most indigenous of city mammals. Both, too, were tavern habitués, as was their boss. Here were perfect transmigrations of an American soul, this dissolute feline who was a dancer and always the lady, toujours gai, and this troubled insect who was a poet – both seeking expression, both vainly trying to reconcile art and life, both finding always that one gets in the way of the other. Their employer, in one of his more sober moods, once put the whole matter in a couple of lines. My heart has followed all my days Something I cannot name … Such is the lot of poets. Such was Marquis’s lot. Such, probably, is the lot even of bad poets. But bad poets can’t phrase it so simply.

– E.B. White, 1954

Camille Saint-Saëns composed the Carnival of the Animals (Le Carnaval des animaux) while vacationing in Austria in February 1886. Originally scored for a chamber group of only eleven instruments (including two pianos and a glass harmonica), it is now heard most often with the addition of a full string orchestra.

After its initial premiere, Saint-Saëns forbade its performance (except for the one movement describing the Swan) until after his death, letting it be known that he thought the entire piece too frivolous and potentially damaging to his reputation as a serious composer. In fact his reputation was never in danger. It is more likely that he was afraid that the individuals (humans, that is, in French musical circles) whom he had selected as butts of his sardonic musical jokes would take offense and cause an uproar.

Worthy of special notice in the suite are the roaring of the lions (the two pianos) in the midst of their royal march; the “cock-a-doodle-doo” of a rooster amid the pecking of the hens; the speedy running of the wild Tibetan onagers; the agonizingly slow can-can (quoted from Offenbach) of the turtles; the sylphlike dances from Berlioz and Mendelssohn transposed down to the bass fiddles for the Elephant; the watery piano glissandos through which the fish swim; the braying “hee-haws” of the “Persons with Long Ears” (could Saint-Saëns have been referring to music critics?); the dogged practicing of the pianists (they might as well be behind bars in a zoo); and finally all the old fossils of tunes – including the main one by Saint-Saëns himself – to which the museum skeletons do their midnight dance. Who has the last word in the grand Finale? The “Persons with Long Ears.” Hee-haw!

– LEC

Credits

archy and mehitabel and echoes of archy: Narrator: David Wayne Archy: Eddie Bracken Mehitabel: Carol Channing Big Bill: Percival Dove Music by George Kleinsinger Words by Joe Darion Based on the stories of Don Marquis Orchestra conducted by George Kleinsinger Carnival of the Animals Music by Camille Saint-Saëns New verses by Ogden Nash Read by Noël Coward With Andre Kostelanetz and His Orchestra