On-Stage: On recited poetry and really bad theatre

There’s a musical playing right now at BYU that I’m not going to see.  Casey at the Bat it’s called, and already I’m cranky.  I’m on the committee that decides these things–I’ve read the script.  That’s why I’m boycotting it.  It’s not just a bad book for a mediocre musical.  Lots of musicals have bad books–’book’ means ‘script’ in musicalese–including some really popular ones.  My favorite is the Elton John Aida.  Okay, at the end of the musical, Radames, the Egyptian prince, and Aida, the Nubian princess/slave he’s fallen in love with are running from the cops/Egyptian army.  There’s this bridge.  If they cross the bridge, they’re safe.  If they don’t cross the bridge, they’ll be captured and tortured to death.  They stand on the bridge.  They sing a very long love duet, which goes on long enough for the cops/Egyptian army to catch up with them.  Honestly, I’m not kidding, that’s what happens. They sing and sing and sing and get their silly butts caught. Apparently, it never occurs to them to sing once they’re across the bridge; nope, that song’s gotta get sung right that very second.  I laughed out loud in the theater, earning the eternal enmity of many many weeping coeds.  When they die together–tragically, so tragically–I kept thinking about the Darwin awards, how killing these two dunces just improved the gene pool something considerable.  I mean, that’s bad writing. Right?  Well, Casey at the Bat is worse than that.

Aida is somewhat redeemed by Elton John’s songs, which are sort of melodramatic and Elton John-y.  I don’t know who wrote the songs for Casey at the Bat, and I’m too lazy to look it up for you.  And they’re sort of okay songs I guess.  And it’s directed by a good friend, whose work I’m usually happy to support.  And students who have seen it have said it’s not bad.  They said it was ‘cute.’  They said it was ‘fun.’  I’m not opposed to cute and fun–I have a sixteen year old daughter after all.  No, what I loathe about Casey at the Bat is that it’s not based on “Casey at the Bat.”

My friend says it’s based on ‘a version’ of “Casey at the Bat.”  But it’s not.  There were lots of versions of “Casey at the Bat.” Ernest L. Thayer wrote the original poem; there are small textual differences between various published versions.  It was popularized by DeWolf Hopper, an actor who recited it some 10,000 times on the vaudeville circuit–there are tiny differences between the poem as recited by Hopper and published texts.  Thayer even agreed to a published version called “Kelly at the Bat,” which was published in New York to exploit the popularity of the big baseball star of the 1880′s, Mike “King” Kelly.  The musical isn’t based on any of these versions of the poem.  It’s based on an entirely different poem, in which Casey is a good guy, with an evil town banker and a rigged game and all sorts of stuff that Thayer never dreamed of.  There are lots of those too–poems based on Casey–Casey, the Next Year, Casey Twenty Years Later, Casey as a woman.  They call it Casey at the Bat, but it’s really “Casey the obscene bastardization.”

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the outstanding examples of something we don’t really have any more, long story poems intended for public recitation.  There’s probably also a word for these kinds of poems, but I’m too lazy to look that up either.  But there used to be tons of ‘em.  They seemed to come in three categories: sentimental (“The Touch of the Master’s Hand”), stirring (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”), and humorous (“The Cremation of Sam McGee, or, you know, Casey).  President Monson seems to have memorized a whole book’s worth of the sentimental ones–though I have a feeling he could knock off a pretty rousing “Cremation of Sam McGee” if called upon.  There’s this great moment in The Blind Side where the big homeless kid, Michael Oher, hears his new step-dad recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and comes to an appreciation for reading as a result.  They’re the kinds of poems Lewis Carroll was mocking with “Jabberwocky.” Ogden Nash used to make fun of them too (“I’d rather fail a Wasserman test/than read the poems of Edgar Guest”).  Learning these poems and reciting them in public used to be a part of our educational system.  Just because they’ve fallen out of fashion is no reason to mock them as a genre–they gave great pleasure back in the day.  In our family, we learned a few for family home evening.  And when I was involved in scouting, I used to recite “Casey” at campfire nights.  It’s a terrific example of a kind of poem that we really should respect more than we do.

Plus, I’m a baseball fan.  Go to Cooperstown New York, to the American Baseball Hall of Fame.  In the gift shop, you can buy jerseys with the names Cooney, Burrows, Blake, and Casey on it.  I have a certain affection for a current baseball player, Casey Blake, in fact, because his name includes the names of two of the players on Casey’s team.  You can also hear a sound recording of DeWolf Hopper reciting “Casey.”  I tell you, when I heard that, a chill went down my spine, and it’s possible my eyes got a little wet for a second there.  “Casey”‘s part of our history.

What I love about “Casey” is its wonderful combination of irony and moral rigor.  It’s a poem about hubris, about the downfall of an arrogant SOB.  He sneers at the opposing pitcher, his ‘lips are clenched in hate.’  And baseball humbles him.  He strikes out. Let’s everyone down.  It’s really funny.  And it’s also, I don’t know, right.

That’s what this icky musical loses–that sense of comical tragedy, of fate striking down a prideful mortal, of hubris punished.  Instead, it’s a conventional Hollywood narrative–heros and villains and sidekicks and a romance subplot, virtue rewarded, villainy punished.  It turns a comical tragedy into trivialized melodrama.  It Disneyizes something rich and unique and wonderful.  In fact, that’s not fair–Disney did a “Casey at the Bat” animated short, and got it right. They took all that moral rigor, and replaced it with songs that are fun.  And cute.  It’s the moral equivalent of Paul Anka singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (yes he did).  Or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “La Bamba” (yes, they did too, and there’s my Mormon connection!).  It’s just wrong.  Wrong.  Wrong.

As a baseball fan, I’m outraged.  As a recited poetry fan, I’m insulted.  And yes, I’m aware that I’m sounding like a curmudgeon.  And that’s not usually me.  And I’m losing po-mo cred, losing my ‘let’s experiment!’ vibe, losing my usual stance of open-minded tolerance and love for all art yes-even-art-I-personally-disagree-with-because-we’re-all-struggling-in-the-same-vinyard-after-all. Well, not this time.  This is baseball.  They made Casey cute.  Get back on the bridge and keep singing, people.

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7 Responses to On-Stage: On recited poetry and really bad theatre

  1. austin s says:

    I agree completely, and am interested in how far an adaptation of a work of art can stray from the original without doing damage to it. How can you transpose a work’s "soul"? There are obvious cases, like this one seems to be, where the story and message are entirely different and even opposite of the original’s and it just makes you cringe to watch. A more borderline case would be the recent Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, which is significantly different from both of Carroll’s books but in my mind did a decent job of getting the overall feel right. And though I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, I know I’ve seen movie (or play) adaptations that came off very well despite significant changes to plot and/or characters.

    Then this line of thinking makes me wonder what it will mean for God to transpose our own souls into resurrected bodies–a feat that will certainly require artistic genius; fortunately, I’m confident that He has that in abundance. That’s my attempt at a Mormon connection :)

    Finally, I’ll add my amen to your call for more respect owed to these sorts of poems. I have such strong memories of my mom’s tone of voice and facial expressions as she recited all of The Cremation of Sam McGee, which she had memorized some 40 years earlier! I hadn’t really thought about the power of oral recitation this concretely before, and this post makes me wish I could have heard Homer reciting the Odyssey, rather than living in the time of movies like Troy.

  2. I’m afraid the lasting image I will take from this column is of Pres. Monson reciting "Cremation of Sam McGee." Can anyone think of a way we could get him to do this? I’d pay money…

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Amen! And I’m glad to hear someone else has laughed at Aida because my husband and I thought it hilarious.

  4. Ed Snow says:

    I dare someone who reads this blog to give a church talk someday on some weighty topic that ties naturally into Hamlet’s soliloquy, but quote from the Duke’s version recited in Huck Finn instead, and see if anyone notices the difference.

  5. Eric Samuelsen says:

    So I’m watching conference this morning, and President Monson got up to speak, and my wife and I started up: "there are strange things done in midnight sun by the men who moil for gold . . ."
    Arghh!

  6. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Want me to get started on Disney’s bowdlerization of Kipling’s JUNGLE BOOK?

    No, of course you don’t.

    However, if they would ask me to speak (they don’t, because I already talk too much in relief society and Sunday school as it is), and if I could figure out a way to tie it in, I’d be willing to try quoting the Duke.

    After all, I substituted in relief society once, several years ago, and gave a lesson on self-acceptance in which I used for a visual aid a poster of Mr. Spock (yes, him, from STAR TREK).

    You’ll never believe who was in that relief society classroom–but every sister there seemed to be okay with the lesson–and Sister Kimball (yes, her, Mrs. Spencer W.) came up afterwards and told me that she had always struggled with self-acceptance and thanked me for my insights.

  7. Th. says:

    .

    Eric—

    I thought of it all through conference as well.

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