Poetry as Drama: The Wild Party

Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Joseph Moncure March‘s long 1928 narrative poem, The Wild Party. What a terrible lacuna to have in one’s poetic education!  Fortunately, a friend invited me to see a cabaret version of the poem performed at the Famous SpiegelTent (which was visiting my city Canberra as part of our centenary celebrations).

Pic of the Wild Party p1

The Wild Party: Page 1 with illustration

The poem – which takes well over an hour to read out – is a delicious Jazz Age debauch (in heroic couplets, no less) which was thought ‘too racy’ when first written, had its publication delayed for two years and even then remained banned in the city of Boston. Here is some more about the poem and here is a link to the full text.

The SpiegelTent version was performed by actor/director Pauline Wright and actor Joe Woodward, with an original score (for piano, voice and trumpet) by Jiri Kripac.

Here are a couple of tidbits from it. The first, early on, sets the scene by describing the apartment where the ‘heroine’, the dancer Queenie, lives with her boyfriend of the moment, a vaudeville clown and ladykiller called Burrs:

Furnished like a third act passion set:
Oriental; Sentimental;
They owed two months on the rental.
Pink cushions,
Blue cushions: overlaid
With silk: with lace: with gold brocade.
These lay propped up on a double bed
That was covered with a Far East tapestry spread.

Chinese dragons with writhing backs:
Photographs caught to the wall with tacks:
Their friends in the profession,
Celebrities for the impression—
(“So’s your old man—Isidore.”
“Faithfully—Ethel Barrymore”)
On a Chinese lacquer tray there stood a
Gong with tassels, and a brass Buddha.
Brass candlesticks.
Orange candles.
An Art vase with broken handles,
Out of which came an upthrusting
Of cherry blossoms that needed dusting.

And here is another snippet from later on, after the Wild Party of the title has gotten into full, gin-soaked swing:

The bed was a slowly moving tangle
Of legs and bodies at every angle.
Knees rose:
Legs in sheer stockings crossed,
Clung: shimmered: uncrossed: were lost.
Skirts were awry.
Black arms embraced
White legs naked from knee to waist.

Of course, not long after that, everything goes horribly wrong and somebody gets shot. Just your typical evening in the demi-monde.

Many modern readers of the poem are (apparently) put off by its ‘sing-song’ rhymes. All I can say to that is, perhaps what was missing was a cabaret setting, a horn, a piano and a dirty martini.  The setting and characters are vividly realised, the rhythm is varied enough to overcome any ‘sing-song’ quality (it is actually an amazing piece of technique upon which new poets could be sent to school, IMHO), and the pacing is effective too.  I was struck while listening by its cinematic quality – and indeed it has been adapted, with varying levels of success, twice for the big screen and twice as a stage musical.

My new project is to purchase a copy of the 1999 reprint featuring Art Spiegelman drawings. And also to stock up on appropriate musical accompaniment – and liquor – to enjoy it with 🙂

I hope you have enjoyed this little journey back into the Roaring Twenties. I know I have.

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