From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume III, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 504-510.
BY JOHN KENDRICK BANGS
“There’s a harvest for you,” said the Idiot, as he perused a recently published criticism of a comic opera. “There have been thirty-nine new comic operas produced this year and four of ’em were worth seeing. It is very evident that the Gilbert and Sullivan industry hasn’t gone to the wall whatever slumps other enterprises have suffered from.”
“That is a goodly number,” said the Poet. “Thirty-nine, eh? I knew there was a raft of them, but I had no idea there were as many as that.”
“Why don’t you go in and do one, Mr. Poet?” suggested the Idiot. “They tell me it’s as easy as rolling off a log. All you’ve got to do is to forget all your ideas and remember all the old jokes you ever heard. Slap ’em together around a lot of dances, write two dozen lyrics about some Googoo Belle, hire a composer, and there you are. Hanged if I haven’t thought of writing one myself.”
“I fancy it isn’t as easy as it looks,” observed the Poet. “It requires just as much thought to be thoughtless as it does to be thoughtful.”
“Nonsense,” said the Idiot. “I’d undertake the job cheerfully if some manager would make it worth my while, and what’s more, if I ever got into the swing of the business, I’ll bet I could turn out a libretto a day for three days of the week for the next two months.”
“If I had your confidence I’d try it,” laughed the Poet, 505 “but alas, in making me Nature did not design a confidence man.”
“Nonsense again,” said the Idiot. “Any man who can get the editors to print Sonnets to Diana’s Eyebrow, and little lyrics of Madison Square, Longacre Square, Battery Place and Boston Common, the way you do, has a right to consider himself an adept at bunco. I tell you what I’ll do with you. I’ll swap off my confidence for your lyrical facility and see what I can do. Why can’t we collaborate and get up a libretto for next season? They tell me there’s large money in it.”
“There certainly is if you catch on,” said the Poet. “Vastly more than in any other kind of writing that I know. I don’t know but that I would like to collaborate with you on something of the sort. What is your idea?”
“Mind’s a blank on the subject,” sighed the Idiot. “That’s the reason I think I can turn the trick. As I said before, you don’t need ideas. Better off without ’em. Just sit down and write.”
“But you must have some kind of a story,” persisted the Poet.
“Not to begin with,” said the Idiot. “Just write your choruses and songs, slap in your jokes, fasten ’em together, and the thing is done. First act, get your hero and heroine into trouble. Second act, get ’em out.”
“And for the third?” queried the Poet.
“Don’t have a third,” said the Idiot. “A third is always superfluous — but if you must have it, make up some kind of a vaudeville show and stick it in between the first and second.”
“Tush!” said the Bibliomaniac. “That would make a gay comic opera!”
“Of course it would, Mr. Bib,” the Idiot agreed. “and that’s what we want. If there’s anything in this world 506 that I hate more than another it is a somber comic opera. I’ve been to a lot of ’em, and I give you my word of honor that next to a funeral a comic opera that lacks gaiety is one of the most depressing functions known to modern science. Some of ’em are enough to make an undertaker weep with jealous rage. I went to one of ’em last week called ‘The Skylark’ with an old chum of mine, who is a surgeon. You can imagine what sort of a thing it was when I tell you that after the first act he suggested we leave the theatre and come back here and have some fun cutting my leg off. He vowed that if he ever went to another opera by the same people he’d take ether beforehand.”
“I shouldn’t think that would be necessary,” sneered the Bibliomaniac. “If it was as bad as all that why didn’t it put you to sleep?”
“It did,” said the Idiot. “But the music kept waking us up again. There was no escape from it except that of actual physical flight.”
“Well — about this collaboration of ours,” suggested the Poet. “What do you think we should do first?”
“Write an opening chorus, of course,” said the Idiot. What did you suppose? A finale? Something like this:”
“If you want to know who we are,
Just ask the Evening Star,
As he smiles on high
In the deep blue sky,
With his tralala-la-la-la.
We are maidens sweet
With tripping feet,
And the Googoo eyes
Of the Skippity-hi’s,
And the smile of the fair Gazoo;
And you’ll find our names
’Mongst the wondrous dames
Of the Whos Who-hoo-hoo-hoo.507
“Get that sung with spirit by sixty-five ladies with blonde wigs and gold slippers; otherwise dressed up in the uniform of a troop of Russian Cavalry, and you’ve got your venture launched.”
“Where can you find people like that?” asked the Bibliomaniac.
“New York’s full of ’em,” replied the Idiot.
“I don’t mean the people to act that sort of thing — but where would you lay your scene?” explained the Bibliomaniac.
“Oh, any old place in the Pacific Ocean,” said the Idiot. “Make your own geography — everybody else does. There’s a million islands out there of one kind or another, and as defenseless as a two weeks’ old infant. If you want a real one, fish it out and fire ahead. If you don’t, make one up for yourself and call it ‘The Isle of Piccolo,” or something of that sort. After you’ve got your chorus going, introduce your villain, who should be a man with a deep bass voice and a piratical past. He’s the chap who rules the roost and is going to marry the heroine to-morrow. That will make a bully song:
“I’m a pirate bold
With a heart so cold
That it turns the biggest joys to solemn sorrow;
And the hero-ine,
With her eyes so fine,
I am going to-marry — to-morrow.
“He is go-ing to-marry — to-morrow
The maid with a heart full of sorrow;
For her we are sorry
For she weds to-morry —
She is go-ing to-marry — to-morrow.508
“Gee!” added the Idiot enthusiastically. “Can’t you almost hear that already?”
“I am sorry to say,” said Mr. Brief, “that I can. You ought to call your heroine Drivelina.”
“Splendid,” cried the Idiot. “Drivelina goes. Well, then on comes Drivelina end this beast of a Pirate grabs her by the hand and makes love to her as if he thought wooing was a game of snap the whip. She sings a soprano solo of protest and the Pirate summons his hirelings to cast Drivelina into a Donjuan cell when, boom! an American warship appears on the horizon. The crew under the leadership of a man with a squeaky tenor voice named Lieutenant Somebody or other comes ashore, puts Drivelina under the protection of the American flag while his crew sings the following:
“We are Jackies, Jackies, Jackies,
And we smoke the best tobaccys
You can find from Zanzibar to Honeyloo.
And we fight for Uncle Sammy,
Yes indeed we do, for damme
You can bet your life that that’s the thing to do — doodle-do!
You can bet your life that that’s the thing to doodle — doodle —
doodle — doodle-do.
“Eh! What?” demanded the Idiot.
“Well — what yourself?” asked the Lawyer. “This is your job. What next?”
“Well — the Pirate gets lively, tries to assassinate the Lieutenant, who kills half the natives with his sword and is about to slay the Pirate when he discovered that he is his long lost father,” said the Idiot. “The heroine then sings a pathetic love song about her Baboon Baby, in a green light to the accompaniment of a lot of pink satin monkeys banging cocoa-nut shells together. This drowsy lullaby puts the Lieutenant and his forces to sleep and the 509 curtain falls on their capture by the Pirate and his followers, with the chorus singing:
“Hooray for the Pirate bold,
With his pockets full of gold,
He’s going to marry to-morrow..
To-morrow he’ll marry,
Yes, by the Lord Harry,
He’s go-ing — to-marry — to-mor-row!
And that’s a thing to doodle-doodle-doo.
“There,” said the Idiot, after a pause. “How is that for a first act?”
“It’s about as lucid as most of them,” said the Poet, “but after all you have got a story there, and you said you didn’t need one.”
“I said you didn’t need one to start with,” corrected the Idiot. “And I’ve proved it. I didn’t have that story in mind when I started. That’s where the easiness of the thing comes in. Why, I didn’t even have to think of a name for the heroine. The inspiration for that popped right out of Mr. Brief’s mouth as smoothly as though the name Drivelina had been written on his heart for centuries. Then the title — Isle of Piccolo — that’s a dandy and I give you my word of honor I’d never even thought of a title for the opera until that revealed itself like a flash from the blue; and as for the coon song, ‘My Baboon Baby,’ there’s a chance there for a Zanzibar act that will simply make Richard Wagner and Reginald De Koven writhe with jealousy. Can’t you imagine the lilt of it:
“My Bab-boon — ba-habee,
My Bab-boon — ba-habee —
I love you dee-her-lee
My Bab-boon — ba-ha-bee,
My Bab-boon — ba-ha-bee,
My baboon — Ba-hay-hay-hay-hay-hay-hay-bee-bee.510
“And all those pink satin monkeys bumping their cocoa-nut shells together in the green moonlight — ”
“Well, after the first act, what?” asked the Bibliomaniac.
“The usual intermission,” said the Idiot. “You don’t have to write that. The audience generally knows what to do.”
“But your second act?” asked the Poet.
“Oh, come off,” said the Idiot rising. “We were to do this thing in collaboration. So far I’ve done the whole blooming business. I’ll leave the second act to you. When you collaborate, Mr. Poet, you’ve got to do a little collabbing on your own account. What did you think you were to do — collect the royalties?”
“I’m told,” said the Lawyer, “that this is sometimes the hardest thing to do in a comic opera.”
“Well, I’ll be self-sacrificing,” said the Idiot, “and bear my full share of it.”
“It seems to me,” said the Bibliomaniac, “that that opera produced in the right place might stand a chance of a run.”
“Thank you,” said the Idiot. “After all, Mr. Bib, you are a man of some penetration. How long a run?”
“One consecutive night,” said the Bibliomaniac.
“Ah — and where?” demanded the Idiot with a smile.
“At Bloomingdale,” answered the Bibliomaniac severely.
“That’s a very good idea,” said the Idiot. “When you go back there, Mr. Bib, I wish you’d suggest it to the Superintendent.”