Thurber's Carnival

February 26: A Thurber Carnival opened on Broadway on this day in 1960, to good reviews and a long run. James Thurber died twenty months later; Thurber's biographers and friends describe his involvement in the play as his swan song, and a bright spot in his difficult, almost totally blind last years. Thurber did all the writing (adapting earlier material, most of it from his 1945 anthology, The Thurber Carnival), gave notes after rehearsals, and even took a role for eighty-eight performances, despite his handicap.

 

One scene in the show was just a series of Thurber's one-liners and cartoon captions, delivered "Laugh-In" style—the cast dancing to music, then everyone freezing at the delivery of the new line:

  • "I knew their marriage wouldn't last when they called their honeymoon cottage 'The Qualms.'"
  • "So I said to the bank teller, 'How could I be overdrawn when I have all these checks left?'"
  • "She's always living in the past. Now she wants to be divorced in the Virgin Islands."
  • "Why didn't they repeal inhibition while they were at it?"
  • "It's funny, but every time I relax with a man, he gets all tensed up."

Thurber's scene was from his "File and Forget" piece, collected in Thurber Country. It is a series of letters between Thurber and his publisher—specifically, between Thurber and his publisher's ordering and stock departments, the letters showing Thurber going from confusion to exasperation to a bonfire, made from books he didn't want:

I have explained as clearly as I could in previous letters that I did not order thirty-six copies of "Grandma Was a Nudist." If you have actually shipped to me another thirty-six copies of this book, it will make a total of seventy-two copies, none of which I will pay for . . . .

Thurber's last decade had gone far beyond exasperation. His drinking problem had developed into alcoholism, and his dwindling eyesight had escalated chronic moodiness—his wife called them "The Thurbs"—into a nervous breakdown. Thurber said it took him five years to recover; many around him said that he never really did, and that his bouts of violent, irrational, sometimes delusional behavior drove away all but the most devoted. Some of these describe the Broadway hit as a temporary cure, returning Thurber not to sight but to his comic vision and best self.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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