Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 291 (11/21) -- Stage-Land by Jerome K. Jerome

I took a couple of "real" books on my Florida vacation -- a fantasy novel by James Enge and a Paul Theroux travel book -- but I didn't really touch them, as I was seduced instead by my new techy toy, the iPad. I played some games, read my feeds during the rare times I had the Internet, and poked around in the pile of books I've loaded onto it (in four entirely separate reading programs, no less). The only thing I actually made it to the other end of, though -- the only book I made a serious attempt at, to be honest -- was this short amusement by Jerome K. Jerome, the writer forever known as "that Three Men in a Boat guy."

Stage-Land is a type of writing still very familiar -- it takes the concepts of a popular form of entertainment and tries to explain them as if they described a plausible, self-consistent world, and at the same time makes fun of that form. Call it the single-author version of TV Tropes, circa 1889, and you'll get the picture. Jerome's topic of satire is the popular theater of his day -- very much the TV-equivalent, providing regular disposable entertainment to a wide and generally undiscerning audience -- and it proves equally prone to stock situations and characters, which make very little sense when Jerome gets to poking at them with logic.

Jerome, of course, never actually describes the plot of any play -- either a real one or one he makes up as an example -- but the outline is very clear from his descriptions of the characters and their actions. The heroes he describes are not entirely out of fashion today:
He can make long speeches, he can tell you all his troubles, he can stand in the lime-light and strike attitudes, he can knock the villain down, and he can defy the police, but these requirements are not much in demand in the labor market, and as they are all he can do or cares to do, he finds earning his living a much more difficult affair than he fancied.
I was also disheartened -- though perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised -- to find that the place of law in fiction has always been bad;
The only points of stage "law" on which we are at all clear are as follows:
  • That if a man dies without leaving a will, then all his property goes to the nearest villain
  • But if a man dies and leaves a will, then all his property goes to whoever can get possession of that will
  • That the accidental loss of the three-and-sixpenny copy of a marriage certificate annuls the marriage
  • That the evidence of one prejudiced witness of shady antecedents is quite sufficient to convict the most stainless and irreproachable gentleman of crimes for the committal of which he could have had no possible motive.
  • But that this evidence may be rebutted years afterward, and the conviction quashed without further trial by the unsupported statement of the comic man
  • That if A forges B's name to a check, then the law of the land is that B shall be sentenced to ten year's penal servitude
I'm pretty sure I've seen a couple of those much more recently than 1889....

Jerome is funny and quick, providing a great example of the fake-aggrieved tone that has served humorists so well for so many years, and he's particularly good when talking about the parts that are supposed to be funny (the comic lovers, the peasants, the comic man), but never actually are. I'm sure I've never seen any of the plays that annoyed Jerome -- in the same way that audience in 2130 won't know what most of the sitcoms of today were -- but he's smart and witty in his complaints about them.

Somebody really should compile a great big book of Jerome -- he was very funny at his best (Three Men, of course, and his "Idle Thoughts" essays are mostly excellent, as well), but he also wrote a mass of other things, some of which were not intended to be funny in the first place, and some of which weren't particularly funny even then. Once again, it's a great job for someone who isn't me -- there must be some grad student casting about for a subject, right? I'm sure Jerome Studies is a wide-open field for the right chap.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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