Theatre Mirror Reviews - "three puns"

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One evening when the captain of Harvard's Heavy Eight was being ragged by a drunken bunch of Yalies who pointed out that his lead oarsman was gay, he merely sniffed and airily replied

"Different folks for different strokes!"

This is a tale told in certain circles of the arcane and esoteric elect, of events occurring in the fabled city of Ur of the Chaldees, the cradle of civilization. In Ur, rituals took place the origins of which had already been shrouded from memory by the musty mists of immemorial time. One of these rites was the sacred Running of The Sheep through the streets of Ur -- from hither to yon -- every alternate mid-Spring morning. Every other year, herds of the most prized sheep were assembled, The Head Man himself shooed the flock into frightened flight, and The Shaman of The City waited at the end of the avenue to proclaim the fleetest ram the victor, and to mark him out for slaughter at the next mid- Spring morning.

The populace assembled along the route of the Running, and there was always much wine and ribaldry through the long night before the Run, and indeed much boasting and wagering among the shepherds and the butchers of Ur.

The winning RAM, tradition decreed, was to be sacrificed -- though it did occasionally happen that the females of the flock would panic at the Shooing of The Head Man and join the headlong dash. The phrase "As eager as a ewe in error" (so common on the lips of peasants in the Hebrides well into the early decades of our own century) is thought to be a corruption of "as eager as a ewe in Ur."

To crop a long tale to the time, however, we must recount that one particular year it chanced that a proud shepherd named Abou benHaddam brought to the festival what all agreed was the fleetest-hoofed ram the world had ever known. In several secret trials against the stop-hourglass the curly-horned bleater showed speeds of better than forty-three furlongs per fortnight. The ram seemed destined to be the Shaman's supper next mid-Spring festival. As a matter of fact, Abou put a good weight of gold where his mouth was on the score, and all Ur was a-babble.

The morn of mid-Spring arrived, The Head Man of Ur with the traditional "Heeee-Hahh!" of antiquity stirred the flock, and all along the route the tipsy townspeople cheered their favorites. But as the flock passed, cries turned to astonished laughter. A female had indeed sprinted along with the herd -- sprinted far AHEAD of the pack, in fact, even outrunning Abou benHadhem's touted favorite! A mockery of the ritual seemed about to occur.

Three-quarters of the way to the finish Abou stood, hoping modestly to be chaired through Ur of The Chaldees when his ram took the prize -- but what he saw coming down the way was obviously a female upstart! Vaulting the barrier, he whipped his tastefully gaudy serape out in front of the ewe, which, terrified at the sight, turned and bolted into an alley. Abou's ram galloped past him and straight into the arms of the waiting Eleazar, Shaman of Ur. Abou was ecstatic with joy.

At that instant, however, Eleazar turned in righteous wrath and marched back along the route. "Abou benHad-Hem!" he shouted, "You have committed a crime, and must pay the penalty!" There were in Ur of The Chaldees many crimes, but only one penalty. Eleazar whipped out his bow and shot Abou dead in his tracks. Then he strode through a horrendous silence to the Temple, there to pray and be purified.

That evening, the populace of Ur of The Chaldees muttered, recounting the events of mid-Spring morn. Everyone agreed the Shaman had been correct in punishing an obvious crime. To dispute it would, itself, be an obvious crime deserving of the same swift punishment. But late in the evening arguments which came near to blows erupted in a downtown tavern over just what, exactly, Abou benAdhem's crime had been. The Shaman, everyone loudly agreed, could not have been capricious in his punishments; nevertheless, to know an act to be a crime was a good way of avoiding committing such a crime in unwitting ignorance.

So it was that a delegation of The Elders of Ur, The Head Man at its... well, at its head, called at the Temple the next morning to have an informal, informative brunch with Eleazar The Shaman.

"We know Abou was a guilty man," The Head man began -- and here a chorus of enthusiastic assents arose from the Elders, all of whom tried not to glance at the bow resting inches from Eleazar's hand. "But even now there are vociferous factions maintaining differing views of the man's crime. I hear that some.." (and here The Head Man glanced an instant at the head of the Tavern-Keepers' Guild) "..maintain that Abou's fierce pride in his magnificent ram brought him low."

"Since when is honest pride a crime?" Eleazar asked. "Did he not own the fastest ram in Ur, and would he not be an ass not to be proud of that?"

"Agreed, agreed!" said The Head Man hastily. "Then there are others.. " (and the Master Goldsmith of Ur felt his glance for an instant) " ..who say it is a crime to wager on the outcome of a religious rite."

"Did I not bet on the ram myself?" Eleazar asked. "To put a shekel or two where one's mouth is -- and win! -- is to be commended, not condemned."

"Then again," persisted The Head Man, "there be some hair- splitters in town.. " (here he glared openly at the city's pig- butcher) " ..who say that in flipping his serape Abou benAddham exposed his parts, and that this profaned the sacred Running of The Sheep."

"Do not the gods see man naked to the bone?" asked Eleazar, contemptuously.

At this The Head Man smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. "Then you justify my own opinion in this matter, Eleazar. I confess, in the heat of solemn disputation near last midnight at the Mead & Mutton, I myself put a few shekels behind my view on the matter. I am certain, oh Shaman, you agree that Abou's terrible error was in arrogating to himself the outcome of the race. In acting to change the outcome, he defied the gods themselves, and justly died for his arrogance."

"I have said no such thing," snapped Eleazar. "It is true a ewe may be eager in Ur, but in joining the Sacred Run that ewe profaned the mysteries, and in thwarting her iniquity Abou did rightly and well."

"But then why on earth did you kill him?" The Head Man demanded.

"Have a care!" said the Shaman gravely, his fingertips caressing his black bow. "He transgressed and so he died. I myself would have been guilty had I not exacted the price. The man stood guilty of a monstrous traffic violation! In broad daylight, on the main street of Ur, and with the entire citizenry looking on, Abou benAdam made an illegal ewe turn!"

This isn't my story. E. Wayles Brown went off to Jugoslavia in the mid-'60s to help prepare a comparative grammar, the hard preliminary to writing a Slovene-English dictionary, and on one of his visits home he told me what he said was the SHORT version of this tale, about the three greatest musicians in the world -- who were Russian -- and their names were Jascha, Sasha, and Tasha.

Jascha played the violin, played it better than human hands had ever played it before. He had mastered the entire repertoire before he was out of his teens, to such an extent that no matter what piece he came upon, his sight-readings were acknowledged better than most virtuosi could bring forth after years of study.

But faithful rendition of the score was not enough. If you met anyone lucky enough to have had a ticket to any of his concerts, you never asked "What did he play?" but instead, in hushed and eager tones, "And how did Jascha play that night?" For instead of merely playing the notes, Jascha could use the notes, no matter what the selection, to communicate whole levels of emotional richness and subtle subtext. On a good night he could inspire entire audiences with love, rage, joy -- in fact, all the major passions of mankind, and he could do this whether the program consisted of Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Debussey, or even that set of sprightly little etudes especially composed for him by Phillip Glass. Obviously, Jascha was the greatest violinist the world has produced, and naturally he played on a genuine Stradivarius violin.

Magnificent as he was, and the supreme virtuoso of his instrument, Jascha's brother Sasha was even better. When Sasha played, rage, love, joy -- these were as it were mere five-finger exercises. Instead, the passion and complexity of his artistry was such that he could communicate the subtler, delicate emotions of pique, ennui, or vague malaise. Obviously a great musician, Sasha played the saxophone, and obviously such a great musician played on a genuine Stradivarius saxophone.

Ah, but even both musicians agreed that their little brother Tasha was the true genius of the family, in whom the incredible gift of expressive musical communication reached its pinnacle. Rage, love, joy -- this he could accomplish at the age of four! Pique, vague malaise, ennui -- these Tasha accomplished, and surpassed. When Tasha played, so effective was his musicianship that he could communicate to the entire audience the fact that last Tuesday in Pinsk his sainted Russian grandmother had been knocked down by a streetcar, but not to worry, a week in bed, little chicken-soup and she'll be fine. Perhaps the greatest musician the world has ever, will ever know, Tasha played the wood-block-and-mallet, but unfortunately he had never been able to find for himself a genuine Stradivarius wood-block-and-mallet.

Of course he searched! Tasha of the three was the one constantly on tour, crisscrossing the globe, playing in obscure capitols and backwaters, searching, shopping, always shopping. And at long last, one afternoon in the window of a ratty little pawn- shop in a Bangkok slum, there it was: a genuine Stradivarius wood-block-and-mallet! Knowing the proprietor did not understand his merchandise, Tasha bargained him down from forty franks to twelve, took his treasure back to his hotel suite, and wired his brothers this single sentence:

                              "Hire a hall!"

They knew at once what he meant. The greatest concert the earth had ever known was about to take place. The music world bubbled with furious excitement, and before long Saul Hurok the impresario and even the United Nations donated their services. They hired Hollywood Bowl, merely to house the many symphony orchestras that insisted on the honor of playing back-up for these virtuosi. The world's radio stations and television stations agreed that every one of them would carry the event, in stereo. Planes were dispatched to drop radios to the Hottentots and television sets to the Esquimaux, so that the entire globe might participate in this epochal musical experience.

On the night, the great Arthur Fiedler rapped his baton for attention, and soon the great orchestras of the world were heard to play, to rise to crescendo, to fall to diminuendo, and then Jascha was heard playing his genuine Stradivarius violin! And all over the world people could feel under the music rage, love, joy!

At the end of the solo the orchestras struck up again, again rose to crescendo, and as they died to diminuendo Sasha was heard playing his genuine Stradivarius saxophone, and immediately, all over the world -- pique, ennui, vague malaise.

The orchestras entered again, rose, fell, and Jascha and Sasha played a duet! And during those sublime seventy-two bars, world brotherhood was established all over the listening globe.

But then as the duet finished, Arthur Fiedler again led the orchestras to a tremendous crescendo, then to a hushed diminuendo, and young Tasha brought down his genuine Stradivarius mallet on his genuine Stradivarius wood-block ----

And it cracked!

Well of course, he cried. And his brothers, equally emotional Russians both, they cried. Arthur Fiedler cried. All the musicians of the world's orchestras, stung in empathetic shock, they all cried.

People all over the world cried. Hottentots cried. Esquimaux cried. Everyone cried.

It is said even animals cried. Dogs cried, cats cried. In their stables, horses cried. Deep in their holes, mice cried. In the depths of closets, even moths cried.

Have you, by the way, ever heard a moth bawl?

Wait, wait, of course that's not the end of the story!

Birds cried too.

I hope you like what you see.



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THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide