Tuesday, May 19, 2009

James Thurber

I just read the collection of James Thurber cartoons MEN, WOMEN AND DOGS from 1943. James Thurber lived from 1894 to 1961 and was an hilarious, urbane writer who also did cartooning, much of it published in the New Yorker. His cartoons feature a lot of spineless men and domineering women.

Some of them don't make complete sense but are still hilarious. Others make no sense at all (to me at least), I think because they're dated.

I love his cartoons and writing though and reading MEN, WOMEN AND DOGS really sent me back in time, to when I first learned about him. My senior year of high school, our drama teacher picked "A Thurber Carnival" as our spring production. We acted out a bunch of his stories and fables--some as monologues and some as scenes. We did his most famous piece "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" and I dressed in scrubs for Mitty's hospital scene fantasy. We had some of Thurber's drawings painted onto plywood for part of the set decoration. To perform a bunch of his cartoons, we all dressed up in evening clothes (black suits for the guys, gowns for the girls) and milled about and danced while a three-piece jazz band played. The music would occasionally stop and someone would let loose a zinger from a cartoon panel.

The production was creative and felt great to be in at the time. I was in several scenes, and had a monologue where I played some guy marooned on an island (I can't remember the story). Looking back, I'm not sure Thurber's work would connect very well with the High School theatre audience. It's sophisticated. A lot of it feels antiquated, which is actually one of the reasons I love it. There were jokes we performers didn't even understand, like the one about a girl from Bryn Mawr. We had never heard of Bryn Mawr and our teacher had to tell us it was a progressive private college, formerly all girls.

Somehow or other, we got a gig to perform the show at some dinner theatre place. It even paid a few measly bucks and we felt very cool and grown-up as a result. The gig was scheduled after the school year ended. I was graduated by then and it was sort of my last big high school hurrah. The performance went well, although I remember my teacher threatening to hit me if I didn't stop chatting backstage (I don't blame him for this). Afterward, we spent the night in this cabin, all crammed together, talking late into the night. A few days later I packed up my bags and flew to England for a two month tour of Europe. After the trip, I moved to Portland for college and though I came back to my hometown for one more summer, I was really already gone.


  1. I to would threaten to smack you if I was Siegle. Your normal speaking voice can be so loud at times. I don't think I went to see this performance at school. But I remember you talking about it.

  2. Thurber's work may be dated but no modern author matches his skill in writing humour about dogs. If you love dogs, or even if you just like them, please read "The dog that bit people","Snapshot of a dog" and "Look homeward, Jeanie".