Quo Vadis?

by Jean Shepherd

The Village Voice - August 29, 1956

A FRIEND of mine made a few remarks the other day to the effect that the whole damn thing has had either a Wagnerian flavor or a Laurel-and-Hardy quality, and he couldn't make up his mind which was the most valid. I kind of like the Laurel-and-Hardy thing myself, although there are certain essential differences unfortunately. For one thing, it isn't easy to tell who is playing what role. You never had that trouble with the original Laurel-and-Hardy cast. Laurel was always consistent, to say the least, and Hardy was as one carved from the stuff of Gibraltar. A pair of buffoons (a wonderful word) but loveable and completely recognizable.
True, our cast is shot through with its share of buffoons and poltroons (another great word: I was reminded of it while watching a couple of recent Convention sessions), but they aren't always loveable nor are they even recognizable. But I still enjoy mightily the L-&-H idea. What a great thought! There was old Stanley constantly pursued by the Fates, who fought a war of attrition against him, wearing and running him down until his sense of defeat was a beautiful thing to behold. His only answer to a particularly stunning psychic blow was to straighten his derby and break into tears. Poor Nothing. One with most of us. Hardy constantly tasted defeat but never knew it. He bumbled. He blustered. He bragged. He was a Positive Thinker, but when the world crashed around him he blamed Stanley, mopped his brow, and bravely fumbled onward into the unknown, exuding a ridiculous brand of dignity. Poor Nothing. He too was one of us. They lived in a surrealistic world where scientists changed people into catfish, but one where at the same time people joined the Foreign Legion for Adventure and wound up instead in a GI laundry, tidying up after a succession of Victor McLaglen types. This is the way the world really is, you know.

In Search of Beauty

Another thing is that both Stan and Oliver were fairly inarticulate about what was happening to them. Oliver made a fine racket, but it was mostly aimed at Stan, who appeared to be his only friend. Stan was a born Night Person. Vaguely aware of imminent disaster, unorganized, hopeful, and about as ineffectual as a guppy in a tank of barracuda. A shy bittern. There was also a barely defined streak of the intellectual in search of Beauty that was somehow felt in this fumbling Stanley. Even his name was wonderful. STANLEY. This is almost as good as Clarence. A parakeet with shadowy dreams of eaglehood. His tears were real. Oliver, A Day Person, always coddled Stan as one does a fuzzy-minded meatball, but at the same time he kept him at heel for his own good.

But the thing that counted most was that neither of them really knew where the handles were tacked on or if there were any handles at all. Stan was afraid there weren't, while Oliver knew there was, and he knew where they were--but one conspiracy after another, with Stan as a witless dupe, prevented him from grabbing the handles for the both of them. He too is part of our nature. Good old Oliver. Good old Charlie Chrysler. I can almost hear and see him delivering a campaign speech from the Convention floor, just before Irving Berlin and the Ladies-Citizens' Drill Team performed for the benefit of the poor fuzzy Stanleys in the Other Party, calling upon them to repent their witlessness and to join in the Crusade. Yet oddly enough, one could not exist without the other, and both together make up all of us. I've sometimes thought that the world of Oliver and Stan was a much more valid one than that of Tennessee Williams and a far more truthful one than that of W.C. Fields (be this heresy. . .).

Yeah, I can see that there is a lot in this equation between Laurel and Hardy and the wild events of the past two or three weeks, including "I, Libertine" and Sweetheart Soap and the wrath of the Gods. Like I said it isn't easy to spot who is playing what and if there are any handles or not, but then there never are any pat answers to much of anything. Oliver never found them, although he thought he could have in the next reel. If there had been another reel. Stanley just sort of went along for the ride and was given to his occasional crying fits when things got out of hand, but he obviously had the dream. Just so with most of us.

THERE was a kind of Stan Laurel sort of kid in high school with me several epochs ago. He played trombone in the marching band, which is about as close to an athletic field as he ever got. He wore those miserable gold-rimmed glasses that made the sides of his nose red during hot weather. He didn't exactly weep when things got rocky for him, but he would giggle, which is even worse. I don't think he ever had a real date during his entire high-school career. The war came and he got drafted. He spent three years as a mail clerk in Greenland, after which he got on a boat and came home. Not a scratch on him either. He was the type the movies would have killed in a war movie, but who never did get killed in the actual war. He still giggles and, believe it or not, still has the dream. Poor witless Stanley.

YEAH, I can see how all of this is kind of like Laurel (the skinny one) and Hardy (the fat one). Come on down to the showroom. You'll be glad you did. Thanks a lot.

© 1956, The Village Voice, Inc.


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