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The Gentle Jingoist


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Just So Stories

Paint Box Theatre

at the Raven Theatre

Rudyard Kipling was a national institution, and regarded as such by all the world," begins his obituary in the January 25, 1936, edition of the Times Literary Supplement. Yet "seldom had a famous national institution been the object of more hostile criticism." Kipling's work was wildly popular in his day and remains so 60 years after his death, inspiring scores of feature-length cartoons, live-action adventures, and glossy coffee-table books. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907--the first Englishman to do so--and according to critic Harold Orel, "His opinions on anything and everything were more widely disseminated than those of George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells combined." The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations contains more than 200 "Kipling-isms"--he even coined the phrase "hot and bothered." At the beginning of the current decade, his books sold at the rate of a quarter million copies a year.

But this man--who provided the inspiration for Disney's warm and fuzzy The Jungle Book--also introduced the world to "the white man's burden" and recommended that "if you hit a pony over the nose at the outset of your acquaintance, he may not love you, but he will take a deep interest in your movements ever afterwards." George Orwell wrote of him: "It is no use pretending that Kipling's view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilised person...there is a definite strain of sadism in him." Kipling's moral and political philosophy is perfectly suited to an apologist for imperialism: what he called the "Law of the Jungle"--after which "all the rest followed as a matter of course"--demands obedience to those in power. Lionel Trilling suggested that "no man ever did more harm to the national virtues than Kipling did. He mixed them up with swagger and swank, with bullying, ruthlessness, and self-righteousness, and he set them up as necessarily antagonistic to intellect." Trilling added, lest he be thought a pantywaist, that Kipling's jingoism was most distasteful because it was not "manly." "His imperialism is reprehensible not because it is imperialism," Trilling wrote, "but because it is a puny and mindless imperialism." Orwell made no such distinction: "Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that."

Whatever verdict history casts on Kipling's political legacy, Orwell's disgust aside, his literary genius is unmistakable. And nowhere does that brilliance shine more brightly than in his Just So Stories, fanciful legends set in the jungles and deserts of our mythic collective unconscious. G.K. Chesterton described Just So Stories as "a great chronicle of primal fables, which might have been told by Adam to Cain, before murder (that artistic and decadent pastime) was known in the world." In lean, playfully rhythmic prose, Kipling searches for primitive origins in the worlds of nature ("How the Whale Got His Throat") and culture ("How the Alphabet Was Made"), all the while wrapping his readers in a blanket of bedtime-story warmth. Occasionally his politics seep through; the Ethiopian in "How the Leopard Got His Spots," who changes into his "fine new black skin," later proclaims that "plain black's best for a nigger." Kipling was certainly a product of his time and class, but by and large he attains just the right mixture of irreverence, wonder, and grandfatherly love--he repeatedly addresses us as "O Best Beloved"--to keep a four-year-old of any era spellbound.

In sum, Kipling knew how to talk to children. The cast of Paint Box Theatre's Just So Stories, on the other hand, do not. Or, more accurately, they learn how only after half the show. Their first two stories--"The Elephant's Child" and "How the Camel Got Its Hump"--are condescending, assuming that children won't understand anything unless it's capitalized, italicized, underlined, and boldfaced. The three-person cast is so full of forced enthusiasm in the first moments of the puzzling opening musical number ("Listen, listen, softly in the distance / Listen, listen, rhythms of persistence") that simple storytelling--as well as most of Kipling's soothing cadence--gets lost in the shuffle-ball-change.

But by the time the performers do "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin," they've settled down enough to genuinely connect with their material, finally creating some of the tension that makes Kipling's stories so gripping. They even tip their hats to the long-suffering adults in the audience, offering a bit of irony; for example, when the Rhinoceros steps back into his skin after taking a bath--skin that the mischievous Parsee has stuffed full of itchy cake crumbs--he hums "MacArthur Park" to himself. Even better, the performers start misbehaving. To relieve his excruciating itch, for instance, the Rhinoceros runs up and down the aisles, obnoxiously rubbing his butt up against kids in the audience. Few things make children laugh harder than adults acting up, and that long-overdue impudence formed an instant bond with the children and made them eager to participate in the show's last story, which they invented along with the cast.

The company's animal masks and costumes are by and large ingenious--the linings of two jacket pockets become hand puppets for the head and tail of a snake, for instance. But much of Kipling's verbal sophistication has been replaced with bare-bones, no-fun lucidity. In "How the Camel Got Its Hump," for example, Kipling wrote that three characters "held a palaver, and an indaba, and a punchayet, and a pow-wow on the edge of the Desert." Paint Box changes the line to "They held a palaver, which is a meeting." The simplification of Kipling's prose throughout suggests that Paint Box puts little faith in the words that have mesmerized children for nearly a century. Yet as poet Randall Jarrell wrote in defense of Kipling, "Good writing will take care of itself."

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