KRAZY KAT AND THE TOY-BOX
by Simon Morrison
Project Coordinator: Simon Morrison
Choreographer/Director (Toy-Box): Rebecca Lazier
Choreographer/Director (Krazy Kat): Tracy Bersley
Choreographer/Director (Table’s Clear): Tina Fehlandt
Conductor: Anthony D. J. Branker
Dramaturg: Michael Cadden
Technical Director: Darryl Waskow
Décor: Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting: Aaron Copp
Costumes: Anita Yavich
Production Assistants: Jennie Scholick, Pilar Castro Kiltz, and Elise Bonner
Performed Exclusively by Princeton Students
A Berlind Theater Evening of Enchantment, featuring John Carpenter’s surrealistic jazz pantomime Krazy Kat (1921) and Claude Debussy’s homage to childhood, The Toy-Box (1913). The program opens with Paul Lansky’s kitchen fantasy, Table’s Clear (1990).
The highlight of this project is a staging of the restored version of the French composer Claude Debussy’s ballet The Toy-Box (La boîte à joujoux). Conceived for his daughter Emma, The Toy-Box offers a poignant look back at the composer’s favorite musical things. It dates from 1913, and it was left partially un-orchestrated at the time of Debussy’s death in 1919. The first staging of the orchestrated score was by the Moscow Chamber Theater in 1918. The Princeton production includes an unknown jazz overture preserved at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art.
The scenario was written and gorgeously illustrated in watercolor by André Hellé, a prominent children’s writer. He proposed that toy-boxes are “really just like towns in which toys live like people – or maybe towns are really just toy-boxes in which people live like toys.” Like Debussy, Hellé intended the ballet to be performed by children or, if children could not be found, marionettes.
Here is a summary of the original scenario (which will be re-imagined in Princeton’s production): After a preamble titled “The Toy-Box Asleep,” the four scenes bring the various characters into conflict: there’s a doll, a lovesick soldier, a lazy and irritable buffoon named Punchinello who forces himself upon the doll and wins her favor, plus various other figures, including wooden cutouts of an elephant, ducks, and sheep. The characters spill from the cramped toy-box in scene 1, cued by a phonograph record; the stage then transforms into a battlefield, a sheepfold, and a suburban development. Clones of the soldier wage battle with clones of the Punchinello; the soldier is wounded, and the doll tends to his convalescence, their love symbolized by an itinerant rose. Scene 4, which takes us “20 years” into the future, finds Punchinello transformed into a village constable; the soldier has grown a large white beard, and the doll considerably plumper. Unable to dance, she tries singing instead, but ballet being ballet, she fails. The suburbanites are now the proud parents of a twin girl and boy, who dance a polka as the décor of the first scene slowly returns.
All of this might sound rather benign, but the music and the ballet that emerged from it is a revelation. The Toy-Box offers a corrective to the grinding dissonance and ideological heaviness that characterized artistic trends outside of France. It was, in short, a riposte to German Expressionism and Soviet avant-gardism, an effort to define modernism in a positive rather than a negative way.
For one thing, the characters in the original conception derived from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’ arte; for another, there were various visual and narrative allusions to silent film, circus, and vaudeville. Scholarship on the music tends to focus on the relationship between Debussy’s score and Stravinsky’s 1911 puppet ballet Petrushka. True, the two ballets share some particular technical details, and there are some common instrumental choices. Close study of the two scores reveals that the connection has been overstated. Debussy’s network of musical allusions proves richer than his rival’s. As is well known, Stravinsky borrowed Russian folksongs in Petrushka. Such borrowings become, in Debussy’s hands, a cluster of gentle-spirited references to the most famous works in the Western musical canon. For example, scene changes in The Toy-Box quote from Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. If each scene of the ballet pops up like a page in storybook, what better than to quote from a composition that presents a tour through a portrait gallery?
The Toy-Box is about a child’s imagination, and but it is also an attempt to return music and dance to a more innocent state. At its heart lies something of the sentiments the French Symbolist writer Charles Baudelaire expressed in his essay “A Philosophy of Toys.” Baudelaire argues that toys are children’s first exposure to art, to the powers of enchantment. Debussy wanted to take us back to that realm of wonder.
The music for the ballet will be conducted by Princeton’s Anthony D. J. Branker and performed by an expanded version of our student jazz ensemble (the score includes a lot of references to ragtime) with new choreography by Rebecca Lazier. The Toy-Box will appear on the second half of a program featuring another short jazz-age ballet, to be staged by Tracy Bersley. This work was performed in Chicago and New York City in the 1920s and 1930s before dropping out of the repertoire. It is based on the famous comic strip by George Herriman, and features music by the iconoclastic American composer John Alden Carpenter. Set in cactus-strewn Coconino County (somewhere in New Mexico), the characters include Krazy Kat, who is insanely devoted to Ignatz Mouse. The mouse does not share the amorous sentiments, preferring instead to bonk Krazy Kat on the head with a brick, which the demented feline interrupts as a sign of affection. The secondary characters include Offisa Pupp, eager to place the menacing mouse behind bars, and Joe Stork. The novelty of the comic strip resided in its surrealism, which was as much verbal as visual: the characters speak a combination of James Joyce, fake Yiddish, highborn English, and American slang. The mélange is used to support a storyline with a great deal of political, religious, and sexual symbolism.
The ballet version of the comic strip finds Krazy Kat dozing beneath a tree (a parody of the opening scene of the famous Ballets Russes ballet Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). He awakes to catch sight of an announcement for a grand ball, which he mobilizes to attend with the help of the cosmetics and clothes that Joe Stork has casually dropped off. Ignatz sneaks into the scene in disguise and presents the feline with a bouquet loaded with catnip. Intoxicated, Krazy Kat dances a number on hotfoot called “Katnip Blues” before the inevitable whack on the head and the return to the “dream” of everyday existence.
Carpenter’s score, the first orchestral work to bear the word “jazz” in its title, is of comic-book size, ideally suited for the Berlind Theater. (The one available recording is over-scaled, with too many instruments; the restored and corrected instrumentation, will involve 36 players.) The plethora of styles, high and low, that inform it also make it exceedingly democratic – much like the comic strip itself. The source materials for Krazy Kat, including the unrecorded original version of the score, are scattered around the country. Most of them have now been gathered together, allowing the creative team to re-imagine them for the twenty-first century.
The premiere is set for April 8, and it will run for three days (four shows total).