A Cautionary Tale for the New Roaring Twenties
THERE ARE FEW things more glamorous than the belief that we are living through the end of an era — and there are even fewer times in recent …
THERE ARE FEW things more glamorous than the belief that we are living through the end of an era — and there are even fewer times in recent history when we haven’t believed it. It’s a conviction that allows us to ennoble ourselves with pathos, with rueful maturity, with wisdom won too late. To be certain that we’re at the beginning of something can mean feeling optimistic and openhearted about the future in a way that, especially these days, risks courting contempt. And to know that we’re in the middle of an era is — well, it’s not even a phrase, is it? It’s nothing much at all, simply a kind of semipermanent Wednesday of the soul, a spirit-flattening acceptance of stasis and complacency. But nearing the end? In that, you have a lifetime’s worth of wistfulness, and perhaps some bitterness and grief, not to mention prescience about what might come next. In short, life at the end of an era is — to use a term that might be coming to the end of its own era — lit. And it almost doesn’t matter if the lighting is seductive and flattering or as harsh and glaring as if the music has just been turned off and the club is about to close. Drama is drama.
Joseph Moncure March’s “The Wild Party” (1928)
The actor Adam Chanler-Berat reads the prescient narrative poem about a different Roaring Twenties. Due to the era in which it was written, some of the language may be offensive.
“The Wild Party,” Joseph Moncure March’s book-length 1928 narrative poem about the end of an era — the end of a long, louche, bacchanalian night of bodies twining together in lust and in violence; and the end of a life — is drama in its coolest, coldest form. It seems to cast its glance, without a flicker of sentiment, simultaneously backward at a moment that has just evaporated, downward as it considers the distasteful facts it has laid out on the examining table and ultimately through the looking glass, as it turns its basilisk gaze on us. In the almost century since it was published, it has occasionally gone into eclipse, but never out of style. It will always feel like a telegram sent from the near future warning us of what’s to come, scolding us for our heedlessness — as if it knows we won’t pay attention — and finally tossing a contemptuous smirk in our direction as it departs. Is it any wonder that it’s a work people tend to take personally? Or that at this very moment, when the question of whether we are at the end, the beginning or the middle of something is literally a matter of life and death, it feels more contemporary than ever?
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The story that “The Wild Party” tells — in brittle, incantatory, irregularly rhymed verse — is simple: A wanton dancer (“Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still, / And she danced twice a day in vaudeville”) is in an abusive relationship with a grim, grinning performer named Burrs (“A clown / Of renown: / Three-sheeted all over town. / He was comical as sin”). The time is the present, what would prove to be the midnight hour of Jazz Age America. Their ages are indeterminate: She’s young enough to be ruled by passion but old enough to have seen and done it all, twice (“So: / Now you know. / A fascinating woman, as they go”), and their bond, if it can be called that, is made up of little more than hot sex, masochism and ennui. To shake off their lassitude, they decide to throw a party — a sweaty, decadent, alcohol-sodden orgiastic journey into the night that’s packed to the walls with the array of grotesques they call their friends. The evening devolves into a perilous game of sexual competition. By morning, one of them is dead. March recounts the events in dry, staccato bursts, carefully adhering to one of the first rules of dramatic writing: Enter each scene as late as you possibly can and exit as soon as you can get away with it. After 111 pages, with one protagonist bleeding out on the floor and another reeling in shock, he writes, “The door sprang open / And the cops rushed in” and then slams that door in our faces. The end.
The setting of “The Wild Party” is urban but nonspecific; March, who first drafted the poem when he was just 27, seems to have deliberately omitted any street names or landmarks that would anchor it in a single location. But readers tend to perceive it as a New York poem, at least in spirit — it’s where March lived, where he wrote, and it’s the American city most likely to have housed, in 1928, the blend of criminals, hangers-on, oddballs and showbiz-adjacent ghouls and good-timers that give the story its lethal energy. “The Wild Party” is by no means a happy work, but it’s full of music in both its rhythm and its story line — clearly the product of a moment in New York City, 10 years after the end of World War I, when business was booming, the streets teemed with people who all aspired to something and jazz was bursting into the larger culture. March was a young man who apparently liked to go out at night; he lived in a world in which music could, for a moment, democratize and unite a room full of strangers who had flung themselves together in search of the kind of exhilaration, connectivity and release that a jumping new song could provide.
In that, “The Wild Party” doesn’t seem very far from our collective desire, in 2021, to lose ourselves in a throng of sympathetic strangers — but it’s also in touch with the undertow that makes that impossible. One of the very few episodes of joy that March provides is when the party jolts to life after two men sit down at a piano and start to sing. “The crowd went wild: they swore it a wonder!” he writes. “They roared, / And stamped applause like thunder.” But even that split second of elation comes with an asterisk of real-world nihilism; one of the verses in the song they’re all cheering begins, “Oh! / How / I wish I had / Never been / Born!”
March was a dazzling writer, but not a particularly subtle one. His poem is a slap in the face followed by a kick in the shin that concludes like a punch in the stomach. But there’s no question that he had a brilliant idea: to take what would ordinarily be the subtext of an end-of-the-era work — the notion that this crazy, exuberant revelry can’t last forever and is about to exact a ferocious cost — and literalize it as the text. “The party’s over, time to call it a day” is not just the theme of the poem but its entire plot.
And because “The Wild Party” arrived the year before the stock market collapse of 1929 that precipitated the Great Depression, it has always been retrospectively credited with extraordinary foresight. In just one eight-word run:
March seems to summarize with uncanny precision the entire year that followed his poem’s publication. Here was a work that, even if it could barely be heard above the din of the Roaring Twenties when Pascal Covici published it in a limited edition of 750, seemed to intuit that the bill was coming due — the way, for instance, that Mike Nichols’s “The Graduate” found shards of the narcissistic values of the 1970s already embedded in 1967, or that Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel “Faggots” was almost oracular in its insistence that the high times on Fire Island were about to end.
BUT IS THAT really what March was up to? Did 1928 feel like the end of an era to him? It’s worth considering that when he wrote his masterwork, he was a young man, a child of the new century, more or less, a sharp and sparkling influencer beginning to wonder what his next move should be. Born in 1899 in New York City, he had already taken leave from Amherst College to serve, before he was out of his teens, in what was called, sometimes hopefully and often cynically, the war to end all wars. After the armistice, he went back to Amherst, where he studied under Robert Frost. He then returned, right in the middle of the Prohibition years, to the city, where he served briefly as managing editor of the start-up magazine The New Yorker before he was forcibly removed from the offices (according to a 2005 article in The Rake) following a clash with the founding editor in chief, Harold Ross. By then, a brief starter marriage had come and gone.
Long-limbed, angular, dark and severe of countenance (to judge from one of the few available author portraits), the progeny of a respected old American family, March seemed to be a charter member of the crowd that was known in London as the Bright Young Things (stateside, the term probably would have been “the smart set”). He spent time, he later wrote, “rubbing elbows with prostitutes and gangsters and those wicked people from Show Business, all of whom recognize me as a kindred spirit.” “Kindred” may have been wishful thinking; March’s voice in “The Wild Party” is that of a well-bred young man with a reporter’s eye who stood slightly off to one side with sardonic sang-froid, filing away all the excess he saw for later use. He came up with the poem in a series of febrile bursts over three months and published it to a successful reception and perhaps just enough scandal to enhance its reputation; he claimed it was banned in Boston, probably due to couplets like “She covered his mouth with a kiss like flame; / And he quivered; and he gasped; / And he almost came.” It was his first book (later that same year he released “The Set-Up,” the only other narrative poem he would ever publish). The Times did not review “The Wild Party,” but it was noticed; among its admirers was Edmund Wilson. By 1930, March had acquired enough of a reputation for Percy Hutchison in The New York Times Book Review to call him “a writer of striking originality,” comparable to Ernest Hemingway; Hutchison only wondered why he was so sparing with his work. His third and final book of poetry was just 15 pages long.
March was coolheaded and appealingly self-aware — “Looking back at myself, I’m amazed at how deceptively elegant I was,” he wrote in his 1968 memoir-essay, “A Certain Wildness” — but he doesn’t seem to have been psychic; it’s not clear that he or anyone else felt they were in the final moments of anything. Jazz Age America, the world into which his caustic, droll and raunchy poem was released, was, no question, violent and corrupt and cynical. The papers were overflowing with natural disasters and mine collapses and love-nest shootings and serial killers, and the Great War and its losses were still fresh enough in memory to serve as a reminder that immense swaths of life could be extinguished in a way that felt utterly purposeless.
But also, as Kander and Ebb put it in the musical “Chicago” nearly half a century later:
Nineteen twenty-eight was the first full year of feature-length talkies, the year Amelia Earhart flew nonstop across the Atlantic as a passenger (she did it solo as a pilot four years later), the year of Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie.” It was a time of heightened hunger for new forms of artificial terror and self-imposed torment reimagined as entertainment — of amusement park roller coasters, of dance marathons — perhaps as a way of keeping deeper fear at bay. (If you’re keeping track of the parallels, it was also a period of rampant opiate use, and of heated debate about what they were teaching in the schools.) But even as late as 1928, the roaring of the ’20s showed few, if any, signs of dying down. Yes, some eulogies for the age and the gleaming personalities who defined it were already being created — “The Great Gatsby” had arrived a few years earlier, in 1925 — but it’s not as if anyone was paying much attention: In 1929, the year after “The Wild Party” was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s royalties from the American edition of “Gatsby” came to a grand total of $5.10 (the novel took off only after it was distributed to G.I.s during World War II). March and his contemporaries were aware of the dazzling-party-being-upended-by-brutal-reality trope as a narrative — the narrative of their parents and grandparents, who still mourned the demise of the Belle Époque, the age of sophisticated, elegant European culture spreading its bejeweled wings across the globe before the war ruined everything. But in 1928, the end of that war was a full decade behind them; it was time to move ahead, to soar upward. As for March himself, he had every reason to believe “The Wild Party” would mark the start of a long and interesting professional life, which in fact it did. Although he never matched the success or notoriety of his debut, he went on to a stint as a Hollywood screenwriter for Howard Hughes, wrote several pieces for The New York Times Magazine and had a modest late career making government documentaries and industrial films (several of the scripts were in verse!); he lived until 1977.
So what was all that wild partying about, anyway? The question seems particularly relevant to our era: There’s no doubt that some people felt that the world was so fraught with the constant threat and frequent reality of unanticipated annihilation that “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” was the only viable response; perhaps they even believed that the horrors of the day could be staved off with bottomless cocktails, ever-renewable dance crazes, unending music and angst-free hookups. Then again, that’s rather a lot of existential baggage to pack before heading out for a night of forgetting one’s troubles; it seems just as possible that the mood was more innocently celebratory, the manifestation of a belief that the bad times were at long last over — or that they could, by a collective act of wishing, be forced into the past. Willed optimism can be a powerful thing; the song “Happy Days Are Here Again” made its debut one month after the crash of ’29. By the time March published his defining work, the dark clouds of the future may have been hanging heavily over all the fun. But that doesn’t mean anyone was looking up at the sky.
“THE WILD PARTY,” although it fills a book, isn’t actually very long. It takes only about an hour to read aloud, something that is worth doing, even if you’re alone and the empty corners of the room are your only audience. It feels like a spoken word performance, a distant ancestor of slam poetry and of the Beats (it’s fitting that William S. Burroughs later credited it as the work that made him want to become a writer — it shares his ice-pick sensibility). Say the words aloud, and they quickly start to feel like they’re being hissed quietly into an open mic at the end of a long night for anyone sober enough to still be listening; it’s a horror story designed to send even the most determined celebrants into the darkness with a faint shudder. Letting yourself hear the poem also gives you a sense of March’s erratic, idiosyncratic syncopation — a cascade of three or four quick rhymes, a little ABAB and then a little AABB, a run of smooth verse and then an unexpected rest or short phrase or series of abrupt two-word bullet points. It’s like riding aboard a hell-bound railroad train, but one that makes jolting local stops about every 20 seconds. You can’t settle in.
If March doesn’t comfort you, he does at least seduce you. From the start, “The Wild Party” is funny — whether he’s commenting on Queenie’s relaxed standards for male companionship:
Or about one of the few men she can’t have:
Sometimes the poem will disarm you with a self-conscious joke:
Or with an overt comment on its own technique:
But March never lets the smile linger on your lips for too long before he wipes it away. From his first, unnerving portrait of Queenie in the poem’s opening lines (“Grey eyes. / Lips like coals aglow. / Her face was a tinted mask of snow”), he writes not with ink but with embalming fluid. There are a couple of passing racist and anti-Semitic lines that mark, and mar, “The Wild Party” as a work of its time. But the poem was undeniably a leap forward in its depiction of a much wider range of sexuality than most American literature of the 1920s was able to accommodate. Burrs and Queenie’s guests include a former prostitute, a bisexual male dancer, a lesbian and two apparently gay brothers who perform as a musical duo. One way in which the poem feels very 2021 is that March is clearly, to steal a phrase from nearly a century after he wrote, living for the drama; he grasps that there’s a lot to be mined from throwing all of these oversize, volatile types into a room and seeing just how much time it takes until the center cannot hold. But this isn’t a celebratory forerunner of queerness in all its variety. It would be a mistake to sentimentalize the Roaring Twenties as a time when all classes, ages and races could converge and mingle if the party was right; in that regard, it was more a moment when white cultural tourism became easier and more available than it had been. Accordingly, March attends but keeps his distance; these people give him the creeps, and he wants them to give you the creeps. The old-style-swishy brothers (“They functioned together with skill. / They lisped. / Their voices were shrill”) may be sleeping with each other (and may not be siblings); the lesbian is a cobra with eyes “Like a stagnant pool / Filled with slime”; and, when a gay love triangle seems to go bad, the onlookers “grinned: / Egged them on: / Cheered: laughed: derided.” (March is a man deeply in love with colons, and each one adds a little clenching halt that helps create the poem’s unpredictable start-and-stop rhythm.)
Even his description of the party is blood-chilling enough to make those readers who, for the last year and a half, have longed to re-experience the anything-goes luxury of splashing around in a sea of bodies (not to mention those who have wondered with trepidation what it might feel like to rejoin the social world) decide to stay in for the night:
Admittedly, “faces”/“grimaces” isn’t ideal, but go with it. The point is, something’s coming, something bad; March makes that apparent from the first pages. But even when he appears to drop some heavy hints:
You can’t trust him. The poem is clearly an obituary. You just don’t know for whom, for March is expert at misdirection.
THE NARRATIVE SUSPENSE built into the question of who’s going to be left standing at the end of “The Wild Party” is probably one of the elements that have led several artists over the decades to try to refit the poem to other media. In the 1970s, it caught the attention of the director James Ivory and the producer Ismail Merchant. They brought it to the screen as a drama that unwisely turned Burrs into Jolly Grimm, a rotund silent-film comedian desperate for his new movie to be a hit; even more unwisely, they decided that the steamy relationship between the two main characters could best be embodied by Raquel Welch and James Coco; and most unwisely of all, they shot a script that retained fragments of March’s poetry as narration but added whole new imitative verses written by a screenwriter to fit the revised plot and an ending that reaches futilely for tragedy, a tone the poem itself flatly rejects. The result, completed in 1975, only to be taken from Ivory and recut by the movie’s distributor, American International Pictures, was the rare Merchant-Ivory flop. It did not even receive a New York theatrical release until 1981.
The most successful reclamation of “The Wild Party” came in 1994, at the hands of the artist Art Spiegelman. Calling the poem “a perfect picture of its time,” he oversaw the publication of an edition that billed the work on the cover as a “lost classic,” abundantly illustrating it with a series of stark, witty and scarifying black-and-white woodcut-style drawings. The Spiegelman volume represented a perfect marriage of artists; March’s writing actually makes the characters feel like illustrations — garish creatures pinned to the spot at various moments by a cruel flashbulb, or specimens captured under the cold light of laboratory dissection, a quality that the caught-in-the-act drawings manage to evoke impeccably.
Spiegelman saw March’s work as a memento of a different age: “His generation swilled bathtub gin and had a wild party. Our generation gulps Prozac,” he wrote in his introduction. But he also believed that the poem’s “tone of bewildered innocence curdled into worldly cynicism” was especially apt for a moment that he and many others called “the end of history.” (If it’s possible to be nostalgic for the good old days of the end of history, we may, 27 years later, have reached that unfortunate moment.) The members of the Prozac generation are now the elders, but somehow “The Wild Party” feels just as apt for the TikTok decade; this poem is a missive, in brief, phone-video-size bursts, from somebody who knows exactly when to turn the camera on the chaos and when to put himself back at the center of the image and say, “How crazy was that?,” amused and bored at the same time. It’s a report from the scene of the crime, but it’s also vicarious and omniscient — an approach that feels well suited to a time in which watching, scrolling and reacting are the closest a lot of people can get to doing, experiencing and living.
Looking back, the timeliness of “The Wild Party” in 1994 is due largely to the thing that went unmentioned: the AIDS pandemic, which was, at the moment of the poem’s return, approaching its terrible apex in the United States, with nearly 50,000 deaths that year, the overwhelming majority of them gay men. Although the queer characters in “The Wild Party” are in many ways gruesome, they’re undeniably vivid, and at least they’re on an equal footing with the rest of the walking dead — the punch-drunk boxer, the raunchy slattern, the onetime “Mexican harlot” — who show up at Burrs and Queenie’s doorstep for a night of roisterous fun.
The poem itself plays a tricky game with moral judgment — is March depicting a mad party that goes on and on until it tumbles inevitably into disaster, or is he indicting the party itself as the disaster’s cause? The question of whether compulsive festivity is merely a sign of oblivion about the darkness to come or whether it invites the darkness may sound philosophical rather than urgent. But in 1994, “they brought it on themselves” was still a central tenet of the judgment being levied against gay people by homophobes in positions of political or sociological power. March’s poem didn’t anticipate that, but as a cruel moral tale that was equally fluent in sex, transgression, fun and doom, it was perfectly pitched to the discomfort of that moment.
And, it has turned out, to many others. By the time “The Wild Party” had its next revival just five years later, the country was at an all-new end of history. AIDS was on its way to becoming a manageable disease in the United States, and people were, somewhat self-consciously, partying like it was 1999, having waited 17 years to fulfill Prince’s instructions, and feeling uncertain of what it meant that something that was supposed to be the future had suddenly become the present and would soon be the past. The Roaring Twenties had returned in popular art; the Broadway revival of “Chicago” had begun a run that continues to this day. As for the second part of Prince’s forecast — “Two thousand zero zero, party over, oops, out of time” — the vague threat of something that would happen when the world’s computers attempted to flip over to 1/1/00 was discussed with no small amusement and, for the most part, a glib performance of dread. The moment seemed so ideal for a stage musical based on “The Wild Party” that not one but two full-length adaptations went into production, opening within two months of each other in early 2000, one Off Broadway written by Andrew Lippa, and one on Broadway written by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe. (Except for Spiegelman, all of the creative adapters of March’s poem have been gay men, fulfilling one of our longest-standing self-assigned cultural roles, which is to keep our heads while watching others lose theirs, and take notes.)
Both stage versions of “The Wild Party” wrestled thoughtfully with what it would mean to retell its story more than 70 years later; Lippa’s version bore in on the romance and reconsidered Queenie as a kind of pathetic, love-starved heroine, while LaChiusa and Wolfe’s got rid of the poem’s white-guy detachment and replaced it with a more pointed take on just who might have attended that party and why. And both used diverse casting to complexify the narrative; Lippa’s musical brought in Taye Diggs to play Burrs’s sexual rival, and LaChiusa and Wolfe’s version, which cast actors of color in several key parts, originally intended Queenie to be a role for Vanessa Williams (she dropped out and was replaced by Toni Collette). Each, in different ways, posed the question “What would this poem be like if the people in it felt more like people?” And each met with swift failure.
It is possible that any attempt to bring “The Wild Party” to life, with actors, ideas and psychology, might have been doomed from the start. March’s characters don’t have rich or complicated interiors — they are nothing more than the sum of their actions, appetites and miscalculations — and his poem doesn’t want life; in fact, it’s as allergic to the warm-blooded humanity of singers and dancers and melodies as, say, Edward Gorey’s verses about little children meeting various ghastly ends. The poem is about death and is also a manifestation and portent of it; the fate of everyone at that wild party has been chiseled onto a tombstone before we ever meet them. When Queenie first rises to greet the day, she is described as “A woman who slept / Like a corpse under sod.” And more than once, March’s language suggests that the party’s attendees are essentially zombies who just haven’t gotten the bad news about their condition yet. They may dance until their “savage faces / … were wet / With sweat,” but even as they move across the floor, “Their eyes were glassy and set.” Almost as soon as he raises the curtain on his party, he places readers in the realm of the slightly supernatural, waiting for the shadows to rush in “from every side; / A sinister, swift procession, / Taking grim possession.” And music probably isn’t going to help. As vivid and evocative as March’s language is, he is less interested in animating his characters than in showing them to us under glass. “The Wild Party” is an autopsy performed under a flickering light by a wisecracking coroner. Perhaps its characters can’t be embodied, only witnessed.
On the Covers
AND HERE WE are in 2021, staring into the poem’s jack-o’-lantern countenance yet again. Which era are we at the end of now? There are so many. As I write this, things are getting worse, or is it better, or is it just different, in New York and across the country. With every new whim of the .001 percent (Tired of all the protocols? Consider flying into space on your own rocket ship!) the nightmarish economic inequities of our age are characterized anew with a misuse of the phrase “late capitalism,” as if capitalism were reaching its long-scheduled death throes right on time and would then politely disappear. Another phrase thrown around with increasing fervor in the pandemic era — demandingly, insistently, belligerently or maybe just hopefully — is “we have to live our lives!” The pandemic has made public ceremonies of grief, mourning and commemoration so difficult that there is now a void where ritual should be, and some are filling that void with different rites, frantic gatherings intended to banish their thoughts of mortality. Doing what we want, when we want it, in big crowds if that’s what we prefer, has become a divisive ideology, a solipsistic redefinition of freedom, a statement of life-affirming defiance to some, and to others an antisocial, heedless enactment of callous disregard. The idea of a party may never have been as braided with danger, disease and death as it is today. At least, not since the moment when March characterized his jam-packed soiree in a way guaranteed to make you reach for your hand sanitizer. “Dim: mysterious: shrouded,” he wrote. “Unbidden shadow-guests swarmed / About the room.” Well, that sounds like fun.
It’s never particularly good news for the world when March’s shivery danse macabre of a poem threatens to come back in vogue. Today, “The Wild Party” feels so timely that one can legitimately ask, “What did he know and when did he know it?” It’s a question without an answer, just as the poem is a diagnosis without a prescription. It also doesn’t matter what March knew. His poem knew. And it still reads as a dangerous time capsule bulletin — something that emerged from a melting ice cap yesterday, or perhaps tomorrow, and bobbed into the sea, waiting to see if, once its bleak tidings reach our shores, we will pay attention. That is, if we can let ourselves hear it over the clinking bottles, the pounding music and the thunderous noise we all make to drown out the terror.
Now we know.
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