Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thurber Tonight: Fables for Our Time: "The Unicorn in the Garden" and "The Birds and the Foxes"


Constance Cummings as the unspeakable Mrs. Barrows and Peter Sellers as meek Mr. Martin in The Battle of the Sexes (1959), adapted from Thurber's story "The Catbird Seat"

Is there any question that Thurber's two most memorable pieces of short fiction are "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "The Catbird Seat"? I've just been dipping into the mammoth volume of collected Thurber Letters published in 2003 with the approval and participation of the writer's daughter, Rosemary, and was intrigued by the correspondence dating from the period in which the screenplay for a film version of "Walter Mitty," to star Danny Kaye as the inveterate daydreamer, was being written. I was intrigued by Thurber's eagerness and innocent optimism while he was officially consulting on the film and actually believed that Sam Goldwyn was interested in cinematizing the special qualities of the story.

In the end, almost all of Thurber's work and suggestions were ignored, and the 1947 Secret Lives of Walter Mitty, made as a showcase for the star's mindless hamming, was a source of considerable pain for the author. Earlier on, though, no doubt still imagining how well the genuinely witty, creative side of Danny Kaye could serve Walter Mitty's story, he had actually imagined Kaye following it up by taking on the meek and mild-mannered, compulsively prim and proper Mr. Martin in a film adaptation of "The Catbird Seat." Perhaps needless to say, that didn't happen. (Eventually "The Catbird Seat" was, er, adapted into the 1959 British film The Battle of the Sexes, with Peter Sellers as Mr. Martin.)

Since "The Catbird Seat" didn't appear until the New Yorker issue of Nov. 14, 1942 (it first appeared in book form in The Thurber Carnival, which contained an entire section of previously uncollected material), we can assume that the basic plot mechanism was borrowed from "The Unicorn in the Garden," rather than vice versa. I don't know that we'll get to "The Catbird Seat," but really we don't have to -- you can find it here.
-- Ken

The Unicorn in the Garden

ONCE UPON A SUNNY MORNING a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. "There's a unicorn in the garden," he said. "Eating roses." She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him. "The unicorn is a mythical beast," she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there; he was now browsing among the tulips. "Here, unicorn," said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him. The unicorn ate it gravely. With a high heart, because there was a unicorn in the garden, the man went upstairs and roused his wife again. "The unicorn," he said, "ate a lily." His wife sat up in bed and looked at him, coldly. "You are a booby," she said, "and I am going to have you put in the booby-hatch." The man, who had never liked the words "booby" and "booby-hatch," and who liked them even less on a shining morning when there was a unicorn in the garden, thought for a moment. "We'll see about that," he said. He walked over to the door. "He has a golden horn in the middle of his forehead," he told her. Then he went back to the garden to watch the unicorn; but the unicorn had gone away. The man sat down among the roses and went to sleep.

As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could. She was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye. She telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist; she told them to hurry to her house and bring a strait-jacket. When the police and the psychiatrist arrived they sat down in chairs and looked at her, with great interest. "My husband," she said, "saw a unicorn this morning." The police looked at the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist looked at the police. "He told me it ate a lily," she said. The psychiatrist looked at the police and the police looked at the psychiatrist. "He told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead," she said. At a solemn signal from the psychiatrist, the police leaped from their chairs and seized the wife. They had a hard time subduing her, for she put up a terrific struggle, but they finally subdued her. Just as they got her into the strait-jacket, the husband came back into the house.

"Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?" asked the police. "Of course not," said the husband. "The unicorn is a mythical beast." "That's all I wanted to know," said the psychiatrist. "Take her away. I'm sorry, sir, but your wife is as crazy as a jay bird." So they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after.

Moral: Don't count your boobies before they are hatched.


The Birds and the Foxes

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a bird sanctuary in which hundreds of Baltimore orioles lived together happily. The refuge consisted of a forest entirely surrounded by a high wire fence. When it was put up, a pack of foxes who lived nearby protested that it was an arbitrary and unnatural boundary. However, they did nothing about it at the time because they were interested in civilizing the geese and ducks on the neighboring farms. When all the geese and ducks had been civilized, and there was nothing else left to eat, the foxes once more turned their attention to the bird sanctuary. Their leader announced that there had once been foxes in the sanctuary but that they had been driven out. He proclaimed that Baltimore orioles belonged in Baltimore. He said, furthermore, that the orioles in the sanctuary were a continuous menace to the peace of the world. The other animals cautioned the foxes not to disturb he birds in their sanctuary.

So the foxes attacked the sanctuary one night and tore down the fence that surrounded it. The orioles rushed out and were instantly killed and eaten by the foxes.

The next day the leader of the foxes, a fox from whom God was receiving daily guidance, got upon the rostrum and addressed the other foxes. His message was simple and sublime. "You se before you," he said, "another Lincoln. We have liberated all thsoe birds!"

Moral: Government of the orioles, by the foxes, and for the foxes must perish from the earth.

TOMORROW NIGHT: Our third installment of "The Pet Department"


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