Sunday, February 21, 2010

Three Card Wenceslas; or, Tegwar Revisited

Ten years ago at a family reunion, my sister and I started to play a game that we called Three Card Wenceslas. We'd never played it before, but we both picked it up fairly quickly and, before long, became totally absorbed in a spirited contest.

Three Card Wenceslas has no rules. We made it up as we went along.

She would play a pair. I would meld. She would draw from the deck. I would raise. She would knock. I would discard. And so forth. Complete and utter improvisation. Complete and utter nonsense. Even the name of the game was phony. But we played confidently (and loudly!).

Our mom's cousin wandered over. By that time, my sister and I had progressed to Three Card Blind Wenceslas, played with eyes closed. I think I was holding a card to my forehead. The improvisation continued, with plenty of trash-talking between us.

Our cousin took this in for a while. Finally he asked, "How do you know when someone wins?"

"We just did," I said. Ba-da-boom!

A bit of a lowlife prank to pull on a relative, granted, but at least we didn't scam anyone for money (I rationalize). However, it turns out the cosmic joke of the situation has been on me all along, and I've only just realized it.

You see, I've just finished rereading Bang the Drum Slowly, the touching, tragicomic 1950's baseball and mortality novel by Mark Harris. It was the first time since my early teen years, when I was a budding baseball geek, that I'd read the book. Also, by chance, the 1973 movie version starring Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro was shown the other night on Turner Classic Movies.

Both are terrific, the book moreso than the movie, but that's not important now. What is important is that the fictional ballplayers played a fictional card game to scam unsuspecting bystanders in hotel lobbies out of their fictional spare cash. The ballplayers' card game was called "Tegwar", and it had no rules. The play of the game was eerily familiar, right down to the trash-talking!

Buried like an intelligence mole in the Early 1970's quadrant of my baseball-addled subconscious, "Tegwar" had been lying in Wait (so to speak) for decades. It reemerged ten years ago as "Three Card Wenceslas" -- the T-W letter combination is too improbable to be purely coincidental, don't you think? When I came across the Tegwar bit in Bang the Drum Slowly recently, the realization of what I'd likely done sent chills up my spine. Cue the Twilight Zone tones!

We'll see our cousin again this summer. Hopefully he'll get a good laugh at my expense when I tell him the "Tegwar" story. It still might work out for me in the end, though; I'm pretty sure I can sell my remaining inventory of "Three Card Wenceslas" rulebooks on eBay.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For Evelyn Evelyn, Life is a Cabaret

Cabaret rocker Amanda Palmer and accordianist Jason Webley have teamed up to produce a forthcoming album of oddball songs by "Evelyn Evelyn", a musical act featuring conjoined twin sisters and former circus performers Eva and Lynn Neville who were "discovered" by Palmer and Webley. The twins don't appear much in public, so it is said, but their songs, featuring musings from many angles on the nature of duality in the universe, would be suitable for the old Dr. Demento radio show.

Perhaps predictably, the twins -- more accurately, their producers -- have their detractors. In particular, Disabled Feminists airs a thoughtful protest that, paraphrasing, Evelyn Evelyn is part of a tired, stereotype-laden treatment of Persons With Disabilities (PWD) by the Abled, as it treats them as freakish, and is therefore objectionable on the face of it. Less admirably, Disabled Feminists goes on to warn prospective commenters against posting any counterarguments on its site that would be "derailing" its apparently unimpeachable criticism of the project.

So, I'll do it here. I would respond: Palmer's and Webley's art lies squarely within the cabaret tradition and is entirely appropriate in that context.

Cabaret as a genre provides a safe space for exploring touchy, edgy, even taboo subjects by treating them humorously, satirically, or entertainingly, for the sake of illuminating the humanity at their core. Like gossip, cabaret art is, at least in part, a communal conversation to discuss essential truths and morals, including where the boundaries are.

Consider the satirical show-within-a-show at the Kit-Kat Klub in the movie Cabaret. The stage show and its songs depict poverty, hunger, greed, promiscuity, bisexuality, antiSemitism, Naziism, etc. We gasp when the "bride" is revealed to be an ape, and then Jewish. Is that depiction in the 1970's movie unacceptable on the face of it, due to its vile antiSemitism -- i.e. should the piece never have been written, performed, and filmed at all -- or does it serve an illuminating purpose by laying bare the antiSemitism of 1930's Germany (and elsewhere, and elsewhen) through satirical mockery?

Consider the subjects of Amanda Palmer's songs "Mandy Goes to Med School", "Missed Me", and "Oasis", to name just a few. "Oasis" alone treats alcohol abuse, date rape, teen pregnancy, abortion, manipulation, betrayal, and denial (all in under two minutes). Those are hardly the only examples of difficult subjects in her repertoire. When in "Guitar Hero" the narrator says "Tie them up and feed them the sand -- ha! Nigga!", is her use of the n-word variant vile and unacceptable on the face of it -- i.e. should the song have never been written and performed -- or does it serve a greater satirical purpose by illuminating the vulgar slang used, by videogamers and soldiers alike, to dehumanize one's virtual and real enemies?

The critics are welcome to say, they don't like this or that or that something is bad or wrong. That's part of the conversation. And granted, the original conception of Evelyn Evelyn seemed more screwball than purposeful or satirical, though the more recently published Evelyn Evelyn background story can be seen as a kind of a text-based cabaret number. My point is, if you're the kind of person who sees Tom Lehrer's "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" as a political statement against animal rights, you're unlikely to find much of value in Palmer's and Webley's songs -- or indeed, in the entire cabaret tradition.


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