Thurber’s Carnival

February 26: A Thurber Carnival opened on Broadway on this day in 1960, to goodreviews and a long run. James Thurber died twenty months later; Thurber’sbiographers and friends describe his involvement in the play as his swan song,and a bright spot in his difficult, almost totally blind last years. Thurberdid all the writing (adapting earlier material, most of it from his 1945anthology, The Thurber Carnival),gave notes after rehearsals, and even took a role for eighty-eightperformances, despite his handicap.

One scene in the show wasjust a series of Thurber’s one-liners and cartoon captions, delivered “Laugh-In”style—the cast dancing to music, then everyone freezing at the delivery of thenew line:

  • “I knewtheir marriage wouldn’t last when they called their honeymoon cottage ‘TheQualms.'”
  • “So Isaid to the bank teller, ‘How could I be overdrawn when I have all these checksleft?'”
  • “She’salways living in the past. Now she wants to be divorced in the Virgin Islands.”
  • “Why didn’tthey repeal inhibition while they were at it?”
  • “It’sfunny, but every time I relax with a man, he gets all tensed up.”

Thurber’s scene was fromhis “File and Forget” piece, collected in Thurber Country. It is a series of letters between Thurber and hispublisher—specifically, between Thurber and his publisher’s ordering and stockdepartments, the letters showing Thurber going from confusion to exasperationto a bonfire, made from books he didn’t want:

I have explained asclearly as I could in previous letters that I did not order thirty-six copiesof “Grandma Was a Nudist.” If you have actually shipped to me anotherthirty-six copies of this book, it will make a total of seventy-two copies,none of which I will pay for . . . .

Thurber’s last decade hadgone far beyond exasperation. His drinking problem had developed intoalcoholism, and his dwindling eyesight had escalated chronic moodiness—his wifecalled them “The Thurbs”—into a nervous breakdown. Thurber said ittook him five years to recover; many around him said that he never really did,and that his bouts of violent, irrational, sometimes delusional behavior droveaway all but the most devoted. Some of these describe the Broadway hit as atemporary cure, returning Thurber not to sight but to his comic vision and bestself.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.