The Sound of Sweet Idiocy

Kvetched Emily Dickinson:

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Well, duh. Afternoon winter light is supposed to be depressing, reminiscent of death and — so to speak — all that sort of rot. It’s only when the sound of “The Sound of Music” can drive you to the edge of drooling madness that you know you’re in really bad shape.

This morning, after clicking on the link to the online Washington Post that arrives twice daily in my mailbox, I found an article about the Olney Theater’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. The director, one Mark Waldrop, wants to tease out the story’s darker side — namely, Maria’s sense of having failed as a nun and Austria’s objective failure to remain a sane and sovereign nation. To serve the former purpose, he includes “Something Good,” written as a duet between Maria and Captain von Trapp.

Having barely any recollection of the movie, I found the song on YouTube and gave a listen. It begins like this:

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

For reasons too boring and silly to command our attention, the lyrics affected me less like nails on a chalkboard than nails driven through the skull by a grumpy tsar. Halfway through the second stanza, I found myself wanting to heave a brick straight through my flatscreen monitor. Then I remembered I didn’t have any bricks. Even if I did have one, I realized, I probably wouldn’t be able to throw it through a monitor. At best, the brick would knock the monitor backwards onto the kitchen island before denting the refrigerator door. As scenes of destruction go, it would be very humdrum and unsatisfying.

In his wrath, Homer tells us, Achilles brought “countless ills” upon the Greeks. In mine, I might bring a trip to Fry’s Electronics upon myself.

But just when I was ready to surrender the whole day to impotent grousing, something happened. Hovering before me in my imagination, I saw Julie Andrews surrounded by the simpering von Trapp kids, holding a kind of civics class.

Liesl: Tell us, Maria, why did these Nazis shoot Chancellor Dollfuss and leave him to drown slowly in his own blood, back when I was 12-going-on-13?

Friederich: And why did they just deliver an ultimatum to Chancellor Schuschnigg, ordering him to appoint Herr Seyss-Inquart head of security?

Louisa: And appoint Dr. Fischböck head of finance?

Marta: Yes, Maria, do tell us! This is our first Anschluss!

Kurt: I think I shall miss Austrian auto-fascism.

Maria: Well, you see, children, these Nazis, they have a lot to compensate for.

(Maria begins to sing)

Land of soap and water,
Hitler’s having a bath.
Churchill peeks through the keyhole,
Having a jolly good laugh

Be..e..e..e..cause…

Hitler, has only one big ball;
Goering, has two but very small.
Himmler, has something similar,
But Goebbels has no balls a-tall.

And so on. In case it needs saying, the lyrics aren’t mine. Toby O’Brien wrote them in August of 1939, right before the outbreak of World War II, when he was serving as publicist for the British Council. Or rather, he wrote a version of them, which begat dozens of mutations as it circulated through the encampments of the Empire and Commonwealth forces.

The first stanza is set to the tune of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”; the second (and subsequent) stanzas, to the “Colonel Bogey March,” which people today may remember from Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s the song the captured British soldiers are whistling as they swagger into the Japanese POW camp. The script has them whistling — a pretty unlikely event, when you consider how dehydrated they must have been — because no studio could have suffered them to sing the words. Audiences in 1957 would have remembered them, though, and appreciated the implied joke.

Thinking of Maria and the seven little von Trapps quick-marching through the house, singing about Hitler’s other ball being stuck in Albert Hall snatched me back from the edge of the abyss and into a mindless hilarity that has lasted through this writing. Anything absurd has that effect on me. So do military marches from the United Kingdom, and for that matter, jokes about Nazis, political murder, and balls. This may be true of all men: throw us in close quarters with poetic melancholy, and our first impulse will be to strong-arm our way through it. If our arms lack the strength, we will fall back on the moronic, the heraldic and tribal, and the genital. This is not self-criticism; this is reality.

I can’t say for sure whether God approves, but I suspect He at least understands. My healing vision, as timely as Constantine’s dream of the Cross, feels like a moment of pure grace. Who but the Paraclete could have sensed my despair, forgiven me my terrible taste, and consoled me with reminders of — sorry, Rodgers and Hammerstein — a few of my favorite things?

  • jkm

    Whenever I am stricken with the awful sticky sweetness of TSOM (which is anytime I see more than a few minutes of it) I console myself by conjuring up what my daughter-in-law was told, as a child, was the real ending of the story–that the Von Trapps were picked off by the Nazis, one by one, singing, as they climbed every mountain toward freedom. Lucky DIL did not see the complete movie until she was in her 30s; the cousin who swore by this alternate ending having convinced her she would be warped for life if she didn’t go to bed right after the yodeling puppets. Me, I’ve always sided with Baroness Schrader, another classy dame tossed aside for a trophy nun.

  • maxlindenman

    jkm: This will give you a sense of how sentimental a guy I can be. Our very first online exchange concerned: 1) a sickly-sweet nun; and 2) war against the Hun.

    While taking over Elizabeth’s blog during her working Roman holiday, I asked readers which saints they couldn’t stand. You mentioned Therese, which floored me. She’s one of maybe two — the other being a certain redhead from the Gospels, and I don’t mean Judas — whom I should probably never be left alone with. Compounding my astonishment, about five other readers, all of them women, weighed in along the lines of “Oh, HELL, yeah!”

    Well, chevalier, parfait et gentil that I am, I sprang to her defense, posting back that what you read as simpering was actually vivacity, a signature characteritistic of Frenchwomen, and the reason so many American boys were eager to get to grips with Jerry during the Great War. As I recall, you were unconvinced.

  • HMS

    jkm:
    For the record:
    In 1938 the Trapp family arrived in the United States. They lived for about five years in a Lower Merion PA house lent by lawyer and music patron, Henry S. Drinker, Jr., an authority on Bach. They used to sing at the Christmas Masses at St. Matthias Church, Bala-Cynwyd, PA, according to parish lore. (I grew up and was married in this parish.)

  • jkm

    Oh dear Max. Yes, I remember it well. And I was convinced enough by your heroic chivalry in the defense of the indefensible (the very essence of parfit and gentil) to keep coming back. :-) I even gave La Petite Fleur a second chance, and allowed a lot of Carmelites to work me over and force me to read a better translation of the Story of a Soul, which led me to accept, grudgingly, that you might have something with that vivacity thing. You must forgive my sisters and me for our kneejerk reaction to your devotion. Most of us were force-fed Therese’s more saccharine self-humiliations in a nunny attempt to keep us from identifying with That Other Redhead, the one with spunk. We’re just jealous that Little Frenchy gets all the good guys.

    And HMS, I did know the real ending of the story, but not the PA connection. I can’t resist asking if, at your wedding, a chorus of nuns sang “How do you solve a problem like [Name]?” :-)

  • Kathleen Miller

    If you ever DO get stuck watching the whole movie, or the whole play, be prepared to be floored by the theological disconnect between the script and the lyrics. The song you quote celebrates “works righteousness” while the script focuses on grace. “Climb Every Mountain” has fine music, but the lyrics praise syncretism / relativism/ whatever ism this world wants to swallow.

  • HMS

    Max:
    No, it was not a chorus of nuns. It was my parents, two brothers and four sisters.

  • David J. White

    I like the play more than the movie, but then I was in two (2!) high school productions of it. For example, the song you discuss above isn’t in the play; the Capt. and Maria sing a different one (which, in its way, isn’t much better). Evidently the director of the production you mention has decided to make the play more like the movie — which, after all, is the version most people know.

    Some years ago a friend of mine who lives in NYC piled into a car with some of her friends and took a road trip to Stowe, VT, where the von Trapps finally settled and where their name and image still generates a minor tourist. My friend said that one of her friends couldn’t help remarking that he thought that the place was a tourist von Trapp. (Yuk, yuk!).

  • maxlindenman

    A tourist von Trapp? Oh, David. There really ought to be a law.

  • HMS

    Love the humor here.
    Sorry, I meant to write my comment about the chorus singing “How Do You Solve a Problem like ____” to jkm.

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