a literary event, with critical introduction

by Charles Bowen
January 16, 1959, Scholastic #11

Every now and then a work is produced of such luminous greatness that the critic is thankfully relieved of the task of carping and can concentrate on the more desirable duty of appreciation. (For, as someone in a recent issue of this very journal was pleased to point out, when you've gotta extol you've gotta extol.) We are glad to announce such a shining occurrence, and here, apud nos, on our own campus.

We ask you to consider the name Marvin Mousepack. Speak it, sound it, roll it around on your tongue. For one day that name will be as well known as Shakespeare, as Milton, as Howard R. Garis or Laura Lee Hope. Perhaps our enthusiasm may arouse surprise - but wait until you hear the story of this astonishing young man.

Did he begin, like most undergraduate writers, with the Scholastic? With the Juggler? With the Sunday Visitor? Far from it. He burst upon our eyes, from total obscurity, as the author of a prize-winning drama! No one suspected the quiet-spoken junior (he majors in Business Ethics) of any literary activity. (In fact, his English II instructor, when queried, seemed surprised to hear that he was literate).

But there can be no doubt of it. The facts are in, the news is out. A new play by Marvin Mousepack has won the annual Greek Drama Award and captured first prize at the Dionysian Festival (held this year at the Apollo Quick Lunch, in Dearborn, Mich.) The play is described as "a tragicomedy of the Notre Dame Dining Hall, with overtones of cometragedy." Actually, it introduces several new features into the Greek tragic tradition, helping to prove the old truism that every classic is a revolution.

While retaining the traditional chorus and hero, it includes elements of the medieval mystery play, the Shakespearian drama, and the modern musical comedy. The influence of contemporary realism is seen in the fact that everything on the stage, including sets, properties, and actors, is covered with a thick layer of soot and grease. (". . . symbolizing," as the author points out, "not only the barrenness of modern civilization, but also the general messiness of everything ever.") And yet there is room for hope in the universe of Mr. Mousepack. For the end of the play sees love triumphant and spring returning to the parched earth, while in the background an invisible choir of monks chants a plainsong arrangement of The Wasteland. ("I'm an unabashed romantic," cheerfully admits Mr. Mousepack, brushing a lock of hair out of his blue eye with a lanky, graceful hand.)

We are proud to include for your consideration a portion of the first authorized translation, done by the playwright's roommate ("My best friend and severest critic"). Here, then, is the first act of:

Please Don't Eat the Chuck Wagon Steak

Cast of Characters: (Appearing)

Gregory Grubstake, a poorbuthonest student plate scraper.

Hanna Hotski, a sensitive girl who is forced by her avaricious father to wait on the head table.

Foul Flintheart, an enigmatic character with a moustache who appears at odd intervals to shout meaningless orders to no one in particular.

George Washington Furd, a deus ex machina.

Gourmets, Gourmands, Checkers, Grub Girls, Ladies, Gentlemen, and Retainers.

Curtain: The stage is dark. Light from an undefined source grows slowly and objects begin to take shape: Tables, chairs, a loudspeaker, through which music is playing softly, saltshakers, sugar jars, silver bowls of 1000 Islands Dressing. Suddenly the Victor Herbert selections are interrupted right in the middle of "My Little Gypsy Sweetheart" and a voice from the speaker is heard: VOICE: Come, muse, and sing of doom; of death, sing, muse, and also of life. There is despair in thy song, but also the seeds of hope; there is cowardice, but also the seeds of courage; there is cauliflower, but also the seeds of grapefruit.

(Lights up. GREGORY is seen sitting in an attitude of despair at the table. GOURMETS and GOURMANDS enter rear. While GREGORY is speaking they pass by stage right and receive helpings of breaded veal cutlets, mashed potatoes, applesauce, salad, ice cream, and beverage, and sit at the tables.)

GREGORY: (sobbing cosmically) Another day! Another dinner! Another $1.42! Again must I greasily grub, groaning. Ah! What a treadmill! When will I ever be free? There is a monstrous unfairness in this scheme, methinks. There sit your premeds and PFA's, who have nothing to do but eat, and here am I, who might, but for this bondage, be fulfilling myself: My soul thirsts - I must have more paperbacks, more Bartok records, must attend the Concert and Lecture Series and the Festival of the Arts! But here am I, aye, I am here. Here. Here!

GOURMETS AND GOURMANDS: Hear, hear! Poor lad! It seems to us that you have uncovered Some Basic Issues.

GOURMETS: (Strophe)
Shall a man, for mere money, be forced to forego all that life, all that art can offer,
And bury his elbows in the slop!
It seems a cosmic mystery.

GOURMANDS: (Antistrophe)
A mystery, a mystery,
It seems a cosmic mystery.
Hi de ho and fiddle de dee,
It seems a cosmic mysteree.

(Dance of Checkers and Grub Girls.)

FOUL FLINTHEART: (Entering left) All right! Everybody back to work! (Exit right.)

HANNA: (Rising from the orchestra pit.) And what of me? What of the woman? For men must work, and women must weep, but I have to do both. (Turns dramatically toward audience.) Have you any idea how those men eat? The other day I dropped my powder puff on the table and before I could pick it up somebody had eaten it and I have several bites on my left arm as a result and the doctor says I'll never play the piano or pass the physical to get into Smith either and I have varicose veins at 17 and I feel a cold coming on and Presley records are going up to $4.98 the first of the month.

GOURMETS and GOURMANDS: A good point, young lady. It is our professional opinion that this place is lousy with basic issues.

GOURMETS: (Strophe)

this necessary? Is this civilization? Is this dynamic conservatism? Is this America?

GOURMANDS: (Antistrophe)

Shall they, wasting in despair
Die because a profit's fair?
Come, Mr. Flintheart, face us if you can,
And justify the ways of Furd to Man.

There is a rumbling and a flash of lightning. Furd is lowered from above, enthroned on a cranberry-sauce crate. Waving his trident, on which is impaled a pork chop, he fires everyone.

A general rout, during which GOURMETS fight GOURMANDS, GRUB GIRLS dance with CHECKERS, and LADIES drop GENTLEMEN into RETAINERS.



Bowen: "Perhaps the less said here the better. Here are a few elements that have actual historical referents."

Chuck Wagon Steak - This was an item that frequently appeared on the Dining Hall menu. It was, if I remember correctly, a variety of meatloaf. (Like school cafeterias everywhere, the ND Dining Hall believed that you can call a dish anything you want as long as you add an adjective. The public schools in my home town used to serve something they called "Virginia ham" that was not ham at all - but that was OK, because they didn't say "ham," they said "Virginia ham." Welsh rabbit need not be rabbit, mock turtle need not be turtle, and chuck wagon steak need not be steak. QED.

Grubbers, Grub Girls, Checkers - The labor force at the Dining Hall included Notre Dame students and both women and girls (of high-school age) from South Bend. Besides dishing out the food (using an ice-cream scoop for the mashed potatoes, which explains my story about the "round potato tradition"), their work included checking IDs to make sure the students were bona fide and were standing in the right line (so the load would be evenly distributed among eight cafeteria lines) and cleaning up after us. After getting your ID checked, you took a tray, went down the line to get your food, and took a seat at a long table. You didn't choose where you wanted to sit; everyone had to take the next place available. This guaranteed that each table would be vacated at about the same time, which was important, because you didn't bus your tray or dishes; you left everything right where it was. When the last diners abandoned the table, a crew of grubbers and/or grub girls would move down its length, some scraping the leftovers into plastic bins, others stacking the dishes for still others to pick up and haul away, and the last of the crew wiping down the table for the next diners, who generally showed up before it was dry. This was quite efficient, and not as much like Metropolis or Modern Times as it may sound.

Foul Flintheart - The straw boss of the Dining Hall laborers was a middle-aged Polish guy whose first name was Zygmunt; everyone called him Ziggy. I couldn't find a good way to parody his name.

George Washington Furd - The manager was surnamed Ford. He and Ziggy were the object of much animosity on the students' part; especially Ford, who was held responsible for the generally unappetizing fare.