There are good productions of the musical, and the best ones know that the musical is a tragedy, despite the fact that all its best songwriting is comedic, in the first half. If you watch it or listen to it, note: the first two songs (“I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”) mock the self-involved self-indulgence of their royal principals. That self-indulgence becomes the war-torn destruction of a culture. So yeah, I reject the critical dismissal of the musical as little other than a Kennedy-era bon-bon. “Fie On Goodness” in 1960 was an acknowledgement of the human element of war crimes, fifteen years after the Nuremberg trials.
The girls — Tink, Zeugma, and Tash — are happily devouring their birthday tuna, and it’s International Workers’ Day, and it’s also the day about which Chaucer said:
The briddes, that haven lefte her song,
While thei han suffrid cold so strong
In weeres gryl and derk to sight,
Ben in May for the sonne bright
So glade, that they shewe in syngyng
That in her hertis is such lykyng,
That they mote syngen and be light.
Than doth the nyghtyngale hir myght
To make noyse and syngen blythe,
Than is blisful many sithe
The chelaundre and the papyngay
Than young folk entenden ay
For to ben gay and amorous;
The tyme is than so saverous.
Hard is his hart that loveth nought
In May, whan al this mirth is wrought;
Whan he may on these braunches here
The smale briddes syngen clere.
The birds sing. The cats eat their birthday dinners. And today is the workers’ holiday, as well, a day of rest from work: a day of play. Chaucer, of course, was a media theorist:
How have I thanne suche a condition,
That of al the floures in the mede
Thanne love I most these floures white and redo,
Suche as men callen daysyes in our tonne.
To hem have I so grete affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whanne comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam uppe and walkyng in the merle,
To seen this floure aye in the sunne sprede
Whan it up-ryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sight softeneth al my sorwe.
The mede and the merle: the space for interaction between God and man. Media. Poetry, as representation, served as medium.
Chaucer’s May is amorous. It’s the young lover basting his sleeves as he walks out the door. It’s throwing away books as work, on this day of work and pleasure. In some ways, it’s Julie Andrews in the Lerner and Loewe that gets such scant appreciation:
It’s May, the lusty month of May
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue
It’s May, it’s May, the month of “Yes, you may”
The time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-
It’s wild, it’s gay, depraved in every way
The birds and bees with all of their vast amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast
The Lusty Month of May
I like the birds reference (Chaucer again), and Lerner and Loewe clearly knew what they were doing in their comedy-turned-tragedy, despite all the unfortunate critical emphasis on the Kennedys. Camelot is a fine bit of light opera that bewilders audiences because of the shift in tone. May might remind us, for all of our work and celebration of work, for our pleasure, for all our amatory adventures, there’s also what comes after: after winter, spring, and after spring, summer.