The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, October 1908
The Literature of Capping Carnivals
The Literature of Capping Carnivals.
It is the special function of a University to cultivate letters. They have been a stay in times of adversity and a pride in times of strength. Literature, in one form or another, has poured fourth in steady stream from the sacred founts right down the ages, and has more than once been lost in that river of comment and criticism which so often crosses the shallows, and passes off in vapour before it reaches the classic sea. It has become a special function of the University student to lay a yearly offering at the feet of Pallas. This offering has been gently and persistently directed towards obscurity by the sandalled foot without the aid of scientific comment or "intelligent criticism."*
Yet, why should capping literature escape this condemnation? It is true that from its very nature it is not one of those permanent Forms which claim the attention of men by an appeal which may he called "universal." On the contrary, capping literature is necessarily local and topical. Its object is to bring a year's life and work under review, not with the sober insistence of the examiner, but with the light-hearted exuberance of the youthful examinee; one who is content to have tasted the humour of the lecture room and the joy of the green turf. Capping literature aims first at "hitting off" the academic year. It may, and ought to be, incidentally, a record, but its devotees have never claimed For it the enduring qualities of history. There is no reason, however, why a form which is used for temporary and passing needs should not be subjected to the same kind of investigation as the higher forms of art, and this article is written in the belief that the application of "higher criticism" may give help to some whe see in carnival song-books only a barren scrip on which ancient jokes may be stereotyped. Professor Picken, in his Presidential address to the Debating Society, warned us that the sources of witticism are apt to run dry. Professor Picken will doubtless live to see his words prove true in Wellington as in Glasgow, for the danger is one to he met and faced at every turn, and new Professors come not with each succeeding year. But the possibilities of variation are more numerous than is generally thought; the "sources" are more abundant than a casual acquaintance with the "streams" would lead one to suppose.
Let us consider for a moment what is expected of a Carnival Programme. The Carnival is somewhat in the nature of page 12 a reaction after a somewhat dull capping ceremony. In the afternoon the University public is mildly disappointed if there is no "fun," and the Press screams if there is. Someone has to be disappointed. But even Sir Robert Stout expects some effervescence in the evening. it is in the nature or things that the student body makes use of a clay which tradition has dedicated to freedom, It is for the literary craftsman to find fitting words to allow some of the youthful exuberance to escape in song.
The Carnival as an undergraduate safety-valve is already an ancient institution in Australasia, and although its literature has been used to enliven many more or less interesting items of entertainment, the products extant and-procurable do not suggest that the literary art has often been used in any full and scientific way. On the one hand, topical words have been applied, through the medium of song-parody, to isolated events of College interest; on the other hand, comic operas have been attempted, which have used the song-parody to illuminate an imaginary theme. The first have been too slender to stand of their own weight; the latter—as far as information can be obtained—have usually been too ambitious and have demanded too much of the performers to be successful in the bands of a scratch Carnival team. Though it must be admitted that there is little Australian data to dogmatise upon, it can probably be said with truth that the literary expression has not been set fairly to meet the needs of the case. The matter and the form, to use Professor Mackenzie's trenchant phrase, have been unjudicially separated.
Some two years ago Victoria College set itself to deal with the problem in what appeared to be a new way, and certainly in a way which had some reasoned basis. Literary expression had to be found for the "soul awakening." It must be dramatic, for the public must see as well as hear. It must be original and striking, for the public refuses to believe that a student's Carnival is a failure merely because the beat comes on the wrong bar. It must be topical, partly from tradition, partly from inherent vice. Added to which, no Wellington carnival can for years expect to find a body of students who can give time for a long course of preparation.
Now it was proposed to make the main part of the programme into what was afterwards called, for want of a better name, a "musical extravaganza." It was to be a kind of glorified capping song, a series of songs on topics of College interest, woven together by one central idea into a literary unity. It was to be dramatic, for the songs were to be page 13 arranged and designed for acting; it was to derive an appearance of originality from a certain solemn grotesqueness gained partly from the setting and partly from the mechanical method of the tableau vivant. It was to be easy of performance, to the extent that drill movements and cake-walks are easier than conventional acting and dancing. On the whole, the details of the scheme seemed to coincide well with the apparent needs of the case. Such was the idea of which " Munchums" was the first fruit.
It may be some apology for considering the matter further to repeat what has already been implied, that "Munchums" was an attempt to solve a difficulty which had already brought despair to many Students' Association Committees. It was an attempt to solve the difficulty not only for one Carnival, but for many yet to be. If the theory was sound, if the idea worked out in practice, it could be repeated year by year. It could become the characteristic of the Carnival and be a Victoria College tradition. The originators, at any rate, bequeathed their estate in it to the College in the hope that something might be useful to posterity.
Professor Von Zedlitz, from whom much valuable comment might have been expected on the question of capping songs, has helped us in one respect alone. He has told us about the unities. Now, in one respect, it would appear that "unity' is the first essential of our musical extravagannza. It is not the unity of plot or incident, for that would generally restrict the topical interest and necessitate undue weight being laid on a too slender framework. Many College incidents which may legitimately support one tableau would be crushed by four. Neither is it the unity of time, because if there are four tableaux there must be four contrasts, and for this purpose it may be useful, if we begin with the rustle of the Garden of Eden, to end with the clash of Armageddon. The unity which should be principal part of our stock in. trade is what may perhaps be termed the unity of purpose. Some general idea should be taken, it should be kept "steadily in view" all the time, and be implicit where it is not explicit. It should be voiced in the beginning, it should be shouted in the grand finale—it should be the background throughout. It should be helped by all the artifices at command, and for this purpose a "run-through" chorus may be useful to suggest, where repetition would be vain, that the common purpose survives.
Let no one imagine that this is a detail. It ought to supply, as far as any one factor can, that which is the crowning mark of good work in literature, the "atmosphere." In its highest forms "atmosphere" is a matter of genius, and defies page 14 argument. You know it is there, and you cannot tell why. But it is possible to get a spirit into the extravaganza which, in a rude way, is akin, and this may be produced by the writer who can use a good general idea; who call get a stage manager who "sees right through" it, and a musical director who will subordinate his baton to the humour of the situation.
And here we may revert to Professor Picken's fear lest the sources of witticism should run dry. It is not too much to say that, under the genial influence of two different points of view, the same witticism may do duty to the third and fourth generation. Who thought of complaining this year that Professor Kirk's "emu" was stale? As a "memory from abroad" it burst upon us with all the freshness of a new joke, and perhaps with a little of the added joy of an old friend. Comic papers take advantage of this and surprise us with jests which made us chortle in our cradles. It is very much a matter of setting, and a general idea will give us what is necessary to lead the minds of our audience whither we will and how we will, whether it be through old fields or into new pastures.
The literary effectiveness of this unity is also a matter of some moment, but this is only one of the fortunate accidents of the scheme. It is another of those accidents that the general idea will provide material to work upon. Bring any idea which has a universal bearing into relation with any set of incidents and you will find that it supplies suggestions which would otherwise have passed unnoticed. It is possible that the bigger the idea and the smaller the incident, the more humorous may the application become. True it is that the sources of witticism enlarge enormously when the one initial difficulty is overcome.
Perhaps, considering the proximity of examinations, we may leave the matter here for the present. Many points of detail will suggest themselves to anyone who tries to sketch out an extravaganza along these lines. "Munchums " and "The Golden Calf" will help anyone who is interested to see how an a priori theory worked out in actual practice. It may lead to further development along the same line—it may lead to a reconstruction of the theory. The aim is the development and perfecting of some characteristic form of Carnival literature at Victoria College, and a discussion of the form from a critical and literary standpoint cannot fail to arouse new interest and raise the standard of work which is very often attempted and very generally and justly condemned.
(By Order of the Company.)
* This is not a reference to the commentaries of the Evening Post.