The Galaxy/July, 1871
There are some things which cannot be burlesqued, for the simple reason that in themselves they are so extravagant and grotesque that nothing is left for burlesque to take hold of. For instance, all attempts to burlesque the “Byron Scandal” were failures because the central feature of it, incest, was a “situation” so tremendous and so imposing that the happiest available resources of burlesque seemed tame and cheap in its presence. Burlesque could invent nothing to transcend incest, except by enlisting two crimes, neither of which is ever mentioned among women and children, and one of which is only mentioned in rare books of the law, and then as “the crime without a name”—a term with a shudder in it! So the reader never saw the “Byron Scandal” successfully travestied in print, and he may rest satisfied that he never will.
All attempts to burlesque the monster musical “Peace Jubilee” in Boston were mournful failures. The ten thousand singers, the prodigious organ, the hundred anvils, and the artillery accompaniment made up an unintentional, but complete, symmetrical and enormous burlesque, which shamed the poor inventions of the sketchers and scribblers who tried to be funny over it in magazines and newspapers. Even Cruikshank failed when he tried to pictorially burlesque the English musical extravaganza which probably furnished Mr. Gilmore with his idea.
There was no burlesquing the “situation” when the French Train, Henri Rochefort, brayed forth the proclamation that whenever he was arrested forty thousand ouviers would be there to know the reason why—when, alas! right on top of it one single humble policeman took him and marched him off to prison through an atmosphere with never a taint of garlic in it.
There is no burlesquing the McFarland trial, either as a whole or piecemeal by selection. Because it was sublimated burlesque itself, in any way one may look at it. The court gravely tried the prisoner, not for murder, apparently, but as to his sanity or insanity. His counsel attempted the intellectual miracle of proving the prisoner’s deed to have been a justifiable homicide by an insane person. The Recorder charged the jury to—well, there are different opinions as to what the Recorder wanted them to do, among those who have translated the charge from the original Greek, though his general idea seemed to be to scramble first to the support of the prisoner and then to the support of the law, and then to the prisoner again, and back again to the law, with a vaguely perceptible desire to help the prisoner a little the most without making that desire unofficially and ungracefully prominent. To wind up and put a final polish to the many-sided burlesque, the jury went out and devoted nearly two hours to trying for his life a man whose deed would not be accepted as a capital crime by the mass of mankind even though all the lawyers did their best to prove it such. It is hardly worthwhile to mention that the emotional scene in the court room, following the delivery of the verdict, when women hugged the prisoner, the jury, the reporters, and even the remorselessly sentimental Graham, is eminently unburlesquable.
But first and last, the splendid feature of the McFarland comedy was the insanity part of it. Where the occasion was for dragging in that poor old threadbare lawyer-trick, is not perceptible, except it was to make a show of difficulty in winning a verdict that would have won itself without ever a lawyer to meddle with the case. Heaven knows insanity was disreputable enough, long ago; but now that the lawyers have got to cutting every gallows rope and picking every prison lock with it, it is become a sneaking villainy that ought to hang and keep on hanging its sudden possessors until evildoers should conclude that the safest plan was to never claim to have it until they came by it legitimately. The very calibre of the people the lawyers most frequently try to save by the insanity subterfuge, ought to laugh the plea out of the courts, one would think. Anyone who watched the proceedings closely in the McFarland-Richardson mockery will believe that the insanity plea was a rather far-fetched compliment to pay the prisoner, inasmuch as one must first have brains before he can go crazy, and there was surely nothing in the evidence to show that McFarland had enough of the raw material to justify him in attempting anything more imposing than a lively form of idiocy.
Governor Alcorn, of Mississippi, recommends his legislature to so alter the laws that as soon as the insanity plea is offered in the case of a person accused of crime, the case shall be sent up to a high state court and the insanity part of the matter inquired into and settled permanently, by itself, before the trial for the crime charged is touched at all. Anybody but one of this latter-day breed of “lunatics” on trial for murder will recognize the wisdom of the proposition at a glance.
There is one other thing which transcends the powers of burlesque, and that is a Fenian “invasion.” First we have the portentous mystery that precedes it for six months, when all the air is filled with stage whisperings; when “Councils” meet every night with awful secrecy, and the membership try to see who can get up first in the morning and tell the proceedings. Next, the expatriated Nation struggles through a travail of national squabbles and political splits, and is finally delivered of a litter of “governments,” and Presidents McThis, and Generals O’That, of several different complexions, politically speaking; and straightway the newspapers teem with the new names, and men who were insignificant and obscure one day find themselves great and famous the next. Then the several “governments,” and presidents, and generals, and senates get by the ears, and remain so until the customary necessity of carrying the American city elections with a minority vote comes around and unites them; then they begin to “sound the tocsin of war” again—that is to say, in solemn whisperings at dead of night they secretly plan a Canadian raid, and publish it in the “World” next morning; they begin to refer significantly to “Ridgway,” and we reflect bodingly that there is no telling how soon that slaughter may be repeated. Presently the “invasion” begins to take tangible shape; and as no news travels so freely or so fast as the “secret” doings of the Fenian Brotherhood; the land is shortly in a tumult of apprehension. The telegraph announces that “last night, 400 men went north from Utica, but refused to disclose their destination—were extremely reticent—answered no questions—were not armed, or in uniform, but it was noticed that they marched to the depot in military fashion”—and so on. Fifty such dispatches follow each other within two days, evidencing that squads of locomotive mystery have gone north from a hundred different points and rendezvoused on the Canadian border—and that, consequently, a horde of 25,000 invaders, at least, is gathered together; and then, hurrah! they cross the line; hurrah! they meet the enemy; hip, hip, hurrah! a battle ensues; hip—no, not hip nor hurrah—for the U. S. Marshal and one man seize the Fenian General-in-Chief on the battle field, in the midst of his “army,” and bowl him off in a carriage and lodge him in a common jail—and, presto! the illustrious “invasion” is at an end!
The Fenians have not done many things that seemed to call for pictorial illustration; but their first care has usually been to make a picture of any performance of theirs that would stand it as soon as possible after its achievement, and paint everything in it a violent green, and embellish it with harps and pickaxes, and other emblems of national grandeur, and print thousands of them in the severe simplicity of primitive lithography, and hang them above the National Palladium, among the decanters. Shall we have a nice picture of the battle of Pigeon Hill and the little accident to the Commander-in Chief?
No, a Fenian “invasion” cannot be burlesqued, because it uses up all the material itself. It is harmless fun, this annual masquerading toward the border; but America should not encourage it, for the reason that it may some time or other succeed in embroiling the country in a war with a friendly power—and such an event as that would be ill compensated by the liberation of even so excellent a people as the Downtrodden Nation.
(Source: Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html)
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