Monday, March 23, 2009


As I wrote once before, you never quite know what you're going to get when you receive one of these. It might be the published screenplay/score to a now-lost Vitaphone movie. It might be a Broadway show from the turn of the last century that has music so gorgeous it deserves a remount.

Or it might be HULDA.

On the surface, HULDA OF HOLLAND (1925), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wison Dodge (cover art by Doris Holt Hauman), is hardly different from any of the hundreds of high school musicals of the period. The story is simplicity itself: a young girl, betrothed to someone when they were both infants, has fallen in love with someone else. The resolution of this typical triangle is eminently predictable, but my fascination with HULDA comes from a very, *very* different source.

Let's breeze through the story first, okay? Hulda and her father Peter are awaiting the arrival of Hulda's fiancé Jan Steen, whom Hulda has never met because the Steen family moved to America shortly after the engagement was settled. But now the grown-up Jan is on his way, and Hulda's a mess, because she met another American while visiting Paris, a certain Jerry Heyden, and the two are madly in love. Jerry convinces Hulda to tell her father that he's Jan.

Meanwhile, the real Jan has arrived: not only is he an acquiantaince of Jerry's, but he really has no interest in getting married, so he's more than happy to play along in the charade. However, once he meets Hulda, he inexplicably falls in love with her and tries to expose Jerry... but no one believes him, because "Jan" has introduced Jan as his mentally-deficient cousin Billy. Everything's going just fine for Jerry and Hulda until Adrian Steen, Jan's father, appears on the scene and exposes the deception. So at the end of the second act, things arent looking too good.

Act Three is a week later, and Peter has figured out that Hulda will never be happy with Jan. He and Adrian have a meeting of the minds and figure it's best to butt out and let Hulda and Jerry have their way. After a minor bumps in the roadway, our little lovebirds get together, and everything ends happily ever after.

Okay, pretty simple stuff, right? Oh, just you wait... See, here's the thing. Hulda's intended, Jan? According to the notes, Jan's "effeminate" and "eccentric", and you can probably bet what those are code words for. In case you havent figured it out, here's Jan's opening lines:

Goodness mercy me! I'm simply exhausted after my walk up those dusty roads. Mercy! Just look at my shoes. I just dont care! It was horrid of Daddy forcing me here to see this Dutch person that he says I must marry. He hasnt any appreciation for my sensitive, artistic temperment. I really never could tolerate those awful farm persons. Bourgeois, I call it, simply bourgeois. My sensitive soul shrinks at such an alliance.

Yep, after seeing how the high school operetta treated blacks and Chinese and Jews, now we get a very rare sight: the 1920s perception of homosexuals. And what a sight it is:

JERRY. I want to take your name and be accepted into the Cats household as the fiancé of Hulda.

JAN. Mercy! Do you know her?

JERRY. Of course I do, you idiot!

JAN. Idiot! Jerry Heyden, you have such a vulgar way with you.

JERRY. That's nothing to what I'll do if you dont agree to what I ask.

JAN. Jerry Heyden, you great big brute, you always did pick on me. Is it because my white soul wanders in fields of beauty where yours never treads?

If that's not bad enough, hang on:

PETER. Yah, come right in de house, Myncheers.

JAN. Thank you so much, you sweet old man. (hippity-hops into house)

JERRY. Dont mind Billy. He's not at all dangerous. Just a little queer... (taps head) you know.

... or when Jan tries to convince Peter that he's really Jan:

JAN. I just tell you, Mycheer Cats, you'll be sorry for the way you're treating me. Hulda is my fate, my white rose on a barren widlerness of unrequited love.

PETER. (to Jerry) Yah, he's yust like dot Romeo.

JAN. (melodramatically) Romeo! Oh, wasnt he just too sweet for words?

And when Jerry's deception is exposed, how does Jan react?

JAN. Goody, goody, goody!

I'm sure that this part was approached as the operetta equivalent of a "trouser role": a male played by a female. One can only imagine the parental outrage if little Johnny had to mince on stage and say those lines and then face the football team the next morning. Even as a character, Jan is easily intimidated, threatened by the smallest of gesture, and verbally (and sometimes physcially) pummeled by everyone including the romantic male lead, who's supposed to be — in theory anyway — the good guy. So what then are we to think about Jan?

Okay, to tell the truth, despite the fact that Jan is... well, to say he's a "stereotype" is being kind, I suppose. Still, when he's not onstage, this play takes a nosedive into predictable pablum, which gives rise to the long-standing fact that the villain always gets the best lines. This villain sweeps them up and carries them offstage in a rhinestone-studded dustpan. Even the deus-ex-machina ending (As a child, Peter was saved from drowning by a boy who grew up to be Jerry's father) cant make HULDA rise above the mediocre.

But Jan? For all his "you big brute!"s, he gives this musical the same lift that some of the blackface characters have done in other operettas described in this blog. To be sure, it's hardly the most complimentary portrait of gays, but we're talking 1925 here... and something for high schools at that, which would make it certainly shocking, to say the least. Jan's is definitely the plum role in this piece, complete with his own solo turn:

My thoughts are like the butterflies, they float
On the waves of fancy, like a boat
Gliding onward like clouds that float above
My soul is filled with beauty, rapture, ecstacy, and love!

I'm aesthetic, so aesthetic, my!
At the mooing of a calf, I sigh!
When the mourning dove begins to mourn, I cry!
There is no one so aesthetic as I!

... at which point he goes into an "eccentric" dance.

So I say Jerry can have Hulda, and vice versa. No doubt they got married, settled down in Scheveningen, had a bunch of screaming kids, and raised tulips. But Jan? I wanna know what happened to him when he got back to New York. Now there's a 20-era high school musical, complete with Gershwin tunes, just waiting to be written...

No comments: