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McGonagall’s Legacy: In Praise of Good Badness

About twenty years ago, I completed the first draft of my first play. Titled The Butcher’s Apprentice, it was based on the same premise as the box office flop Anonymous – i.e. Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The whole thing was narrated by William Shaxper of Stratford, who I wrote as a sort of Cockney country bumpkin. I dutifully shoehorned every biographical detail about de Vere that supported the Oxfordian theory into the narrative, whether it belonged there or not, and that gave the whole thing the flavor of a staged Wikipedia article. I topped it all off with a really lame attempt at writing colloquial Elizabethan dialogue, and presto – the turkey was done. I had a colossal stinker of a play on my hands.

I gave it to an accomplished playwright friend of mine to read, and he offered excellent suggestions for improvement, all of which involved performing major surgery in restructuring the play, the plot, and the dialogue. I’ve written at least a dozen drafts since then. Nowadays, decades later, I still dabble with it sporadically – it’s much better, although I’m pretty sure no one would want to produce it. (Don’t worry – thus concludes the Oxfordian portion of this post. No more Shakespeare conspiracies from here on out.)

My friend recognized that my first stab at playwrighting was rough going, but he also acknowledged that such is to be expected, and that that shouldn’t discourage me from going forward. He also gave me a piece of advice that I’ll always remember:

“Keep in mind,” he told me, “that it’s just as hard to write a bad play as it is to write a good one.”

That’s stuck with me, partially because, in the strictest sense, it isn’t exactly true. If I were to set out to write a bad play, I could do it fairly easily. I’d use some kind of random text generator and produce an incomprehensible piece of dramatic nonsense within minutes. Or I could create a handful of characters and cut and paste their dialogue from the spam cluttering up my email junk folder. The play might have a bigger/longer/harder theme, and it might not even be in English or any recognizable language, but it would certainly be bad.

Incidentally, that’s always been one of my pet peeves with Mel Brooks’ The Producers, both the movie and the musical, when Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom set out to create a Broadway flop. To fail, all they had to do was gather up a bunch of homeless people, give them no script, and put them on a stage that was poorly lit, with no set or orchestra to speak of. They could call it Reality: The Musical, and their entire audience would be out the door within the first fifteen minutes. Instead, they create a rather polished production with talented singers, dancers, and actors. They actually worked as hard on their bad play as they would have on a good one, and it paid off, although not as they intended.

And that, of course, illustrates the truth of what my friend told me – it’s just as hard to write a bad play as a good one if, all along, you’re trying to write a good play. I tried to write a masterpiece. Instead, I wrote a piece of hud, but not for lack of effort.

Which brings me to my latest discovery: William Topaz McGonagall, the man who many of the literati view as the worst poet in history.

McGonagall was a 19th Century Scottish weaver who, sometime around his 52nd birthday, had an epiphany, which he described thusly:

I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me. A flame… seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry. I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that the pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, “Write! Write!”

When forced to confront the written results of that encouraging cry, one is left to wonder what it was that Mr. McGonagall’s muse had against him. Witness, for instance, this stanza from the epitaph he composed for Sir John Ogilvy:

Alas! Sir John Ogilvy is dead, aged eighty-seven,
But I hope his soul is now in heaven;
He was a public benefactor in many ways,
Especially in erecting an asylum for imbecile children to spend their days.

It’s bad poetry, yes. It’s also delightful. The total contempt for meter and pace, along with the ridiculously inappropriate mention of imbecile children in asylums, give this bit of dreck a color and flavor that you can’t find in most literary garbage. McGonagall was trying very hard to write good poetry, which makes his spectacular failure to do so even more compelling.

I posted this McGonagall couplet on Facebook, and only one of my Scottish friends recognized it for what it is. I suspect most people didn’t realize that it was supposed to rhyme:

And when life’s prospects may at times appear dreary to ye,
Remember Alois Senefelder, the discoverer of Lithography.

Or perhaps you’ll be inspired by this tribute to his physician:

He told me at once what was ailing me;
He said I have been writing too much poetry,
And from writing poetry I would have to refrain,
Because I was suffering from inflammation of the brain.

Lovely. It reminds me of the Christmas letters we get from relatives who complain about urinary tract infections.

As for Mr. McGonagall, utimately, such inflammation didn’t stop him. He spent the rest of his life writing and performing poetry, despite the fact that he was frequently pelted with vegetables by the audience. He sent a sample of his poetry to the Queen and received a polite rejection letter back, which thanked him for the efforts. For the remainder of his days, he referred himself as “the Queen’s poet,” as he considered that form letter commendation to be genuine praise. He didn’t care what others thought of him, and he pressed onward. Today, you can still find plenty of samples of his deliberate doggerel when his more lettered – and more talented – peers have been long forgotten.

What’s the moral of the story? There are several. I love that McGonagall didn’t discover his “gift” until he had passed 50, proving it’s never too late to start churning out crap. I love that McGonagall refused to accept criticism and willed himself into history through tenacity and grit, not talent. I also think he proves that it does take as much effort to write bad stuff as good stuff, but that effort, in itself, is worth something.

To get all religious on you, I belong to a Church that teaches that we will be judged not just by what we do, but why we do it. If we mean well, it matters.

“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.”
– Doctrine and Covenants 137:9

I take comfort in knowing that it is the road to heaven, not hell, that is paved with good intentions. That’s a great lesson to draw from a master of drivel.

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