December 4, 2014
Newly discovered Chandler work is basically the least Chandler-esque thing ever
by Sal Robinson
There are few greater gulfs than the one between the realities of daily life for young, poor, and not-yet-famous writers and the hysterical gaiety they pump into the works of musical theater they produce during these formative years.
MobyLives covered the case of Joseph Heller‘s musical comedy “Howe & Hummel” a few weeks ago, and now it’s the turn of Raymond Chandler, who, it turns out, wrote the libretto for a comic opera called “The Princess and the Pedlar” sometime in the nineteen-teens, when he was scraping by on a series of odd jobs in Los Angeles, and long before the publication of his first crime novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939.
Never published, the libretto was found by writer Kim Cooper when she was doing research at the Library of Congress for a mystery novel loosely based on Chandler’s life. Cooper saw a library catalog reference to a comic opera written by Chandler and Julian Pascal (the husband of Chandler’s future wife Cissy). requested it from the archives, and within weeks found herself reading a scan of the long-forgotten work which had been registered with the library in 1917, shortly before Chandler joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
“The Princess and the Pedlar” is, as Cooper describes in a blogpost telling the story of the discovery, “a charming and sometimes laugh-out-loud musical comedy that uses the conventions of fairy tale lore to explore the mysteries of modern romance.” There’s a princess, Porphyria, who must be married by midnight or terrible fantasy-world-type things will happen, and a peddler, Jim, who seeks her hand. It’s set in the fairy kingdom of Arcadia, and the plot consists of various flimsy obstacles to True Love, all eventually overcome by the time the curtain drops.
It sounds, in other words, totally silly. An article on the discovery in the Guardian by Sarah Weinman quotes a few lines, such as the goblin Gorboyne singing, “Criminals dyed with the deepest dyes/Hated of all the good and wise, Soaked in crime to the hair and eyes/Very unpleasant are we.” And Cooper has longer passages on her blog in the same vein: banter between goblins and enchantresses, comic numbers about “pickled eye of toad” and “cobwebs à la mode,” and so on.
Far funnier than the actual play at this point are the attempts to inflate the importance of this piece of juvenilia. For instance, from the Guardian piece:
“Chandler’s motivation had to be pretty serious,” Cooper told the Guardian. “He had been in Los Angeles for only five years, after a bitter departure from London as a failed writer. It’s obvious this libretto was a serious attempt at the writing life in the midst of nowhere, culturally.”
Cooper noted the libretto’s discovery “completely negates” the notion that Chandler gave up being a writer until he was fired in 1931 from Dabney Oil Syndicate, where he was a highly paid executive, due to a mix of alcoholism, affairs with female employees, and absenteeism.
I don’t actually know how you get from “Very unpleasant are we” to believing that “The Princess and the Pedlar” represents Chandler’s attempt to make high art in the cultural desert of L.A., but it’s kind of an admirable conclusion for the sheer scale of its preposterousness. I think Chandler and Pascal wrote “The Princess and the Pedlar” for the same couple of reasons that any group of young men in the early years of the 20th century wrote a comic opera: they thought they could make money from it, or they were bored and had a friend with a fine tenor and an upright piano, or they thought it might get them closer to Sophie Tucker.
But it’s clearly a long way away from Chandler’s moody, subtle Philip Marlowe novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye. The agent for the Chandler estate apparently concurs—Ed Victor responded to a request by Cooper and her husband Richard Schuave to mount a stage production of “The Princess and the Pedlar” with the following assessment: “It is a very early work, and not representative of Chandler’s oeuvre. Yes, it is of course a curiosity, but we feel no more than that. As such, we would rather not allow it to be promoted.”
The world may have to wait just a few years longer for the adventures of Porphyria, Jim, and their gleefully evil goblin nemeses.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.