“Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still / And she danced twice a day in vaudeville— Joseph Moncure March, opening lines to The Wild Party, describing the beauty and vivaciousness of the poem’s main character, Queenie.
Gray eyes / Lips like coal aglow / Her face was a tinted mask of snow / What hips— / What shoulders— What back she had! / Her legs were built to drive men mad”
A film-noir-tinted tragedy depicting the fast-paced culture of sex, booze, jazz, and rebellion during the Volstead Act of the 1920s (better known as Prohibition), The Wild Party, written by 26-year-old Joseph Moncure March, is a risqué and thumping account of a rambunctious evening gone wrong.
In 1926, writer March had already left his post at The New Yorker when he began to pen his narrative poem The Wild Party, all in syncopating rhyming couplets. Chronicling the turbulent relationship of a young couple during the Roaring ’20s and an eventful party they attend to distract themselves from their abusive relationship, the poem was not received by the public until 1928 due to its controversial, anarchistic, pro-sex, anti-establishment content. Finally published by Pascal Covici in 1928, it became a banned book in major cities such as Boston for promoting, in its critics’ eyes, lewd and unwholesome behavior. This, in turn, led to the poem’s sought-after popularity among artists, performers, musicians, and young bohemians of the era.
The Wild Party, though dipping in popularity for decades, has recently resurfaced as a reinvigorating piece of narrative rhyming poetry (a form often considered out of fashion by today’s prose-frenzied poets); a cautionary tale against slipping into a life of carelessness; and, from Portland’s Cygnet Radio Hour, as a crackling dramatic adaptation over the airwaves. The 1920s – a period of burgeoning women’s rights (women’s suffrage, America’s de facto woman president Edith Wilson, etc.), the game-changing literature of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and other “Lost Generation” authors, and the slow but steady decline of the English dynastic structure overseeing large estates (think PBS’s Downton Abbey, the later seasons) – saw what we in the 2020s may find vaguely familiar: a cry for change. It is not difficult to see the 1920s, with their social movements led by the youth of the day, as a mirror to our Millennial and Gen Z’s desires for the uprooting of systems, amendments, and societal intolerances that prove not only prohibitive to the rights of many but also stifling to the advancement of artistic expression and community-driven culture.
The performers, musicians, and misfits of The Wild Party, while debaucherous, volatile, and even outright dangerous in the poem, are the rebellious reflections of the artists and bohemians of today. Written as the ’20s were nearing an end, the story can be seen as both a critique of such behavior and as a nod to the literal “end of an era,” in which the prospect of entering the 1930s was both frightening and foreign.
Whether The Wild Party was a last handkerchief-laden wave to the end of the ’20s, as the writer Mark Harris suggested recently in The New York Times, or perhaps a reflection on the riotous and catalystic behavior that sparked a shift in culture that ultimately helped push us toward where we are today, there is no doubt that March himself was in tune with the song of rebellion: reason, ethics, and empathy, he commented, must accompany any upheaval of the current norms (or suffer the consequences).
“— a sweaty, decadent, alcohol-sodden orgiastic journey into the night that’s packed to the walls with the array of grotesques they call their friends. The evening devolves into a perilous game of sexual competition.”—Mark Harris on The Wild Party (The New York Times Style Magazine)
Upon discovering a first-edition 1928 copy of The Wild Party through her then-husband David Morrison’s rare book shop in 1994, Cygnet Productions Artistic Director Louanne Moldovan decided to stage a live production of the poem. Rather than altering the work in any way, she chose to keep the original language and phrasing of the work, having actors read and bring to life sections pertaining to their corresponding characters. That same year, The Wild Party had a miraculous comeback into American cultural consciousness with Art Spiegelman’s publication of a new edition, while The New Yorker simultaneously ran a piece on the poem’s “tone of bewildered innocence curdled into worldly cynicism that resonates so well in our [nineteen-] nineties.”
Now, Cygnet has produced an all-new Cygnet Radio Hour designated not for the stage, but for the airwaves. Directed by Moldovan and featuring a high-powered cast of Don Alder, Gavin Hoffman, Michael Mendelson, Olivia Shimkus, Marilyn Stacey, and Andrea White, The Wild Party comes to life with music, drama, and gusto. Listen to the Radio Hour by streaming it free on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or the Cygnet website, and keep an open mind — the rhyming becomes less jarring as the excellent acting pulls you into the excitement of the story. Afterward, enjoy a conversation between Moldovan and Sonia Sabnis, Reed College Professor of Greek, Latin, Ancient Mediterranean Studies, and Humanities, as they discuss the power of rhyming language.
Note: The Wild Party depicts sex, drug use, drinking, abuse, and violence. Not suitable for young children.