Sure, Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa is a brilliant conception, one of the touchstones of 20th century thought. But when it comes to literary cockroaches, my heart belongs to Archy. A free-verse poet, an ink-stained wretch, a nervous moralist of the demimonde, an insect in love with a slatternly cat, Archy first saw the light of print in a 1916 column by New York Sun journalist Don Marquis, who stuck by the little fellow and his feline companion, Mehitabel, through hundreds of columns and a few book collections until Marquis’ death in 1937.
If The Metamorphosis is a comic nightmare vision of the dehumanizing essence of modern culture, Archy and Mehitabel is a sadly knowing comic ode to optimism, and as such, a much more American tale. Life on Shinbone Alley, the little fetid corner of New York where Archy and his pals hang out, has a mythic quality, and the myth that comes to mind is Sisyphus: always reaching for the top, always falling back into the same old muck, always dusting off and starting the journey again. For Mehitabel the sensualist, hope is just another alley cat away. For Archy the world-wise, despair and joy are almost the same thing, and like a Beckett character but with a good deal more joie de vivre, he can’t go on, yet on he goes.
Archy, as Marquis tells the tale, just showed up one night in the Sun newsroom and, choosing Marquis’ typewriter because the columnist seemed “a little less human” to him than most humans (a race with which he held little truck), proceeded to relate the stories of Shinbone Alley. To do this required a good deal of physical pain. Archy climbed onto the keyboard and flung himself headfirst onto the keys in order to type out his first-hand reports of life on the dangerous but always fascinating streets. He wrote everything in lower-case because he couldn’t hit both a letter key and the shift key at the same time. At least he didn’t have to worry about an editor, and that alone endeared him to the corps of semi-anonymous reporters who flung their own heads against the immutable forces of the newsroom in order to record straight the tragedies and comedies and everyday occurences of the strange boisterous brute that was the big city.
What brings Archy back to mind is a visit to the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, a spiffy space carved out of a onetime Baptist Church building just a couple of blocks away from the grounds of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The cabaret’s current show is a revival of Archy and Mehitabel, a lightly jazzy, hipsterish 1950s musical adaptation of Marquis’ columns. A sly fusion of the strain of sardonic optimism that flavored the United States of both the 1920s and the 1950s (decades in which a lively underworld put the lie to the official order of standardized moralism), Archy and Mehitabel provides a pleasantly raffish break from the shows at the Shakespeare festival and also fits neatly with them: After all, like the classics that the festival embraces, the enduring qualities of Marquis’ cockroach and cat are built upon a masterful scaffolding of words, words, words. (The festival and the cabaret have always enjoyed a sort of cross-fertilization of talent. In Archy and Mehitabel, stalwart festival actor Michael J. Hume is the highly effective taped voice of Don Marquis, setting the stage with brief interludes of narration.)