Saturday, May 23, 2009

Moose Murders and rare books

Thinking a bit more about Louisa’s question, I realized I made the error of assuming valuable books = first editions. Not so! It doesn’t matter what edition a book is, if it’s scarce and the marketplace decrees that it’s valuable. The view of the marketplace is important. There may be only one copy extant of, say, the 1910 Kenyon College yearbook (I have old Mr. Steinfield’s, which is why I bring it up) but if nobody’s going to pay me a lot for it, then it isn’t valuable just because it's rare.

So clearly scarcity counts more than firstness. Thinking of scarcity brings me to Moose Murders, the legendary play that closed on its 1983 first night to some of the worst reviews ever to appear in the English language. (There was something about the play that encouraged hyperbole; critics were trying to outdo each other.) The morning after the night before, Not-Yet-Lydia’s father and I encountered Frank Rich’s Times review and one of us read it to the other.

I have wondered, how many people in New York City today claim to have been at that first night performance? Probably at least twice as many as the theater could have held. A month after that first night and his first night review, Frank Rich wrote another review, which contains this comment: What makes certain bombs into legends? It's hard to say, precisely - they don't wear fur coats. Once it was a mark of distinction for a play to close in one night, but in these troubled times even that phenomenon is a sad commonplace. Some theater people define legendary bombs by the amount of money that went down the drain, or the high caliber of talent expended, or the extravagant foolhardiness of the esthetic mission. Others let Joe Allen, the theater district bistro, be the final arbiter: that restaurant has a whole wall bedecked with posters from a select group of famous turkeys. Whatever the definition, it can't be quantified - a flop just must have a certain je ne sais quoi to rise to legendary status. But what I do know is this: the only Playbill I've saved thus far in this decade is the one from ''Moose Murders.''

So: what remains from Moose Murders is that program. Ten or so years ago, I did see a rare book dealer advertising one for more than a thousand dollars, so clearly notoriety helps too. If Mr. Steinfield had been a mass murderer instead of a kindly Ohio antiques dealer, that Kenyon yearbook might be worth something.

I have read that if all the people who say they voted for JFK in 1960 actually had voted that way, he would have won the election with 80% of registered voters instead of by <.1% of votes cast. Perhaps the ranks of opening night attendees of Moose Murders have swelled the same way.

Speaking of rarities: I could not find John Simon's review of Moose Murders online. Maybe his language scalds the electrons of the internet.

No comments: