Friday, January 25, 2013

Friends of Toby: Robert Burns

Among all the noted figures of his day encountered by Toby, none left a more vivid impression than the poet Robert Burns. We know both from Toby's memoirs and from Burns's own letters that the two met during Toby's final fortnight of performances at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, which Burns attended. I'll let Toby describe the scene himself:
A few days into our run, I received a singular Visitor, a man whose star was just then most Ascendant in the sky: Robert Burns, the Ayrshire ploughman-turned-poet. He arrived in fine fettle, in the company of Mr Creech, a local bookseller who had just then undertaken to publish a new edition of his Poems, along with a large gaggle of miscellaneous Followers, whose exact connection with the Poet was hard to Ascertain. They made, never the less, for a most colourful audience, and Sam at once arranged for them to be seated together, and issued tickets gratis, which would have offended those yet waiting to attend had it been any other person but Burns. The great poet himself, remarkably, seemed unaffected by this adulation: he retained a sturdy rustic dignity which seemed to regard all Praise as superfluous; his countenance possessed at all times a constant, even Temperament, and it was only in his eyes that there glimmered—or so I thought—an intensity of Feeling that belied his modest appearance and calm comportment. Truly, I have never beheld a pair of eyes such as those, before or since, and when—at the conclusion of my performance— we were introduced, I felt myself quite under their spell. We exchanged only bows and polite glances, but I am sure I was not alone in sensing a strange feeling of kinship between us, these two simple Country creatures whose capacity for Language was similarly made out to be some remarkable Spectacle, eliciting adulation that would somehow be lessened had we both been born not sons of Toil but to a gentler class.
Toby apparently left an impression on Burns as well; in an anecdote related by several of Burns's biographers, he was at that time invited to a soirée by an unnamed noblewoman; feeling that the invitation was merely made because he was considered, like Toby, a "curiosity," he made the following reply: "Mr Burns will do himself the honour of waiting upon her on the ninth inst., provided Her Ladyship will also invite the Learned Pig." This could be taken, perhaps, as reflecting poorly on our porcine protagonist, but Toby declared himself pleased by the reference:

This has, since then, been interpreted as far from complimentary, by a great many ignorant and idle commentators who have supposed that for Burns to compare himself to Me was a reflection of a perceived insult, rather than—as I am sure it was meant—a most generous avowal of our abiding sense of kinship. Poor Burns: though the span of life granted Man is (generally) many times that allotted to Pigs, he had scarce another nine years of life, while I have lived to mourn his death, and regret the brevity, though not the brilliance, of his poetic Career.
Alas, it was true: Burns died on 21 July 1796, at the age of thirty-seven, while Toby lived, as far as I his editor have been able to ascertain, at least to 1809 or thereabouts. Today, on the 257th anniversary of Burns's birth, let us remember them both with gratitude for the remarkable works they left behind.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dan Rice and the Learned Pig

One of the most successful comic performers of his day, Dan Rice (1823-1900) was known for his dialect humor, his parodic takes on famous plays such as "Dan Rice's Multifarious Account of Shakespeare's Hamlet," and his mock political speeches; one of these, his striped costume and top hat may have played a part in popular depictions of "Uncle Sam." And, back in the early 1840's, Rice's very first strides upon the proverbial boards of the public stage were made in the company of a Learned Pig.

This pig, originally named "Sibyl," was re-christened by Rice with  the more impressive "Lord Byron," and exhibited from town to town, most often in taverns or public houses. Rice was astute at drumming up publicity for these appearances, and once took out an advertisement in poetic form in the Washington Commonwealth:
I've seen the Learned Pig. 'Tis queer 
To see a hog become a seer.
He knows his letters, and can hunt
The alphabet without a grunt;
Can add, subtract, and knows the rule
As well as any boy in school;
By working with his head and snout
He finds the truth without a doubt.
'Tis wondrous how a brute so low
Was taught by man so much to know!
Dan Rice's pig already had a history of its own; originally the joint property of one Mr. Osborne of Cazenovia NY and C.L. Kise, described as an "ingenious Connecticut Yankee." Kise was an old hand at exhibiting oddities, and is best known for his exhibition of Joyce Heth, said to be George Washington's nurse, and later shown to great effect by Phineas T. Barnum.  Rice bought out Osborne's half of the learned pig act, and enjoyed tremendous success with it. His pig was especially known for its card-playing acumen,  often beating human opponents, as well as his fortune-telling skills, along with comic revelations such as "who is the greatest rogue in the room?" Rice was said to dress Lord Byron in a somewhat clownish outfit, "trimmed with parti-colored ribbons, and so cleanly and tidy did he appear after a toilet as carefully prepared as the most pampered lapdog from its interested mistress." And indeed, Rice later trained up a dog with all the same skills that the pig had once demonstrated. By Rice's own account, his signals to the pig were made by clicking together his finger and thumbnail, producing a noise inaudible to audiences, but heard clearly by the pig, whom Rice declared possessed "extreme acuteness of hearing."