Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas in Jail

What better way to ease you into Christmas than a visit to the jail? Donald E. Westlake's warm, funny, at time hilarious Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974) tells the story of a practical joker sentenced to prison for a joke gone awry, and through his eyes we get to experience a prison Christmas, which features some of the inmates putting on a show:
This was my first experience with the world of the theater, and I found it interesting and bewildering. An incredible amount of running, screaming, arguing, weeping, jumping, chaos and frenzy seemed to be required in the backstage area before one small quiet moment could be presented out front. And even when the show was on, with the wise men in procession, for instance, there was still whispering, rustling, rushing about, finger-pointing and hair-tearing taking place just out of sight of the audience--to such an extent that a returning wise man lifted his own voice once he'd exited to ask how anyone expected him to maintain a performance out there with all of this clatter going on. I didn't hear him get a useful answer.

The show itself was a series of tableaux on The Meaning of Christmas, with here and there a nod to Chanukah for the benefit of Jewish prisoners, plus an occasional bewildering reference to Islam for the sake of any Black Muslims so frivolous as to have attended. Actually they weren't really tableaux, as one of the shepherds that watched by night explained to me when his stint was over. "In a tableau," he said, "you just stand there and don't move." He demonstrated, with a pose that seemed more pin-up than shepherd. "Sort of like a living painting," he said. "And usually there's a narrator or somebody to read something out loud that tells the audience what it's all about. What we're doing is sort of moving tableaux; we walk on an off, and go through our little movements, like when I pointed at the star in the east--did you see that part?-but we don't say anything. Except for Santa Claus, of course."

Of course.
He also offers a bit of commentary on the actors, including an unforgettably pithy description of Joseph:
I thought the fellow doing Mary was an absolute knockout, if maybe just a little too flouncy, and Joseph had just the right nebbishy feeling I've always thought appropriate to that exemplar of passive inactivity.
Merry Christmas, folks. May you find many good books beneath your tree. I'll see you next week.


  1. Now I have to make sure I read this after checking your blog!

  2. Merry Christmas to you as well, Levi!

  3. haha . an oldie but a goodie.

  4. I didn't realize Xmas in Jail was an old R&B tune. I played the Asleep at the Wheel (Texas Swing) version on my radio show and at the exercise class I teach at a local Y!

    Love your blog.