31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 15: “Dreyfus in Wichita” by Cary Fagan

May 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From My Life Among the Apes

My_Life_Among_the_ApesCary Fagan writes out of the same tradition of Jewish storytelling as Isaac Bashevis Singer; like Singer, subtlety is not a defining feature of Fagan’s writing. “Dreyfus in Wichita” does not rely on metaphor, recondite poetic imagery, or irony, but unfolds in a straightforward, chronological fashion that privileges story over technique and showcases the author’s signature brand of gentle humour. The result is something rare in CanLit: a story that is unashamed, unpretentious entertainment.

Which is not to suggest that it lacks substance. Indeed, Fagan’s fable about a teacher at a Hebrew Day School in Toronto who realizes his dream to write and mount a full-scale musical addresses subjects of art and inspiration, and takes as its starting point an important historical episode from the closing days of the 19th century.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer who was convicted of treason in 1894, a prosecution that was unfounded and based largely in anti-Semitism. (The so-called Dreyfus Affair was the source of Émile Zola’s famous J’accuse!) Fagan’s interest in the Dreyfus case, at least where his short story is concerned, is ancillary, and arises out of an historical footnote in the United States. According to Richard D. Mandell’s book Paris 1900, in the year 1899, the city of Wichita, Kansas, selected a young Jewish girl as Carnival Queen in a gesture of sympathy with the plight of the French officer. When Fagan’s protagonist, Michael Spearman, stumbles across this tidbit during a bout of lunchtime reading, he feels the pulse of creative inspiration and determines to write a stage musical, entitled Dreyfus in Wichita, based on the incident.

The opening moments of Fagan’s story, which quickly sketch the scene and the broad outlines of the plot, are indicative of the author’s approach. Michael, we are told, teaches music and science at Beth Shalom, a Hebrew Day School “located in a former Toronto car dealership.” The ad hoc nature of the school is underscored in subsequent details: many of the books in the library “had been donated in a carton of garage-sale leftovers” (it’s the word “leftovers” that really sells this: as though the school couldn’t even count on a donation of books that other people might actually want), and the library itself is located in the basement, which also houses “the science lab, the music room, and the furnace.” Eating his cold lunch (more leftovers) amid the “fur of mildew growing between the cinder blocks,” Fagan writes, “Michael could think and dream and feel the quiet thrumming of disappointment in himself.”

Michael’s musical ambitions had found an outlet in the garage band he plays in, doing covers of Elvis Costello and Clash songs from the 1980s, but his unspoken love has always been for musical theatre. For whatever reason, the story of Sadie Joseph, the Wichita Carnival Queen, stokes the fires of his imagination and he writes his musical in a burst of sustained creativity, using religious holidays and summer vacation as time to realize his artistic vision.

Once finished, Michael relies on his supportive wife, Frida, to provide him with the kick he needs to try to get his production in front of an audience. “[If] there was one thing Michael knew about himself,” Fagan tells us, “it was that he had no entrepreneurial push.” Frida encourages Michael to follow his dream, decrying the “old-boy system” that holds sway in professional theatre and presenting him with a book called How to Sell Your Musical to Broadway and Make It Big, for which she spent $42, one dollar for each year Michael has lived. When Frida gives him the book, Michael reacts with self-deprecation verging on inferiority, saying only, “I don’t deserve it.”

Whether he does or not is a question that Fagan leaves open: though he struggles and frets over the technical problems involved in writing his musical, we never do discover whether the finished product is any good. All we do know is that it ends up running three hours and fifteen minutes (presumably with at least one intermission). But ultimately, questions of quality are unimportant for Michael. What is important is that he follow his dream to its conclusion, regardless of the setbacks he faces along the way. Those setbacks include losing $8,000 to a fairly blatant con artist; the fact that Michael is willing to overlook what should be obvious to him is indicative of the strength of his belief, not in himself, but in the power of art.

Michael does end up mounting Dreyfus in Wichita, not on Broadway, but at Beth Shalom, thanks to the intercession of his best pupil, twelve-year-old Laura Applebaum, and a colleague named Ellen Litvak, “who’d been dying to put on a musical for years.” Ellen convinces the staff to allow Michael to proceed on the basis that the school would not need to pay him royalties. (In another slyly witty aside, Fagan notes that the only faculty who vote against the musical are “the gym, mathematics, and Halacha teachers.”) The performance takes place on a single night, and the school rabbi’s reaction when the show sells out provides another comic moment: “‘Mazel tov,’ the rabbi said to Michael. ‘You’ve given us a new roof. Now it doesn’t matter if it’s a hit or a miss.'”

Finally, it doesn’t matter to Michael, either. The very fact that he has managed to follow through on his dream is sufficient. As he stares out at the audience after the curtain falls, with the feeling that “somebody close to him had died,” readers are reminded of the teacher playing Elvis Costello tunes in a garage band in his spare time, then hiding himself away in a room on his own to secretly listen to recordings of Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, and Cabaret, and to dream.

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