The story is set in the land of fables, where humans and animals are persons alike. Walking along the road from one place to another, Peddy/Pedrillo meets a number of colourful characters such as a poetry-loving camel, a pompous carabineer, a lachrymose sea captain and his formidable harpist wife, and a wolf who keeps the economy going. Through these encounters he tries to find out ‘what he is’: not an easy task, for all people and animals identify him as something else, and different from them. In the end Peddy/Pedrillo discovers that identity is not to be defined in terms of something else: it can be good to be many things at the same time.
In a way delightful to children and adults alike, Themerson pokes fun at the skewed logic which often cements human society. The theme of identity and the author’s humorous-ethical outlook make his story highly relevant to the present age.
Theatre and MusicBesides, the text abounds in opportunities for musical theatre. There are poems, stories and songs, and moments for dance. The Camel-Professor who loves reciting poetry much more than lecturing; the Sea Captain who has so often told the story of his losses that even the trees and the stones can’t bear it any more; the Prime Minister’s Wife who is compared to a nightingale: these are ‘operatic’ characters.
In telling the story Themerson repeatedly uses the ritual threefold of fairy tales, as when the wolf (in a parody of Little Red Ridinghood) asks his companion to identify the good smells in his restaurant. These are excellent opportunities for the development of musical themes.
Since all the action is dependent on Pedrillo’s metaphoric walk (or “Pilgrim’s Progress”) along the road from A to B, music comes in naturally as an expression of mood and movement.
Responding musically to my reading of the story, I have tried to revive something of the positive naïveté of a 6-to-8-year-old in response to both the tonal idiom and the possibilities of musical theatre. This was not so difficult. Listening to and playing familiar music, or music in a familiar idiom, is a constant exercise in the suspension of prejudice, the ability to be surpised-while-knowing.
Inevitably the music betrays multiple influences and sources (such as classical recitative, Ravel harmony, Latin-American rhythms etc.) Even as an eclectic product, this specific amalgam could only be created today (and by this person, I suppose). In this sense the music may be like the protagonist:
But all the men I meet on my way think there is something doggy about me, and all the dogs think there is something human about me, and all the saw-fishes think there is something of a nightingale about me, and all the cats think there is something fishy about me […]. (p. 8-9)
But nothing else is like all these in this specific way; a recognizable whole, I hope, not a postmodernist collage.LM March 2009
[…] a major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion or culture. […] A uniquely divisive view goes not only against the old-fashioned belief that all human beings are much the same but also against the less discussed but much more plausible understanding that we are diversely different.
Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Penguin Books 2007)
Pedrillo Botón: Five Pieces for Piano, Four Hands
1. Professor Camel’s Song 1’19”
2. The Shopkeeper’s Dance, followed by Interlude 3’32”
3. Captain Metapherein’s Sad Story of the Sea and Shipwreck 5’11”
4. Interlude (Entering the Forest) 4’20”
5. Interlude, followed by Dinner at Mr. Wolf’s Restaurant 6’14”
Pianists: Karijn Dillmann & Lodewijk Muns (2012).
Source: Stefan Themerson, The Adventures of Peddy Bottom. Drawings by Franciszka Themerson (Amsterdam: Gaberbocchus Press/De Harmonie 2003)