The Wild Party

By Peggy Downing, October 13, 2015

Joseph Moncure March

Joseph Moncure March

An American poet from the 20s who wrote two lost and neglected Jazz Age classics, epics of debauchery and depravity, "The Wild Party" and "The Set Up". The Wild Party is the very epitome of the Jazz Age. The poem went in and out of fashion and both The Wild Party and The Set Up have been made into films. Robert Wise, in 1949 filmed The Set-Up and there was a Merchant Ivory Productions in 1975 version of The Wild Party.

Life was a lot more fun in the twenties.

Joseph Moncure March was still young and was working for The New Yorker back in 1925, but soon after deciding to leave the magazine he wrote his first “Jazz Age” epic poem, The Wild Party.

The poem was about Queenie, a low life vaudeville blonde and her boyfriend Burrs, a violent, small minded and jealous hoodlum and professional clown who together decide to throw a party. They do and it is a wild one.

March, describing Queenie gets straight to the point:

“What hips –
What shoulders-
What a back she had!
Her legs were built to drive men mad.
And she did.”

The poetry is dynamic, quick, witty, sinister and concise. The cover notes quote William Burroughs as saying of the Wild Party that “it’s the book that made me want to be a writer”.

March ranged from rapid fire verse like:

“Her mouth was cruel:
A scar,
In red,
That had recently opened and bled.

To the jaded and lyrical:

“Some love is fire, some love is rust:
But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.”

Due to to the sexual references and the booze-drenched scenes in The Wild Party, the poem remained unpublished until 1928. The poem was eventually a success despite being banned in Boston. Later that year, March wrote a second long poem called “The Set-Up”, telling the story of a black boxer, Pansy, who is well and truly set up by a group of gamblers who expect him to lose his fight. Pansy realises that the bout is fixed and decides to fight back, wins the fight but comes to a bad end at the hands of the vengeful gamblers in a street fight with a tragic finale.

The Wild Party is the very epitome of the Jazz Age. The poem went in and out of fashion and both The Wild Party and The Set Up have been made into films. Robert Wise, in 1949 filmed The Set-Up and there was a Merchant Ivory Productions in 1975 version of The Wild Party.

The Wild Party, always the favourite of the two poems, raised its head once again when Art Spiegelman reissued the poem in 1994 adorned with seventy-five of his own black-line drawings, while in 2000, two different stage adaptations of The Wild Party played in New York, one by Michael John LaChiusa at The Public Theater on Broadway, the other by Andrew Lippa at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

After the publication of his two long poems in the 20s, March started working with Howard Hughes initially on his film “Hell’s Angels”. He stayed in Hollywood working as a scriptwriter for many years and then eventually moved back East in the 40s and continued writing scripts and pieces for the New Yorker once again.

He died in 1977. The Wild Party is still available and is published by Pantheon Books, the Set Up is out of print.

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