I like to tell people that I started acting in college, beginning with a production of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy in the fall of my freshman year. I’m proud of that credit; I even had it on my resume for a goodly number of years (which is not something you should generally do with your college acting credits, but be that as it may). It feels like it should have been the beginning – but strictly speaking it’s not the case. If we’re talking about any and all appearances I’ve made as a fictional character, on stages of every kind, then my theatrical debut was as Marco, the protagonist of my elementary School’s second grade adaptation of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
If that title sounds familiar to you, then congratulations – you are one of the few who encountered this week’s alarmist stories declaring that “Dr. Seuss has been cancelled!” and read the full text of the articles. If you haven’t been keeping up; the Dr. Seuss estate withdrew six of his titles from publication, citing illustrations and content rooted in ethnic stereotypes. They haven’t disappeared; they’re simply now out of print, as are the vast majority of books in the English language. And they aren’t books the general public is familiar with; none of them are the subject of animated specials or inspiration for plush toys. Of the six, only two have any sort of lasting cultural footprint: If I Ran the Zoo, which introduced the word “nerd” into the lexicon, and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which has the distinction of being Seuss’ first published children’s book.
As well as the distinction of providing my stage debut, in second grade.
It’s abundantly clear, given how often they keep referencing Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, that nobody upset about this decision is familiar with the six titles in question. Such disingenuous behavior is by no means uncommon in public life, unfortunately, but it puts me in something of a unique position. I can actually tell you about And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Eight-year-old me poured his heart and soul into that production.
So what do I remember about it?
Not very much. I mostly cringe at the memory of my singsong delivery of my lines, which is what you do when you’re trying to make yourself heard in a cavernous school auditorium and you’re only eight years old. I actually didn’t have many lines, because the lead character of Marco is essentially an observer. The book – and that subsequent elementary school adaptation – is basically a pageant, an escalating series of bizarre and exotic scenes that Marco sees on the street one day. Of course, much of what makes those scenes “exotic” is rooted in stereotypical displays of different ethnicities, which is what makes it so cringeworthy to us today.
It should have been cringeworthy then. It probably was. My dim memory of that polyester-drench time suggests that there might have been a discreet word change here or there, a de-emphasis of any kind of national costuming, in favor of children’s gymnastics and other silly pageantry. I can’t speak for what other children might have experienced; I assume the adults putting it together meant well at the time, but didn’t give the content of the piece much thought at all.
The cynic in me suspects that this has all been done in advance of some future Seuss omnibus coming out in a few years, collecting all his texts and illustrations (including this one) for archival purposes. The dogged optimist in me hopes that this has all been a ploy to get angry conservatives to buy their children copies of The Lorax out of spite. But in any case, this is far more thought than anybody gave these specific texts at the time. I know. I was there. And I harbor no illusions about childhood, be it about Dr. Seuss books or any other element.
We’re all supposed to grow up, after all.