Uncle Remus Live

man in cap wags his finger

"Storytelling is theatre in its oldest, simplest, and perhaps richest form," writes acting student Anthony Irons. "Before the use of stages or elaborate effects, the deeds of human and heaven-kind were kept alive by the storyteller."

Irons' retelling of the Uncle Remus story, "The Farmer and the Snake" tied for first place in the Performance Option of the Graduate Research Exhibition last March; pianist Svetlana Brandt, who performed several of Scriabin's preludes, was the other first-prize winner.

"The Farmer and the Snake" is a story Irons began developing before he entered graduate school at Penn State, while he was employed as storyteller at the Birmingham Public Library in his home state of Alabama. "Part of my job was researching stories," he explains, "finding ones which were presentable, actable, dramatic."

Uncle Remus was the pen name of Joel Chandler Harris, a newspaper writer and printer for such publications as The Countryman and The Atlanta Constitution in the 1860s and '70s. A white Southerner, Harris collected the tales told by slaves and former slaves; he published his first Uncle Remus story in 1879. His Brer Rabbit and other tales, Irons notes, keep "the tradition of storytelling, with witty characters overcoming the odds and the less witty learning the lessons of life." Using a pseudonym, Irons speculates, allowed Harris more flexibility in his use of dialect. "He wanted to be as true to the language as possible," Irons says, "to do justice to where these tales came from."

Oddly enough, Irons first came across "The Farmer and the Snake" in a non-dialect version in the children's book, The Knee-High Man and Other Tales by Julius Lester. "In the book it was not even a page long," Irons recalls. "My challenges in preparing the performance were creating dramatic action that supports the written text, creating ways to establish an easy but strong storyteller-audience relationship and finding interactive moments, and adapting the work so that the audience characters illustrating simple but important themes of morality, Irons says. "This particular story I've also seen in a North American Indian folktale book. That says something about the universality of these tales. They break the barriers of cultures. The message is very simple, but as simple as it is, it still holds true today." not only understands what happens in the tale but the reason for telling the story in the first place. When the story is finished there should be some objective fulfilled outside of the tale itself, either for the audience or for the actor, or both."

characters illustrating simple but important themes of morality, Irons says. "This particular story I've also seen in a North American Indian folktale book. That says something about the universality of these tales. They break the barriers of cultures. The message is very simple, but as simple as it is, it still holds true today."

Iwas walking home from school one cold winter day. As I got to the path to my house, I saw something lying on the ground. At first I thought it was a stick. But as I got closer, I saw it wasn't a stick. It was a snake. Frozen stiff from the cold.

Now Mama used to always tell me, "Remus, whatever you do, don't pick up no snakes. 'Cause snakes like to bite." But, Mama used to also tell me, "Remus, try to do a good deed for somebody else ever'day of your life, and you will surely get to Heab'n."

Now, since I hadn't done my good deed that day, I decided I was gonna do that ol' snake a favor. I would pick him up and put him in my jacket to let him thaw out from the cold. I figured that ol' snake would be so happy he'd give me a little kiss on the cheek once I let him out. So I picked that snake up and put him in my jacket and started walking home.

(At this point, I do a little repetition thing:) Soon after that I felt a little jiggle in my jacket. So I peeked my head in my jacket and said, "Mr. Snake, you 'bout thawed out?" Mr. Snake didn't say anything. So I closed my jacket back up and I kept on walking.

It wasn't long at all before I felt another jiggle jiggle in my jacket jacket. I opened up my jacket and said, "Mr. Snake?" And he said, "Sssss." And I said, "Are you 'bout thawed out?" And Mr. Snake said, "Almossssssst." So I closed my jacket back up and walked on a little further.

astonished man in cap with mouth open

I could see my house coming up just over the hill, when I felt a jiggle jiggle jiggle in my jacket jacket jacket. I opened up my jacket and I said, "Mr. Snake, are you 'bout thawed out?" And Mr. Snake said, "Yesssss!" So I said, "All right, Mr. Snake, I'm jus' about home now, and I'm gonna take you out my jacket and let you go free. And I don't want no funny stuff, okay?" And Mr. Snake said, "Yesssss."

So I reached in and pulled out ol' Mr. Snake, and jus' as I was puttin' him on the ground, he jumped up and bit me on my cheek!

I yelled and I said, "Mr. Snake! You said you weren't gonna give me no funny stuff! Why did you bite me?"

And Mr. Snake said, "You know'd I was a ssssnake when you picked me up and you know that ssssnakes like to bite. Sssso you sssshouldna' picked me up." And Mr. Snake slithered off in the woods.

Well I learned a very important lesson that day:

If it is in its nature to bite ya, even if you tryin' to do right-ya, it's still gonna bite ya.

(At that point, I turn around and become Anthony the actor again.)

Anthony Irons is a graduate student in the School of Theatre Arts, College of Arts and Architecture, 103 Arts Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-7586. His advisers for this performance were Charles Dumas, associate professor of theatre, 105 Arts Bldg.; 863-9413; cxd28@psu.edu; http://www.personal.psu.edu/cxd28/ and Jane M. Ridley, associate professor of theatre, 106 Arts Bldg.; 863-1452; jmr19@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 1998