Does the rite of the April fool still survive amongst us? Or has it gone the way of the February Valentine and of the ceremony of the oak-apple on the twenty-ninth of May? I am afraid that if it has not gone it is going fast, like most of the light-hearted observances which our fathers loved.
I can remember the time when on the first of April men ordinarily grave and sedate enough would invent mad errands for the simple. Boys would be sent to the chemist’s for a pint of pigeon’s milk or to the cobbler’s for a certain quantity of ‘strap oil’; these April jests were mostly jokes of much the same quality as the actor’s trick of sending the beginner to borrow an ‘ibid,’ a mysterious prop, which had its origin in the list of characters and their costumes at the beginning of the old play books. Thus, the Duke of Otranto — let us say — was to wear a black velvet mantle, black hose and shoes, and a cap with a black plume in the first act. Then, for the second act, he would be set down ‘ibid’; that is, ibidem; stage Latin for ‘same costume.’ The young actor would go forth on his search for the ibid, and be sent from the vaults underneath the stage to the flies, and climb many stairs and peer into many strange dens before he became convinced that he might as well look for an ibis as an ibid; and such was the spirit of the ceremony and quest of the April fool. The whole principle of the business was that you were to send somebody to look for something that didn’t exist and moreover wasn’t there! Thus, it would be very graceful April Foolery if I were to have a number of cards printed reading like this:
THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF WORKS
Requests the honour of your company
AT THE FEEDING OF THE DRAGONS
Eleven o’clock precisely.
And as I write this nonsense, the conviction seizes me that every hundred such cards sent out would find at least five April fools, and very likely more. The older I grow, the more firmly I am convinced that there is no proposition, tale or statement so monstrous that it will not find some true believers. I feel certain that if I announced an Exhibition of Two–Sided Triangles, I should have numerous inquiries; and I think I could find modern artists who would paint them for me. No proposition is too absurd for belief; I knew hard-headed men of business who grew cross and heated if you hinted some doubt as to those tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who had passed through Ealing Broadway ‘last Sunday morning, between ten and eleven; my brother saw them, I tell you.’ Why, it is only a few weeks since I saw an odd-looking picture on the back page of a newspaper. It was, like the rest of the pictures on the page, a reproduction of a photograph. Most of it was ordinary enough; it showed a girl standing against a background of leafage. But close to the girl’s head there was something not so ordinary; a little winged figure, perhaps six inches long, clothed in some gauzy stuff, appearing to float in the air, in the manner of a butterfly. That little winged figure was a fairy!
This ‘fairy’ is believed in and commented on by grave men, men of undoubted culture, men of undoubted intelligence — in other matters, at all events. Nay, serious scientific language is brought in to explain these in camera fairies: they are invisible to most mortal eyes, it appears, but the ultra-violet rays perceive them and fix them on the photographic plate. And their intelligence is measured by the experts; it is equal to that of the average Newfoundland dog, or perhaps a little lower. And their business? Skilled and scientific, they build up the molecules which compose the flowers.
There you are! I believe I should have a mob waiting to see the Hampton Court Dragons fed — if I placed my cards with a certain discretion.
And another instance. A dozen years ago or so, an old friend of mine, a musician, was in the artists’ room of a provincial concert hall. A concert was going on, and my friend’s attention was attracted by the sound of a certain showy but indifferent piece of modern violin music from the platform.
‘What are they playing that thing for?’ he asked somewhat contemptuously of another artist, a lady who was standing by him.
‘Oh, didn’t you hear,’ she replied, in a sort of reverent church whisper; ‘the Holy Grail ordered it to be played.’
The monstrous April Fool story on which this remark hung is much too long to be told here in its full significance. But briefly: somebody a few years ago picked up in a French curiosity-shop a queer saucer-like vessel of blue glass. Somebody else, seeing the thing, remarked: ‘I always think the Holy Grail must have been like that’; and so, by certain elaborate stages, the saucer — a modern imitation of antique glass, said the antiquaries — became the Holy Grail, gave oracles, diffused blessedness, and meddled with concert programmes.
‘This way for the Dragons, ladies and gentlemen!’
And now, as the preacher says, for the application. It seems pretty clear, I think, from these examples, that some of us are April Fools all the year round. There is no tale too outrageous for us to swallow, no quest too absurd for us to undertake. Pigeons’ milk, indeed! We are ready to fetch quarts of it, gallons. And it is possible that the wise men of old, from whom all good customs and strange ceremonies proceed, perceived this abounding folly of the human heart, and devised the rite of the April fool, that thereby we might be purged of absurd credulity by ‘pity and terror,’ as Aristotle has it. ‘Let there be an orgie of folly on one day in the year,’ these sages may have said, ‘so that thereby it may exhaust itself, and learn its own mad excess, and refrain itself for the remaining three hundred and sixty-four days.’ There is, of course, another explanation, known to a few. According to these people, the April Fool business is, like many other popular customs, games, and ceremonies, the remnant of a rite or mystery of the most profound antiquity. This rite, as it is declared, instructed those who had ‘passed the doors’ that most of the business of the world, especially that business commonly regarded as most weighty, important, grave and serious, is a crazy quest, a search for what doesn’t exist and isn’t there. So, say these authorities, the initiated were instructed that most of the reputed great, serious, portentous and weighty men of this world, on arriving in the other world, will be received with undying shouts of mirth and by a voice pealing in an unknown tongue a pretty close equivalent to ‘April Fool!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12