Review: Marching to Shibboleth by the Firesign Theatre
The Big Book of Plays
by the Firesign Theatre
(BearManor Media, $35)
This takes a little set-up.
I was a Sherlock Holmes fan from a young age. Before high school, I had read throughout he complete stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a book-length set of homages by his son Adrian Conan Doyle, the novelization of Billy Wilder's film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and viewed several of the film adaptations starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
So one birthday my father gave me a recording titled The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra (1974). That was a reference to one of the unrecorded cases with which Doyle peppered his adventures of the Great Detective. As I've previously mentioned, several writers have attempted to flesh out the tale, none successfully IMHO, but this was my first exposure to an attempt.
Except it wasn't really an attempt, for this was a comedy LP (remember vinyl?) by the Firesign Theatre troupe, and as such was a parody of Holmes (herein called Hemlock Stones, the Great Defective), who at one point starts to tell the story but is interrupted. It remains a running gag throughout the album, with all sorts of references to Sumatra, rats and the then-current horror film Willard.
Ironically, as I've also mentioned previously, the few references to the story cop me closer to the brief précis Doyle wrote than most of the serious attempts to write the story.
I enjoyed the album, though because of the rapid-fire delivery and overlapping jokes, I didn't understand all of it. (Other things I didn't understand because of context or references above my young head.)
So for years it has frustrated me that I didn't buy a book of the script when I had the opportunity.
Perhaps because other listeners also had these difficulties, or possibly to milk a dying cow (as their record sales and intergroup relationships were fraying), the troupe released two books: The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book (containing Giant Rat among others) and The Firesign Theatre's Big Book of Plays. I saw the former at a bookstore and almost bought it. When next I looked for it, it was gone and I'd never considered special ordering a book at that time. By the time I had, the book was out of print.
Amazon listed some second hand copies at exorbitant prices (at least I considered them so, especially since the books were more than 30 years old and might crumble or fall apart as I read them).
Firesign Theatre regrouped in recent years, releasing new CDs and re-releasing most of their original albums on CD, too, but the books remained stubbornly out of print.
No more. In January 2014 the troupe issued Marching to Shibboleth: The Big Book of Plays by the Firesign Theatre, combining the contents of the original two books plus more.
Most of the reissued and some of the new CDs are now out of print, so perhaps it is an attempt to rake in a few more bucks, but I don't care. I'm glad to have it.
If you're fans of the troupe, it contains the text of the entire albums How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus, The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra and Everything You Know is Wrong, most of Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, and miscellaneous bits of other records and unrecorded material.
If you're not already fans, first look for the two-disc compilation Shoes for Industry! The Best of the Firesign Theatre. It contains most of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All, portions of the other records from the book and In the Next World You're on Your Own and various snippets. Then, if you're a fan, get the book and as many of the CDs as you can find.
BTW, it's not available through Amazon.com, so go to the troupe's website and order it direct.