I want the ring, Petrukian!
You can't have it, M'Lady. I'll tell you why. When my father was dying I knelt beside his bed and he took this ring and put it on my finger and he told me that when he was in the forest one day he stumbled on a well in the earth. He tore up the cover and he saw something gleaming far below. He took a fish hook and a line and sent it far down and with luck he pulled up this ring. The moment he put it on his finger he heard something coming up and up the well. It was a raven with burning eyes! And it changed into something before my father. He didn't tell me what it changed to, but he told me to keep the ring because it is a ring of power.
A tall man with thick glasses and a scraggle of beard and dark hair licking down the back of his neck stands on a stage at the Smithsonian. It is a weekday morning and an audience of pipsqueaks is fidgeting. There are no props, no scenery. Now the man begins to speak. "This is the story of Petrukian, a powerful blacksmith with a tormenting secret," he says in a soft and oddly arresting voice. "It was FIRE that brought me to this story."
And suddenly the man's eyes are agog through his Coke-bottle lenses. An Ichabodian body begins to weave and roll, as if made suddenly jointless. Hands knead the air, caress it, Marcel-Marceau it. In the next few minutes, like magic, the man on stage seems to disappear. No, not exactly. The man on stage transforms himself so you nearly overlook the fact that he is there. What you begin to see instead, borne on the wing of voice inflection and mime, are twisted trees and black-and-blue skies and hags with eyes like dying coals and the veiled Lady Ermirandia (think of her name as wind combing through tupelos: Erm-ir-an-di-a). Best of all, you see a pained and noble smithy named Petrukian. Petrukian HEATS the metal/ and BEATS the metal/ and CUTS the metal to size. The verse is sing-songed, like train rhythms, and is accompanied by fierce blows on a red-hot anvil. There is no anvil but you see an anvil. There is no furnace but you see a furnace. There is no clang-lang-lang but you hear itpounding all the same. The kids hear it. They are rapt. So are the teachers who have brought them here.
Jay O'Callahan is part of a reviving tradition that ranges from Homer to Malory to the brothers Grimm to Sam Clemens to Paul Bunyan to Tom Swift to those charged, dreamy, and strangely seductive voices that used to crackle out of radios into '50s Midwest childhoods an eon, or at least a generation, ago. Back then you could lie on a living room rug on deep winter nights and let the Shadow and Just Plain Bill and Mr. and Mrs. North come alive in your brain precisely as you conjured them. This was before a patch of silver began to glow in every household in the country. The tube and technology made Americans rich and robbed them of something deeper. Like a certain ability to imagine when little is there.
When a story and a storyteller are good, they are like living things. Everybody participates, everybody is a sculptor. Stories appeal to the dark archetype of the child in us. Marshall McLuhan said television makes us tribal. Yes, but storytelling was there -- around campfires and on cave walls -- centuries before the fashion changed. Storytelling works best when people are joined together. Storytelling binds. And in that it is a little like prayer: Wherever two or more are gathered in My name.
The noble Petrukian has a dark secret. It has to do with making horseshoes. Something happened when he was 7. To tell you more would be violating every codeof the storyteller's spell. To know this terrible secret you should go to the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater. The secret will be told there every morning this week.
At first tale he seems an unlikely teller. Jay O'Callahan looks more like a 40-year-old grad student haunting the Harvard Yard and concentrating in Marx and Engels. (He also looks a little like comedian George Carlin.) He wears rugby shirts and mounts wondrous Elizabethan voices. He has two children and was once the maintenance man at a Massachusetts YWCA. He grew up in Brookline, outside Boston. "Saw" still comes out as "sawer."
Like most artists he didn't find his druidic profession by drawing straight lines. He found it after the Navy, where he was a supply officer; after a failed career as a would-be romantic novelist ("In four years I made $40"); after serving as dean at something called the Wyndham Secretarial and Finishing School. The Wyndham, which toned Boston girls and was run by O'Callahan's parents, was in Back Bay, not far from the 32-room house filled with gleaming wood carvings and huge mirrors where Jay O'Callahan grew up in the late '40s and first learned about the magic of fantasy. You could close your eyes in a place like that and land somewhere in the Arthurian cycle.
But poets somehow find their poems, and Jay O'Callahan eventually found his stories. He worked on image and metaphor, on making a tale spare, on using his body like a song. And now the 20th-century bard who makes up all his own tales and carries dozens or maybe hundreds of them in his head spins them up and down America, in barn lofts and county museums and opera houses. He has been to England and he has been to Rockport, Maine. Last summer Rockport was the site of the First Annual North Atlantic Festival of Storytelling. New York held a recent festival. So did Albuquerque and St. Louis. There is now in this country something called the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling. (It's in Tennessee and has a reported 800 members.) This spring Jay O'Callahan will be paid $2,000 to perform a single story in Midland, Mich., and another $2,000 to make up a story for those folks about a logger.
The whole world may not know it yet, but what we may have here is a genuine storytelling renaissance, something the druids of the Age of TV must never have dreamed of. Nowadays some people stay home on Saturday night to hear a show on public radio called "A Prairie Home Companion." The show is right out of the '30s with biscuit commercials and cornpone song and stories about mythical places. Reportedly a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has canceled his Saturday night social life to stay home and tune in.
Actually the art of storytelling was revived a while ago. And maybe it's never really been away. "I think it's just heating up now like the top of a needle so that you see it, you feel it," says O'Callahan. Yet it's too slick, he thinks, to call it all a backlash to electronic times, though that, of course, is some of it. "To me storytelling is a fire. It lights a fire in these kids and it lights a fire in me and lets us both see our way. A story allows a person to wander instead of picking dogma."
But stories and storytellers aren't purely for kids. They're for adults who still have the maturity to be childlike. Some of O'Callahan's most notable successes have come with stories for adults. "The Herring Shed," which is told from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl in Nova Scotia during the bleakest days of World War II, has been called by critics a minor masterpiece of coming-of-age literature.
He has another, "The Lighthouse Man," which breaks hearts. "It comes out of a real-life experience. I was in the Navy and was drinking in a bar one night and met this skinny fellow who told me about a dream he used to have when he was a kid. The guy had grown up on a farm in Ohio during the Depression and he used to get the dream when he was driving the tractor in the corn rows. His dream was to be able to act out masterfully the life of every person in his town. When he grew up he said to himself, 'What the hell can I do with a dream like that?' And so he became an accountant. It moved me tremendously and I made a story out of it."
Sometimes adults don't have the ability to be kids. A while ago, O'Callahan did a storytelling session at Liv Ullmann's Manhattan apartment for some of New York's most glittering celebrities, among them Woody Allen and actor Michael Moriarty. Moriarty was a perfect kid, slack-jawed and bug-eyed in the front row, and Woody tried to pay attention, too. But a certain extremely well-known television personality (who shall remain nameless at O'Callahan's request) was nothing but cuttingly rude. He kept trying to get other people's attention during the performance. "He was all head. There was no heart in him left," says O'Callahan. Considering the circumstances (the man practically ruined the stories), it sounds like a kind remark.
The other morning, following two 50-minute performances in the Discovery Theater at the Smithsonian, O'Callahan put on a pullover, smoothed back long hair that had winged out during his stories, and talked with a me'lange of humility and ego and mellifluent cadences about why he does what he does. No mystery. There is joy in it. Once two guys sent him a letter. They had been listening to his stories on National Public Radio. "Our walls have disappeared," they wrote in the letter. Then they signed their names. And their prison I.D.'s. They were inmates at an Arizona penitentiary.
"When I make up a story it's often for my children," O'Callahan says. "That's where I start. If it's any good they'll tell me. They will listen and give me their thoughts. The most important thing is to have somebody listen." For a while O'Callahan thought his son Teddy, who is 12 now, was outgrowing it. One night he didn't invite his son into his daughter Laura's room for a story. Teddy was badly hurt. "A story is our way of staying in each other's lives."
A Celtic storyteller named William Butler Yeats once wrote: "Storytellers make us remember what mankind would have been like, had not fear and the failing will and the laws of nature tripped up its heels."