There is a man who has survived in cultural history as a host of note because, unlike most party-givers, he did not wait for disaster to seek him out but invited it right on in. His name was C.K.G. Billings and, around the turn of the century, he gave a Horse Dinner for 30 fellow members of the New York Riding Club and their mounts.
The steeds were hauled up the elevator to the main ballroom of a famous New York restaurant, small trays were strapped across their withers, the guests mounted up and dinner was served.
Fourteen courses were brought in and, between bites, the guests sucked up champagne from rubber tubes leading to the saddle bags.
So much thought on the part of the host, and so very little. For horses do not have one set of manners for the table and another for the stable. No, it is all the same to them and in their own unique way, the steeds undoubtedly contributed to the ambience of the evening.
Greta, who is almost 8, has very good manners, and so she said "Please," when she loudly asked her hostess if she could return the cookie she had been given and instead have one that did not have a hair in it.
Like the horses, Greta thought that she had acted properly in a social situation. But like the horses, Greta had not learned the nuances. This is why many people avoid the company of children and animals when it comes to putting together a pleasant and predictable evening.
Their behavior, while proper in its place, calls into question all the little accommodations we make for each other, the burned broccoli we eat, the dull dinner partner we snag who makes us talk uphill all the way to dessert, the assurances we give as we leave a party where some drunken, straying husband has pinched us black and blue that, no, actually, we thought it was fun.
The natural urges we repress and all the little lies we tell because we are no longer five years old and we finally have learned that it is not nice to ask people what is that god-awful thing growing on the end of their nose.
Creatures who do as they please or say what they please make us realize how fragile is the social world we have patched together and how much its stability relies on an unquestioning acceptance of what constitutes good manners. They open up the possibility that we could all do exactly what we want. Instead of muttering a stiffly polite, "I'm afraid I don't agree with you," to the man who wants to clear-cut the rain forests, we could splat him with a spoonful of mashed potatoes. When dessert turned out to be stewed fruit we could crawl under the table and refuse to come out unless bribed with good and sufficient chocolate.
We could go to extremes.
We could do deliberately in August what we would not do the rest of the year: We could give parties that push against our shared beliefs of what constitutes proper behavior at a proper dinner party.
We could be just a bit wicked and see what happens.
Maybe we'll get away with it and maybe we won't and will enter the fall entertaining season properly chastened, with a disastrous evening behind us to remind us of why we no longer throw ourselves on the floor and shriek and kick our heels when our host confesses that there isn't one bite left of the baba au rhum.
We could give:
A Baby Party. They were very popular at the turn of the century. A book published in 1909 described them thusly: "A popular form of entertainment for grown-up persons in New York is a 'baby party.' Here the guests are dressed like babies: They dance and have supper, and are permitted to behave like little children." Do you dare? Why not. You can even bring out the dress-up trunk and dinner will be so very inexpensive: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
A Quiet Party. Ask everyone to come in white face and act out their conversations in mime. Even better, ask them to be rude in silence.
A Strangers in the Night Party. Invite people who do not know each other and do not introduce them. Explain that no one must exchange names or occupations and see how the conversation fares. Is our life better because of the social conventions or will their exclusion make for a more interesting evening?
A Currying Favor Party. Social climbers have a vision problem; they cannot see small people. The social climber can only make eye contact with big people, which is why his favored view is over the shoulder of whatever person he's talking to. When he sees a big person he is so relieved to discover he is not alone in the room, that he darts away immediately. This is how small people learn that they are invisible.
The canny host, pushing against the boundaries of rudeness, will invite four social climbers and one rich or famous Alp on which they may test their skills.
Will they see, in the competition, the bad manners that they themselves exhibit?
And while they curry favor, the host, having set the experiment in motion, will escape to the kitchen to chill the beer, grind up hot spices and curry dinner.